America’s Parents Are Confused About the Purpose of School

A new poll reveals that the majority of moms and dads don’t think kids go to class to gain knowledge and skills.
(Photo: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)
Sep 2, 2016· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Grab your No. 2 pencils; it’s time for a pop quiz. Don’t worry—there’s only one question, and it’s multiple choice.

The purpose of sending children to school is to

A. Help them develop knowledge and critical-thinking skills.
B. Prepare them for citizenship.
C. Prepare them for work.
D. All of the above.

In a perfect world, D would be the correct answer. But a new poll shows that fewer than half of Americans believe the purpose of education is to acquire knowledge, while the rest are divided between thinking the purpose is to prepare students for work and the goal is to help them become good citizens.

That split, analysts say, is evidence that the struggling economy is having a lingering effect on how parents view the national school system. It’s also evidence, other experts say, of a two-tiered system in U.S. public education: knowledge for people who can afford it, work skills for everyone else.

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The results of the 48th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools “seem to assume and even accept that many [students] will be winners and many will be losers,” Elaine Weiss, national coordinator for Broader Bolder Approach to Education, an education-reform think tank, told TakePart. “We want all kids to succeed. We want all kids to be equipped and thrive and survive.”

Children trapped in failing schools in poor neighborhoods are more likely than their peers in more affluent, largely white districts to be “pipelined” into vocational education, said Noel Anderson, clinical professor of educational leadership at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

Knowledge “has been skewed toward folks who have the means to send their kids to good schools” and on to college, Anderson said. For the working class, he said, education—principally, job training skills that don’t require a bachelor’s degree—“becomes an investment for the well-being of my family.”

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According to the poll results, 45 percent of adult respondents say preparing students academically is the primary reason for a public school education, and about a third feel that way strongly. That’s compared with 25 percent who believe the purpose of school is preparation for the workforce and 26 percent who believe citizenship is the goal.

“In a related result—perhaps reflecting the economic uncertainty of recent years—the survey finds a heavy tilt in preferences away from higher-level academics and toward work skills,” wrote the survey’s authors. “By a broad 68–21 percent, Americans say it’s better for their local public schools to focus on adding career, technical or skills-based classes than more honors or advanced academic classes.”

The result dovetails with a grim prognosis for black, Latino, and low-income Americans—populations that are, statistically, least likely to get a postsecondary education. Policy makers, including President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, want a “new deal” for the poor and the working class: billions of federal dollars for college and job training for present and future workers at risk of being left behind.

The survey “reinforces what we’re seeing, I believe,” Anderson said. “The college-access space has been bifurcated,” and the education conversation has been “lopsided,” with job training—knowing what to expect about working in the real world—getting short shrift among the college bound as well as those headed for vocational schools.

Weiss said the survey results are a sign that the nation needs a much broader conversation about what the purpose of education should be—job preparation, knowledge, citizenship, or all of the above—and how ongoing education reform makes that happen.

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Too often, policy makers treat education “as if it’s a privatized or commodified thing,” Weiss said. “In reality, our schools are a public good,” need to be treated as such, and should be equally funded and resourced despite districts’ socioeconomic profiles.

That discussion has been tough, she said, because the nation is “polarized” about education reform, in part because of a “dysfunctional” political system unwilling to honestly tackle a hot-button issue.

Until that happens, Weiss said, choice D—“All of the above”—will continue to elude the nation as the definitive answer to the question about the purpose of schools.

“We shouldn’t be accepting that schools will create groups of winners and losers,” she said.