It all comes down to purpose!

A Guest Post from Robert Barkley

So much of the current attacks on public education have been framed inside a concept called the “business model.” As it turns out, many uniformed elected officials, and even many education-bashing business leaders themselves, apparently don’t understand at all the fundamentals of effective businesses.

The centerpiece of effective organizational practice, whether in the private or public sector, is clarity as to purpose. And it’s precisely there that those many critics don’t get it. Ask them what the purpose of education is, and you’ll likely get answers such as, “master the basics…prepare students for work…raise test scores…improve graduation rates…encourage life long learning…get more into college,” and the list goes on.

These are all commendable but they are the results and not the purpose. A well-conceived purpose will achieve all such objectives and more.

So let’s turn to defining the purpose of education. I devoted a full chapter to that topic in a book I self-published about 10 years ago. Following is the primary discussion pulled from that book:

Educators and public policy leaders do not always agree on purpose. Here are some different visions of purpose that illustrate a wide-ranging view and are pulled from some top theorists and resources.

W. Edwards Deming: “The purpose of education is to preserve and nurture joy in learning.” Schools must “increase the positives and decrease the negatives so that all students keep their yearning for learning.” The mission of schools is to maintain enthusiasm while increasing learning.

Based upon fundamental Hellenic philosophy: The purpose of education is to develop students—who are comfortable in meeting their survival needs, who have an increasing capacity and desire for rational thought, who can conduct themselves productively and virtuously and can distinguish what matters most—both in regard to their own interests and those of their community, and who can constructively contribute to the most effective governance of the society in which they find themselves.

Myron Tribus building upon Deming, advocated “creating joy in learning” as the chief aim of education. He then states the criteria for judging educational programs. He says, “A good educational program will emphasize: Knowledge – which enables the learner to understand how what is learned connects to what is already known and permits the learner to analyze new situations; Know-how -- which enables the learner to actually do something with the knowledge thus gained; Wisdom -- which enables the learner to decide when, where or whether to actually use know-how in a particular situation;

Character -- which makes the learner capable of being trusted with knowledge, know-how and wisdom.” Tribus adds, “When I look at a program I look for evidence that the teachers are aware of these four aspects of education and can demonstrate the efforts they are making in all four dimensions of good education.”

Marion Brady: “Each of us has acquired from our society a comprehensive model of reality. The most important task of general education is to help us understand that model, the models of those with whom we interact, and the range of alternative models from which we might choose.”

Paul Woodring: “The goal of a liberal education is to free individuals from the limitations of ignorance, prejudice, and provincialism; to enable them to see the world clearly and in perspective; to develop their intellectual capabilities, increase their sensitivity, and prepare them to make wise, independent judgments.”

Maurice Holt: suggests that we currently have competing needs which he describes as: “To deliver the knowledge and skills that business needs,” versus, “To equip students with the capacity to address the unpredictable problems of adulthood and to establish themselves in a world of growing complexity.”

It is clear that establishing educational purpose is not simply an academic or organizational and managerial process. It is a public policy issue given the level of societal interest, the political nature of education, and the level of public investment. My own espoused purpose for education—obviously taken from Deming: “Engendering increasingly enthusiast learners who continuously seek and achieve the skills necessary to advance their learning, satisfy their natural curiosities, and become contributing citizens.”

Step two in organizational effectiveness is to establish how progress toward the adopted purpose will be measured. And here is why I have brought this topic to the fore. Think of what the policy makers of both major political parties and well-meaning many critics of educational have chosen as their measurement tools. Think standardized tests! Once you reflect upon that you will quickly realize why we are headed in absolutely the wrong direction and why the international leaders in education have abandoned exactly what those in the US are advocating.

Robert Barkley, Jr., is retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association, a thirty-five year veteran of NEA and NEA affiliate staff work. He is the author of Quality in Education: A Primer for Collaborative Visionary Educational Leaders; Leadership In Education: A Handbook for School Superintendents and Teacher Union Presidents; and Lessons for a New Reality: Guidance for Superintendent/Teacher Organization Collaboration. He may be reached at rbarkle@columbus.rr.com.