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The goal of education is not to produce higher test scores. The goal of education is to produce citizens that can sustain our democracy into the future.

I flipped on the radio this morning and heard the quote above. I don’t know who it was that said it or anything. But the idea struck me as poignant. Often times in the debate over how to fix or reform the educational system people make assumptions about the purpose or goal of education but rarely do they make those assumptions explicit. So what are some of the goals of education that some people ascribe too? Well the answer depends both on context, your relation to education and your personal beliefs.

The first conception I will look at is the idea that the goal of education is to produce higher test scores. Most of us will reject that as the goal in favor for something broader and more comprehensive than simply test scores. Yet this is a conception to is built into our system and our thinking. Schools have used standardized test scores for decades to evaluate students, schools and sometimes teachers. When a school and/or teacher evaluations are tied to standardized tests then at least some teachers and administrators are going to focus primarily on the goal of improving test scores. Also we all have known students who strive for the highest possible grades, you know the type that freaks out if they get a B+ instead of an A. Those students are clearly focusing on higher test scores as the goal of education.

Now test scores can be a reasonable goal of education in some circumstances. First off it is difficult to compare the performance of various schools without some form of measuring stick. You need a neutral measure by which to compare school performances. Standardized tests can provide that. The school performance data produced from such tests then can feedback into parent evaluations and choices of schools since they need some means of comparing schools. Thus higher test scores becomes a goal of education at least in part because they use high test scores to determine the optimal school for their children.

Next test scores can be a reasonable goal when the course / subject is primarily focused on concrete skills and knowledge that need effectively applied. There are classes we all take that are very application focused and for those tests seem to be an excellent choice to evaluate performance. Here I am thinking many of the trade type skills, lab skills, mathematics and such. If you have ever taken a college level lab course you probably have done a lab practical too. That is where you demonstrate all of the skills you developed throughout the course in one hands on test. You have to show that you can actually do what is expected and you are evaluated on performance. Here the evaluation ties very directly to the course goals of teaching practical application of skills. This also holds true for other applied skills like taking vitals for a CNA or EMT, or replacing an alternator for a mechanic, or identifying the problem with an AC unit, or even calculating resistance in a circuit.

The next conception comes directly from the quote. The idea that the goal of education is to produce citizens that can sustain our democracy into the future. This is an idea I had not considered and I have no idea how wide spread it is but I found it interesting. I agree that it is important for our next generation to be capable of maintaining our government. If the government collapses then everybody faces massive problems. Now by no means do I believe this is a goal that is focused on heavily in education. The state of knowledge about the government and how it operates is abysmal. Schools don’t seem to spend much time focusing on the inner workings of the government or truly thorough discussions of the Constitution. I would think that if this were a goal then good citizenship would become a primary focus as educators try and get children involved in politics.

The biggest problem I see is the question of how to measure success. How can you evaluate if a school is producing citizens that can sustain our democracy? Would evaluations be based on measures of civic participation (voting, signing petitions, writing elected officials, attending city council, attending demonstrations)? Or would evaluations be based on civic knowledge (Constitutional knowledge, identification of major political figures, understanding of party platforms, familiarity with election mechanics)? Though I think it is important for people to know about their government I do not think that is the primary focus of education. But it should not be neglected either. Even my daughter (almost 5yrs) can tell you that the President only gets two turns (turns make more sense to her that terms). She can tell you that Mitt Romney and Obama were in the election and that the people picked Obama to take his second turn. Also that Obama is not allowed another turn ever again because he had his two turns.

As a parent I think the goal of education is to help prepare my children to successfully navigate the world are in. The purpose is to prepare my children to eventually go out on their own and make their way in the world successfully. I think many would agree with this goal for education. Though I am not sure we would all agree on what success constitutes. I see this as requiring at minimum basic understanding of the basics of academic education including math, science and English. But also they should have an understanding of the elements and function of government. Regardless whether they like it or not politics will have an impact on the lives of my children and they must have at least the foundational knowledge necessary to deal with that. They should know the fundamental rights that citizens enjoy in the US (at least in theory). They should have a fair idea about what both major parties stand for. They should understand how powers are separated both on a federal level but also between levels of government (federal, state, county, city etc). Also education should provide a cultural foundation of knowledge. Children should have basic understanding about all the major world religions and their views. Whether or not they are religious they will interact with individuals of all religions and should have basic knowledge about those religions. They should also have basic knowledge of cultural customs to help them deal with people from other places better. But equally important it is important to teach about the varieties of cultural customs in order to broaden their horizons. By learning about how the customs of other cultures work they can learn to see culture at work in our society. I don’t want them to believe that their narrow little world is how the whole world is. I don’t want them to expect all other people to make the same choices as they do.

The problem here is how do we measure success. I don’t believe success is purely the income you earn or the toys you own. So you can’t just gather income data on children in order to evaluate the success of a school. Also even though I value education immensely as shown by the fact that my wife is finishing her PhD and I am planning to attend grad school in the fall. Despite that I don’t believe higher education is for everybody or necessary for success. To me success requires involves a combination of productivity, happiness (on the job and at home), leisure time and overall comfortableness of life. This is no easy thing to measure without extensive research and even then it would be missing critical information.

What is the goal of education to you? How would you measure a school or teacher’s success in achieving that goal?