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Lesson 1.8

What is Education For, Really?

So… what should we want from schools?

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By age five or six, American children begin their formal education. The process consumes a huge fraction of their waking hours through adulthood. Taxpayers commit enormous sums to support this system. Families organize their lives around the bell schedule. Why do we do it?

At an individual level, of course, the "why" of education is almost meaningless. School is compulsory. It's what we're expected to do! Also, education is the only path to a job that pays a living wage. (Remember the old saying: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!")

The remarkable, revolutionary idea behind universal public education is that all young people are worth investing in.

At a societal level, the remarkable, revolutionary idea behind universal public education is that all young people are worth investing in, for reasons that are both philosophical and practical. We have a shared stake in an educated society and an educated electorate. Our society values the individualistic ideal that a person's place in the pecking order should be earned rather than inherited. Everyone should have a shot.

The public education system, even with its flaws, is our biggest collective investment in our society. It is crucially important for public health, through universal vaccination. It is an expression of our belief in social mobility, and in the potential of each person to contribute something to this world we share. It is essential to the social commitment to preserve a survivable planet.

If that doesn't move you, most folks agree that they would rather pay for schools than for jails or soup kitchens.

Since the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all of us that schools also play an important role for adults. It's hard to work when the kids aren't in school, right?

Why are schools important?

The high level goals are easiest to agree on: we all want our children to emerge from their school years healthy, prepared for college, work, and citizenship.

Bill Honig, a former Califonia Superintendent of Public Instruction and founder of the Consortium of Reading Excellence (CORE), suggests that public education has three purposes: job preparation, active civic participation, and leading a full life. A 2016 poll found that 45% of Americans think the main purpose of education is preparing students academically, 25% believe it is preparing them for work, and 26% believe it is preparing them to be good citizens.

As a whole, we want schools to help our children realize their potential. We expect students to be armed with certain fundamental skills such as literacy and numeracy.

Beyond the practical matters, however, we also expect schools to help transform children into adaptable, decent, and broadly capable adults. Things can change. In an evolving society and a rapidly evolving job market, we cannot pretend to know exactly what skills a child really needs.

This idea is far from new. The headmaster of Eton school, William Johnson Cory, explained his views on the matter in 1861. Imagine the passage below being read by Albus Dumbledore…

"At school you are not engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism..."

At school you are not engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism... you go not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment's notice, a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time; for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness.

— William Johnson Cory, Headmaster at Eton, 1861

This lesson concludes the introductory chapter of Ed100. The core lessons of Ed100 are organized into ten chapters with a big picture in mind: "Education is Students and Teachers Spending Time in Places for Learning with the Right Stuff in a System with Resources for Success. So Now What?"

We have created many resources to help leaders make use of Ed100 — have a look at our toolbox!

The next lesson will shift the focus to students.

Updated March 2020, December 2020, July 2022


Which of the following is MOST TRUE about the purpose of universal public education?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Gail Arenberg October 1, 2019 at 3:26 pm
I am new to the forum so hope my questions aren't too basic. I was wondering about math in secondary schools. Why are classes beyond IM1 and IM2 required? Many students will never have a reason to use some of these advanced principles ("Another gone by...didn't use calculus once.") Couldn't there be other, more applicable math classes offered after the first two levels are completed? Maybe classes in finance (business and/or personal), accounting (business and/or personal), classes about taxes or getting a mortgage...just something students might find both interesting an actually useful as they progress through school. I know some students need pre-calculus and calculus for their future, but many kids don't. Couldn't we inspire or at least interest them in math in some other way?
user avatar
Michael Berger September 27, 2020 at 11:07 pm
I don't believe that many schools require more than 3 years of math. The UC a-g requirement is only 3 years. IM1, IM2, and IM3 or Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. Pre-calculus, calculus AB, and calculus BC are generally optional courses. The people who take these courses will often use them later in life in engineering or science fields.
user avatar
francisco molina August 13, 2019 at 12:36 am
I believe that we have many things ready for to make a better person for the future, the big problem that we have is how to make an administrative system with more empathy.
user avatar
LeeAnn Corral January 21, 2024 at 5:58 pm
The Administrative System needs work in empathy- I agree. And so much more
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 27, 2018 at 12:09 pm
I often hear people express the hope that education leads to kids living a better life than their own. Unfortunately, the trend is in the other direction, according to noted economist Raj Chetty. Not all the responsibility should be placed on education for this problem.
user avatar
Caryn-C September 18, 2017 at 11:59 am
Loved the comment from the past headmaster at Eton.
If I were to ask my fourth grader why he goes to school, he would say "friends". School without friends is insufferable. So I would add that to the list-- for the art of cultivating friendship.
user avatar
Rachele Latham November 4, 2016 at 9:36 am
I love this statement! "Education, even with all its flaws, is our biggest collective investment in societal ideals of social justice and social mobility. It is an expression of our belief in the potential of each person as a contributor to this world we share." YES YES YES
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 28, 2016 at 12:43 pm
What is the purpose of public education?
A 2016 poll finds that not everyone agrees.
"Fewer than half of Americans (45%) view the main goal of public education as preparing students academically; the rest split between a focus on preparing students for work (25%) or preparing them to be good citizens (26%)."

2016 PDK poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 30, 2016 at 10:35 pm
Bill Honig, a former California Superintendent of Public Instruction, characterizes public education as having three goals: (1) Job Preparation; (2) Active Civic Participation; and (3) Leading a Full Life. He emphasizes the latter two goals, arguing that they have been given too scant attention.
user avatar
Mark MacVicar April 20, 2015 at 11:54 pm
The US Constitution doesn't establish education as a right, so it isn't one. However, since free public education has existed for a while now, it seems that a constitutional amendment is long overdue.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 21, 2015 at 12:34 am
A right to education is established in California's constitution, and in most other states, though the wording of that right varies (see lesson 1.7 for information and links about the Blaine amendment). A movement toward a constitutional convention for the state of California briefly gathered momentum in 2008-09 but lost steam. Some of the discussions about school finance during that period evolved into policy changes enacted as the Local Control Funding Formula.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 7:56 am
Offering options for learning offers the most value. To re-quote:
Education, even with all its flaws, is our biggest collective investment in societal ideals of social justice and social mobility. It is an expression of our belief in the potential of each person as a contributor to this world we share. And if that doesn’t move you, most folks agree that they would rather pay for schools than for jails or soup kitchens. And who wants the kids just hanging around, getting into trouble? Better at school than at home, right?
We live in a caste system where education is not for everyone. It is for those who are pushed or strive to achieve a higher style of life. Not everyone is set out to achieve this high style life - it is always a choice. Everyone has potential. It is what you choose to do with that potential that defines you.
user avatar
Brandi Galasso February 8, 2015 at 9:39 pm
Definning citizenship is should be taught as always was, because at yhat point they are all citizens and should be taught as such.
user avatar
Dianna M February 5, 2015 at 12:19 pm
The Ed.Prezi is excellent. Please use it!
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 5, 2015 at 6:23 pm
Thanks, Dianna. I've found the EdPrezi helpful as a way to helping a group of people understand the structure, logic and scope of Ed100. Did you find the links from the Prezi back to the individual lessons?
user avatar
Greg Wolff March 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm
In Disrupting Class (link below), Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn point out that the "job" we expect from schools has changed over the years. Early on in the days of public education, people saw schools as a way to prepare children to become citizens in a democracy. Over time, the focus came to be more on offering something for all children and preparing them with the skills necessary for jobs in the industrial economy (not really an issue for farmers). Soon that preparation was put in the context of global competitiveness. With "No Child Left Behind," they argue that schools were given yet another job: "eliminate poverty".

In the book, they argue that we simultaneously expect schools to perform all these "jobs" and more. That's one reason it's so hard for everyone to agree on a single direction.

Of course, this debate will never really be settled, we can agree that in the common view, "Schools are FOR children" and try to make sure we keep their needs front and center while considering the many issues related to education. Hence the next topic: Students!
Pages 52-64
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