What is the goal of education?
Discussion around public education has recently been focused on issues of new Common Core standards, accountability, and charter schools. Unfortunately, the underlying goals of education are usually left unexamined.
Under the Common Core rubric, students experience more testing and less learning. Students take up to three weeks off from class for the new “Smarter Balanced” Common Core test alone, in addition to quarterly benchmark exams. Testing companies like Pearson are increasing their market share of public education dollars. In the craze over “evidence-based” instruction, the ends of teaching remain unexamined. Is the goal of education to create obedient workers, or to foster independent thinkers? These are diametrical opposites, but they clash and cancel each other out in our current school system.
Charter schools operate like private schools (albeit under far greater scrutiny), but provide free public education. Many offer exciting alternatives to traditional public schools, such as project-based curricula. Others, often short-lived, provide gimmicky and inferior versions of traditional schooling. Some even collect public funding for independent study students who show up one hour a week to turn in xeroxed work packets and take a scantron test. Regardless of how traditional or innovative charter schools are, they are all measured against the existing standardized model of education.
This standardized model consists of a patchwork of reforms added on over the decades to a system which, at its foundation, is based on the factory. Oft-touted goals of public education include: creating an informed electorate; transmitting common values and narratives to new generations; developing literate and competent individuals with critical thinking and life skills; and, developing a populace with skills to compete in the global economy. Tacked on to a factory model, these well-intentioned reforms are short-lived and limited to half-measures, because they take place within a system which conceives of students as products, rather than active subjects.
Another goal of education, related to the frequently-cited concept of the “lifelong learner,” is encouraging innate curiosity and fostering development of skills for self-education. In Deschooling Society (1979), Ivan Illich argued we should change our metaphor for education from one of funnels, pouring knowledge into empty heads, to one of webs, connecting students to vast networks of shared knowledge. Paolo Freire, the godfather of critical pedagogy, faulted traditional education for its "banking model," wherein teachers deposit knowledge into students' heads. As educational theorist Gert Biesta puts it, we can shift from conceiving of education as "producing" skilled citizens or preparing students for future civic participation, and instead focus on "opportunities for democratic action and democratic 'learning-in-action.'" (Gert Biesta 2007 Teachers College Record)
Democracy in practice
Americans enjoy many freedoms and a relatively high standard of living compared with many other countries. Our democratic ideals, as long as they are commonly held, serve as a rallying point for those who work to make them real. Voters here in the State of California use the initiative process to practice direct democracy. Members of credit unions, worker co-ops, and other democratic institutions further realize the culture of democracy beyond elections of government representatives.
Compulsory education and the democratic experience
Low voter turnout and general apathy are, arguably, the products of twelve years of dictatorship – kindergarten through 12th grade. Students who hear adults paying lip service to democracy while they lock restrooms, prevent a full night’s sleep, enforce a regimental school day, and invade personal time with heavy loads of homework, are understandably skeptical when they reach the end of forced schooling and gain the right to vote.
Families have several options for children's education. Most choose public schools, a free (indirectly paid for) and familiar way to provide kids with training in basic skills and exposure to common narratives. Many choose religious schools to provide grounding in their faith, or private prep schools to ensure a rigorous academic program. A growing number of families are choosing to homeschool their kids, spending quality time providing a customized educational experience. Sudbury schools offer yet another alternative for families who believe their children can benefit from freedom to explore combined with responsibility to community.