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Thursday, March 5, 2009

What Is the Purpose of Public Education?

Updated March 11, 2009:

Part of the barrier to getting proper math instruction into America’s K-12 public schools is in the definitions. What constitutes “success” or “failure”? Which math skills are “necessary”? What is the primary function of public schools? Why do children go to school?

I don’t think of “success” and “failure” in terms of what’s good for the administrators but in terms of what’s good for the students. In my view, a public school’s primary function is to help students get prepared for postsecondary life. Children go to school so they can learn what they need to learn in order to grasp the future they want. Based on test results, remediation rates and dropout rates, there’s no question in my mind that today’s public schools are failing the students.

Many administrators, on the other hand, appear to see the primary function of schools as being all about inclusion, tolerance, equity, values and (the omnipresent yet ill-defined) “excellence.” They probably see themselves as successful.

Don’t laugh. I’m not pulling this stuff out of my hat.

As part of our district’s January 2009 celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell sent a letter to her “colleagues” that included the text of her welcome address for the Unity March. In part, she said:
“We renew our commitment to acknowledging the effects of white privilege and doing all that we can to understand and mitigate its effects – so that each of us understands race in a personal and profound way.
“We renew (our) commitment to creating classrooms, schools, and a school district that is founded on the principles of social justice … a compassionate system that knows each child.
“We renew our commitment to the development of culturally proficient and courageous educators who can succeed with all students because they believe in the value of each student.”

Dr. Stowell didn’t mention creating classrooms that are founded on the principles of a coherent and rigorous education. She didn’t mention renewing the district’s commitment to hiring academically proficient educators who can succeed with all students because they know the subject matter they’re trying to teach.

(These would be great ways to mitigate the effects of ethnic disparities.)

Reading Dr. Stowell’s remarks, you’ll understand the continued existence of a poster still tacked to a bathroom wall in the elementary school just down the street from me, that says: “The aim of education is the knowledge not of facts but of values.”

When I talk about math, administrators talk about “equity.” I talk about college; they talk about “social justice.” I talk about challenging the children; they talk about “achievement gaps.” I ask for better mathematics curricula – part of the schools’ primary function – and they say there isn’t enough money.

Actually, there’s a ton of money; it just pays for things that are not part of the primary function. It also pays for myriad things that shouldn’t be in the schools at all.

Meanwhile, President Obama is planning to deliver to states about 44 billion in nonexistent taxpayer dollars over the next six weeks. This money is on top of an already bloated education budget. More billions are forthcoming. Unless that money fixes the lack of academic content in our public schools, it won’t improve public instruction – it will just make the ineffectiveness exponentially more expensive.

The primary function of public school is academics. It isn’t supposed to be cheap daycare. It shouldn’t be promoting socialist views or any other political agenda. Its primary job isn’t to teach values or ethics, to feed the children, provide teen mothers with daycare, teach English to “undocumented immigrants,” or turn out people who are personally and profoundly aware of “white privilege.” Its primary function is to effectively and efficiently teach all students to a high standard of academic knowledge that will ready them for college, a trade, business ownership, a political career or whichever postsecondary life they envision.

If public schools don’t do this – their primary job – they’re a waste of students’ time and of taxpayers’ money.

So far, the education bureaucracy appears to be largely unwilling to address the biggest problem facing our public schools: The lack of core academic content – in much of the teacher training, in much of the curriculum, and in the daily focus of the typical classroom.

Some parents are coping with the educational shipwreck by deciding that sloshing through the water is OK. “Maybe she doesn’t have to work that hard,” one parent said recently about her daughter. “Academics aren’t everything.”

Others seek academic excellence (or even just academic competence) for their children by choosing to homeschool or to supplement at home (as we do) or by heading to charter schools, magnet programs, faith-based schools, private schools or co-ops.

I support these decisions. There is no guarantee that alternative choices will provide children with the best education possible, but we must allow for the most basic right Americans have: The freedom to choose the process. We have the right to choose to fail, and we have the right to choose to excel. It’s that flexibility that has traditionally made America strong.

Until lately, the market has always guided success and failure. It’s always provided us with the motivation to dismantle failing structures. Now, government programs support massive, systemic failure – while excellence barely has a place to breathe. For parents and students, flexibility and the freedom to choose have been legislated and mandated almost right out of the public-education system.

Every child deserves the best possible education, but what does that really mean? A gentleman from Massachusetts recently asked me: "If you could start all over again and build a brand new public education system … what would it look like?” This is an excellent question, and I’ve been pondering it ever since. I’m interested in hearing your ideas. Please reply to this blog or email me at

Let’s say the future of public education is open to you. What would you create?

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (March, 2009). "What Is the Purpose of Public Education?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:


Anonymous said...

I have advocated daily, for the past ten years, if you want social justice then states should ratify and adopt one curriculum for all students. Curriculum means one textbook, complete with world-class standards, and end of course assessments. Parents need to see the entire package, not bits and pieces of it. This would end social promotion and support curriculum would be used to supplement instruction, not replace it.

Implementing higher standards means retooling starts in kindergarten. Not starting midstream in high school.

The number of daycare provided should be three years and it should be quality care with proper diet and exercise.

There is absolutely no reason in our society for ensuring that students meet a basement standard. It is a waste of money and time.

With over half our children living in poverty, we need to acknowledge that this generation of students is speaking a non-standard English dialect and yet they still need to be educated and prepared to an increasing percentage can attend college or at least have an opportunity to attend a trade school without being financially burdened.

Education departments should be focused on training teachers not testing curriculum.

The Department of Education should be responsible for evaluating curriculum(textbooks), not curriculum writers.

Anonymous said...

Public education is for opening as many doors for kids as we possibly can. It is about sending them off after senior year of high school with lots of options and choices.

I don't see that happening for at least 10 years, so I advise anybody with a child under age 13 or 14 to go ahead and make the sacrifices necessary to homeschool or private-school that child -- using tons of books, tons of online coursework, mini field trips, mentorships and tutors and specialized classes -- whatever it takes to get that child academically ready for a solid high school and college course work.

I don't advocate giving up on the public schools, but they are so far off course in terms of delivering proper academics, it seems best to take care of your own child the best you can, and then advocate and help to reform the public schools if you have any time left over, to try to help them mimic what works -- which is homeschooling and private schooling.

So if we really want our public schools to turn out graduates with the best academic preparation and the most options and choices, we should:

1. Get some much-needed competition for public schools, the only way to inspire them to improve, with a tuition tax credit law for middle-class families to be able to afford private school, and generous tax credits for anyone who will subsidize a poor child's private education if that child desires one.

2. Return to teaching reading in kindergarten through second grade with systematic, intensive, explicit, phonics-ONLY instructional methods -- including penmanship, the rules of spelling, expository writing, lots of rhyming and singing and recitation.

3. Return to traditional, computation-based math in grade school, with no calculators allowed until algebra.

4. Return to the content-rich Carnegie Units as high school graduation requirements.

5. Bust the unions by passing state laws that allow school administrators to pay teachers who demonstrate better-quality results or who teach in tough-to-hire specialties more money than the mediocre and substandard teachers who are a dime a dozen but cling to their high-paying, low-pressure jobs because of union seniority rules, and nothing else.

6. Go to zero-based budgeting for public school districts and all units of government that deal with education, such as "service centers" and the state education department. Instead of letting the educrats increase their spending year after year, direct them to CUT their spending, year after year, just 1% per year over 10 years, and then see if we still have a budget problem.

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts on this blog. I hope this discussion becomes more widespread!

We chose to homeschool our children and would never do anything else. We can move at the child's pace, re-do a whole course if we need to, skip others if the child is ahead. It really works.

All of our kids are performing well above grade level (some after not learning to read until they were almost 9, because they just weren't ready). This has been very costly to us, in terms of our own time, but also in terms of money.

It galls me that we pay, through our taxes, for a substandard system that doesn't work. It galls me even more that if we sign up for a Parent Partnership program and receive a stipend from the State to supplement (though not cover) our homeschool costs, we are supposedly accountable to a failing system, when we are doing a far better job! Leave us alone and let us continue to outpace public education!

I say, let the marketplace decide what education should look like! Each family should be allotted a certain dollar amount per child to spend on education options they choose. Homeschool materials? Great. Private schools? Fine. Public school enrollment? Sure. However the parent cares to spend their pot of education dollars over the years should be allowed.

I don't think the allotment should be tied to test scores for the students. While there are some kids (like mine) who do well in school, there are some kids who just aren't going to be college material and they shouldn't be judged as inferior because of that. Just let them pursue a vocation instead. There are public school kids who struggle, and there are homeschooled kids who struggle. So I don't think any special standards need to be applied.

If public schools had to "compete" for the dollars and children they needed to function, they would learn very quickly to throw out the nonsense and get back to offering academics. OR, maybe they'd have to morph into something completely different. Either way, the kids win.

Kai said...

I would develop a national curriculum for kindergarten through grade 12 that incorporates the following elements. This national curriculum would prescribe the course of study for about 90% of the time kids are in school. Schools could use the other 10% of the time to cover things of interest to the particular community in which they function.


Getting kids reading well should be the primary focus of the early grades. Anyone who is struggling should be able to get abundant and focused help right away. I would have a phonics-based reading program in the early grades. The focus would be on getting kids reading fluently as soon as possible. Reading instruction would continue through the middle grades, with explicit instruction in decoding multisyllabic words and continued oral fluency drills.

Literature study would begin in kindergarten where teachers would read aloud from quality literature to the children. Reading aloud by teachers would continue in some form through high school. Literature would also be assigned once children are reading fluently, with the emphasis on classics, some of which would be tied into the history curriculum. Also, living books supporting the science curriculum as well as biographies of scientists would be assigned.

Grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, vocabulary, and writing would be taught explicitly and systematically starting in third grade, when most kids are reading fairly well. This instruction would continue through high school. Spelling would be taught systematically using rigorous phonics-based approach. Writing instruction would stress quality over quantity.


The math curriculum would have a strong conceptual base and be taught primarily via direct instruction. In the early grades it would place emphasis on mental math techniques that reinforce the concepts being taught. Standard algorithms would be taught and there would be ample opportunity for practice with the goal being automaticity with arithmetic operations and flexible problem solving strategies by the time kids enter algebra. Algebra would be taught traditionally with graphing calculators being only a rare supplement. Geometry would be proof intensive.


I would teach history chronologically beginning in the first grade. In kindergarten, kids would learn about world geography during the first semester and have a brief tour of American history in the second semester. Then starting in first grade, they would study world history beginning with the ancients. The cycle of ancients to modern times would repeat three times in twelve years, American history would be studied in the context of world history, and American government would be studied in the context of American history. The emphasis would be on the story of history in the early grades and on the big picture and major themes in the middle grades, with memorization of facts and dates being saved for high school. Literature would be tied to the time period being studied, through period literature and quality historical fiction. There would be time allotted in the curriculum to study local history as well.


Science would be taught using a spiral approach in kindergarten through fifth grade, hitting topics as they become developmentally accessible. In the middle grades, kids would have a year each of earth, life, and physical science. These courses would be solid enough to not only prepare kids for rigorous high school science courses but also would aim to give them the science knowledge they need to function in society. I would tie literature to science in that I would have kids read biographies and living books about science during the English period. There would be time allotted in the curriculum to study science topics of interest to the local community.

Foreign Language:

Ideally, kids would be introduced to a foreign language early on and then increase the intensity of their studies during the middle grades.

Art and Music:

Ideally, art and music classes would not only have an experiential focus, but would also be tied into the disciplines of history, science, and even math.

Physical Education:

Kids need exercise. PE should be a daily occurrence.

Burma Williams said...

hi, laurie
i agree with you that today's public school system exists to help students prepare for postsecondary life. this means that programs and/or courses of study must include preparation for those who are capable and interested in pursuing university or college degrees as well
as those who qualify and choose to attend a community college as well as students with special needs and what adult life jobs or programs they can pursue. what is missing all too often is any preparation for students who want or need to go into the work force right out of high school.

yes, this is very general. but we are stuck with local control over
funding and curricula. public schools should be bastions of acceptance of diversity, inclusion, honesty, understanding, patience, politeness, and acceptance. BUT, these 'virtues' do not require classes to teach
them to students! administrators and teachers are very interested today in "modeling" stuff for the students. well, that is how these virtues should be conveyed to students. if students are treated fairly with honesty, acceptance, politeness, and so on from the day they enter their first kindergarten class, most will assume that this behavior and these virtues are a part of school life. students who become discipline problems need special help, and "classes" on proper behavior won't help these students. i think that master's level courses for administrators
should include what to do to help these kids, for the administrators are there to serve the teachers and public by maintaining atmospheres in their buildings where teaching and learning can occur successfully. but, if students grew up with civility and accepting attitudes, wouldn't
that be great? and kids learn not only what they are explicitly taught, but what they experience without ever thinking much about it. so this is my answer to those adults who feel the need to each this stuff instead of courses of study.

actually, it is much easier to "teach" virtue, administrators and teachers think, than to teach specific factual information. i feel that too many educators at all levels are poorly trained or prepared to teach any concrete information about anything. let us reflect on socrates of
athens who, by his method of teaching (asking questions and trying to lead the students into finding answers for themselves) was convicted of "corrupting the youth" and condemned to death or exile. he chose death.
it is to be noted that the socratic method, which is part of the new educational crap was originally intended for young adult males, and not for kindergarteners. and if you want to have some fun, ask one of the
"professional educators" who socrates was and what did he have to do with education? that will keep you laughing for ages!

traditionally, public schools taught students whenever the students were free to learn. why does school start in late august or early september? because harvest on farms was over by then. kids whose families weren't
farmers often were members of families whose work or professions were linked to the agricultural cycle. so this, i think, shows that schools were to teach kids things which they couldn't learn at home and at a time in the year when they weren't needed for help at home.

today most students live in homes which are not directly part of an
agricultural cycle. society's needs are greatly different now then even 20 years ago, yet we require more "content free" education than ever. let administrators and teachers "model" acceptable behavior and not teach classes about it. let us require more academic preparation of our
teachers and let us change the courses which people attend in order to obtain a master's degree or phd degree in administration or education to be courses in effective ways to help teachers and parents.

in case this is posted to the blog site, i wish the readers to note that i am literate and know that i don't capitalize very much. my high school physics teacher mentioned my lack of using this grammar point. but this is because i wish to express myself this way, and i think that i have earned the right to be eccentric. for those who are interested, i am 65, have tons of health problems, and have done research and have been published two academic areas. so i do know my grammar, but it is fun to do things this way!:)

best wishes, burma

maewest said...

If I could revamp public education the first thing I'd do is look at what the most successful homeschoolers across America are doing and extrapolate that to a traditional classroom setting. This means no more time wasted on social engineering, i.e. seminars and special programs on why it's okay to be gay, why it's okay to be straight, why it's okay to be Muslim/Jewish/Christian/whatever. Instead get back to the Three R's with lots of good books, copywriting to improve penmanship, outdoor exploration with natural science-based activities (yes, even inner city schools could manage this if someone would just think creatively), and greater emphasis on personal responsibility. More fine arts, less sports. More music, less lecturing. More real books, fewer dull textbooks. Public schools are so busy focusing on test scores and making money that they've lost sight of what they need the money for! Slash administration and put the money towards new library books, classroom tools, musical instruments, art supplies, and equipment. Phonics-intensive reading instruction and more free time for students to read what they want from any section of the library, not just the area designated for their grade. (This happened to me in elem. school and it made me mad.)

Krof_Gninut said...

The reason public education fails is because that is what it was designed to do. In a merchantilist system, the rich do not like competition from the poor, so they use the government to ensure that the poor do not learn social mobility.

Anonymous said...

Good Article

Anonymous said...

Please take a look at this website. education in America has been designed to be dummied down. Understand it has been happening since the 1950's. A lot of people are involved in it and many of them unwittingly. From lowing the standards of teachers education in universities to the false belief that self esteem (70's) is the most important thing while teaching and all the conditioning that goes along with it. Charlotte Iserbyt was the consummate whistleblower and serrved as the Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, during the Reagan Administration. You must realize that there are thousands of change agents all over America working behind the scenes to help put these terrible programs in place. Some are there unwittingly. And schools were forced into needing the federal handout and with it they must take the dumbied curriculums and stupid spending programs with it. Why? Check this site out please and be informed. Then spread the word and take a stance.