The purpose of education: Truing the balance wheel

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Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.

Horace Mann, 1848

When our nation was young and figuring out how to make this little-known thing called democracy work, power-brokers of the day said the people were too ignorant to govern themselves. Thomas Jefferson disagreed. In 1820, he wrote,

"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

Thirty years later, Horace Mann, the father of the common school, said education is the "great equalizer of the conditions of men," and it deserves significant public investment at the local, state, and national levels. Mann passionately contended that education is the bedrock of democracy. It should be "universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends." These beliefs have been fundamental and national guiding principles.

The purpose of education is to build, strengthen and sustain the society. Unfortunately, with the ascendance of test scores and international economic competitiveness as education's most loudly proclaimed purposes, the nation has forgotten that universal public education was established for the benefits it provides to the common good. It is neither a private good nor a market commodity.

We have made great progress in establishing a universal education system, as shown by graduation rates being at an all-time high. Few realize, amidst the criticism, that achievement scores are at an all-time high and Vermont is a national leader. Yet, substantial disparities in educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes continue to undermine equality — and ultimately our democracy.

Unfortunately, these inequalities are driven by broader factors and are growing. "Trends in labor market outcomes demonstrate that disparities in American family incomes have been increasing over the past five decades. The income gap between families in the top and bottom 20 percent of the income distribution has increased 300 percent since 2011," said Jennifer Rice. The middle class has been hollowed out.

Given the broad scope of social and economic inequities, their interactions and complexities, the most sensible approach would be to inventory the full range of needs, and address the multiple factors—which extend well beyond the traditional boundaries of schools — that contribute to the increasing opportunity gap. Fair housing policies, investments in distressed neighborhoods, good jobs, and policies that reduce income disparities are as essential as schools. Teaching the children well does not transform the society if college is financially out of reach, good jobs are not available and boot-strapping is not realistic.

The achievement gap is not just a measure of the schools. It is the bellwether of the health of our democracy. Getting cause and effect backwards, some economists suggest that simply improving math scores will eradicate economic malaise. This mindset was the prevalent reform philosophy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: test scores will make the nation strong, and those scores can be improved by drill and driven by punishments, regardless of the vast differences in student circumstances.

This approach failed. It was a soulless enterprise.

More in accord with Mann, the Vermont Constitution sets forth a broader purpose; promoting civic virtue and preventing vice. Besides basic knowledge, these include civic responsibility, democratic values, economic self-sufficiency, cultural competency and awareness, and social and economic opportunity.

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the Brigham decision, we must focus on resolving the narrowness and the inequities. Whether they live in our town or another town, they are all our children. As Vermonter John Dewey said, "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy."

William J. Mathis is the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center and is a member of the state Board of Education. The views expressed are his own.


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