Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What is the purpose of education?

The News

April 22nd was our Governor's Education Summit. It's stated purpose: "Join business leaders and educators as they collaborate to invest in the development of Michigan’s talent." But the feeling I got from following the Tweets of those in attendance and the news surrounding the event was a bit different. It did not seem to be about collaboration as much as consultation - here's what schools ought to be doing to support the needs of the job-providers.

Later that day, I saw this commentary from Jack Lessenberry at Michigan Radio. While Jack uses with where I might write for, this passage seemed to sum up my perspective (from a distance) on the event:
This year’s summit was largely designed to examine how educators at all levels could better work with business to help students be ready for the careers for which there are jobs. (emphasis added)
But it was what Jack wrote about our state superintendent of schools, Mike Flanagan, that really got my attention:
What Flanagan said that bothered me so much was this. “Most of us in education have grown up with an ethic that was something like this: Education for Education’s Sake. That’s just silly.” 
As I shared my dismay, my wife expressed her disbelief and cautioned me that the quote might have been taken out of context. "But this is Jack Lessenberry," I said. "He doesn't do that."

The Context

Well, according to Superintendent Flanagan, that was exactly what happened. So he provided the following video to show what was actually said and the context he said was missing in Jack's piece.

This does soften the Superintendent's statement, somewhat. I am glad that he acknowledges the role of education for education sake. However, if we pull back and get an even larger context, then some of Flanagan's points seem pretty shallow.

First, the Michigan Merit Curriculum that Flanagan mentions at around 3:00, the one he is so proud of, is under attack. There is a push in the state legislature to remove some of the demanding requirements currently under the Merit Curriculum (read more here). Why didn't Superintendent Flanagan ask for the business leaders' support to ensure that this curriculum remain in place? (To be fair, he might have mentioned it elsewhere in the speech. Superintendent?)

Second, this speech was given at a conference where the Governor began the day by implying that education in the state and nation is broken. He said, "For our most precious asset, we've built a system that doesn't work anymore in terms of helping people be successful." (2:34) Again, this is part of a longer speech which ought to be watched in full, but the message is clearly that we need to do something different. (Maybe we could spend more on education or quit focusing so much attention on high-stakes testing? But I digress.) In my opinion, Superintendent Flanagan's statements, in the context of the Governor's speech seems to suggest that we need to make significant changes to "education for education's sake" since the current system "doesn't work anymore."

Finally, what evidence do we have that our current education system doesn't work? Both the Governor and the Superintendent point to unfilled jobs at Michigan Talent. Governor Snyder states, "On this website, we have over 60,000 open jobs. Good jobs. These are not entry - just the first job you get out of minimum wage; these are good jobs." (3:28) Actually, as of 4 pm, 5/1/13, there were 57,395 jobs, and 19,801 of the jobs, or about a third, are labeled as entry level.

Given this information, I decided to do a search: jobs that require at least a Masters Degree within 100 miles of my zip code. Nine jobs match this criteria. None of them that I could do without further training. I decided to look for any jobs in my area. 10,322 jobs are available, but over half are internships or entry level positions. While I respect the work of Sanitation Technicians, Groundskeepers, Truck Drivers, and Field Attendants, I do not see these as jobs I could be passionate about or happy with - descriptors used by the Governor and the Superintendent. Just in case my point is unclear, I believe using the 60,000 open jobs is a poor, maybe even dishonest, reason for attacking the current state of public education in Michigan.

[Update: Rick Haglund has done some investigation regarding the Governor's claims about MI Talent. You can read them here. However, I remain perplexed that it is under business and not education. Where are the education writers?]

The Question
What is the purpose of education?

Maybe we ought to be designing curricula that would prepare students to fill some of the jobs available on Michigan Talent. I remain unconvinced that Michigan students are dreaming of a job as an asparagus harvester (currently 8 jobs available) but I could be wrong. If filling the open jobs on Michigan Talent is the new goal of Michigan schools, then we need to begin writing the lessons that prepare students with the necessary skills.

Yes, I'm being facetious, but it's frustrating to be told that education is broken while businesses say they want collaborators, critical thinkers, and self-directed learners. These are the very things schools (education for education's sake) used to strive to be about. And then the nation became obsessed with standardized-tests which caused schools to became more and more like test preparation centers. (Maybe the goal of lowering the unfilled jobs on Michigan Talent would be an improvement - I kid, because otherwise I might cry.)

Perhaps the thing that angers me most, is the idea that our kids are being prepared to be someone else's workers. When did public schools become Kelly Employment Students? Education ought to be so much more. But don't take my word for it: 
The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done. (Jean Piaget)
To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. (Martin Luther King Jr.)
The one real object of education is to have a man in the condition of continually asking questions. (Bishop Mandell Creighton)
Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. (John Dewey)


  1. I agree with your arguments and I point out that this is the second major shakening (is that a word?) of education since 1911 when business, aided by weekly magazines, forced efficiency and economy ahead of learning, creating the structures we live with today (and are trying to change to little avail). Now we expect that 100 years later business has learned its lesson and knows what to do? I hardly doubt it.

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