What is the purpose of public education? Is it economic development “plain and simple”, as suggested by Florida Chamber of Commerce president Mark Wilson, in a Florida Board of Education meeting in October? or does it serve a higher purpose?
Senator Jeff Clemens tried to start the discussion at a Senate Education Pre K- 12 committee meeting on 12/3/15 (you can watch here beginning at 36:15):
“It goes back to the debate of why we provide an education to begin with…. There’s a reason we provide an education, and we require an education, through 12th grade and it isn’t so that kids can get a job, it’s so that they become well rounded members of society.”
He went on to say that the purpose of an education was an over arching debate that he hoped the Senate Education Committee would talk about as they move forward. We are still waiting for that discussion.
Over the holidays, Fortune Magazine discussed public education with Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has a much different view than Senator Clemens:
“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation…Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?”
As you can imagine, that caused quite a stir. Parents, in general, don’t like their children referred to as “defective.”
In response, Joy Pullmann suggested Mr. Tillerson spend a little time reviewing some state constitutions:
“I’ll quote the original constitution of Indiana, since I live there: “Knowledge and learning generally diffused, through a community, being essential to the preservation of a free Government, and spreading the opportunities, and advantages of education through the various parts of the Country, being highly conductive to this end, it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to provide…for the use of schools…”
This language echoes that of the Northwest Ordinance, one of the four organic laws that created the United States, which says: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
“Notice in both of these documents—which are echoed in nearly every state constitution—the prime reason we have a public school system in the first place is not to “provide products that business will consume,” but to preserve our unique form of free government. Americans rule themselves. That is a very difficult task. It requires a unique kind of upbringing. Our schools are supposed to aid in that difficult task.”
Tomorrow, Florida’s Board of Education will meet to discuss, among other things, cut-scores for the new Florida State Assessments and a new School Grade Policy. On both issues, my Florida Keys’ neighbor and Vice Chair of the Board of Education, John Padget has made his positions crystal clear. With regard to FSA cut scores, he would like to raise the passing scores “as high as possible”, suggesting my children “take the cold shower now and enable our graduates to make high wages later.” As for the School Grade formula, he has devised his own scale that would result in nearly three times as many public schools being labeled as failing.
As a parent of two public school children, I see both of these proposals as damaging to public schools. Both proposals would serve to label more students, teachers and schools as failures. Is that the goal? I wondered how anyone, particularly someone in a position to oversee our public school system, could see this was good for my (or any) children’s education.
And then I had an epiphany:
When I think of our public schools in a business sense, I imagine my children as the consumers and the product is a quality education. When I choose a school for them, I am looking for the school that will provide them a high quality, well rounded education.
On the other hand, when John Padget, Rex Tillerson and Mark Wilson think of public schools, they see my children as the product of the public school system and their future employers as the consumer.
I have news for them, my children are not products. Education means more to my family than job training… We do not send our children to school to help develop Florida’s economy; our children are sent to school to develop a love of learning, to expand their minds, to discover art, culture, history, to learn to think and problem solve, to collaborate, and to become involved active participants of our society; basically, to grow into good, solid human beings.
Do I want them to have successful lives? Of course, but I won’t measure that by their paycheck. To define a person by their job is so limiting… I want my children to do more than make a good living, I want them to have a good life… and that requires a quality education.
The next time I run into my neighbor, Mr. Padget, I hope he’ll join me for a little talk so we can discuss just that.
I’d say the conversation regarding the true purpose of education is long overdue.