Goals of Public Education

Jeremy Hiebert makes a good point about evaluating the goals of public education.

How well would you do on a Grade 11 algebra exam right now? How’s your current knowledge of your country’s political history? Photosynthesis? Even those of us who remember some of this stuff would have a hard time explaining how the "knowledge" had helped us in any meaningful way. Educational reformers would tend to agree that the system is not achieving its goals (maybe has never achieved them), but the solution isn’t to do more of the same thing … it’s time to question the goals themselves.

I agree that most public education tests the wrong thing. On Kirkpatrick’s scale; the public school sector would get to Level 2 (Learning), but we should be focusing on Level 4 (Results), or Phillips’ Level 5 (ROI). But it’s not even as simple as that.

We have to question the goal of public education itself – is it to develop better citizens, better thinkers, better individuals, or better workers? As Kieran Egan showed in The Educated Mind, some of these goals compete with each other. We cannnot ask our schools to help our children develop good behaviour, learn thinking skills and pick up workplace skills – for a workplace that has yet to be created. Schools should concentrate on what they can do best – develop thinking skills. A second area could be physical skills – Mens sana in corpore sano.

This lack of focus, and being pulled in many directions by every special interest group, ensures that our public schools never have a core area of focus. If we, as a society, can give the schools a mandate to develop cognitive skills (and we will take care of the behaviourial and social issues) then our shools can have something that can and should be measured. Until the mandate is clear, the results will be unclear.

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