10/27/2010 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Is the Purpose of Public Education?

I was having dinner with a dear friend debating current topics in education: 21st century learning in a world of standardized assessments, teacher quality, union reform, life skills vs. subject matter competency, etc... It was a summit over a sundae, light conversational fare for two teachers on a weekend. Anyway, we realized something over the course of our dining debate: that despite our mutual admiration of each other and our teaching methods, we realized that our definition of the purpose of public education differed.

I mentioned preparing students with future skills while she countered with the fact that we should be creating students who problem-solve and think critically so that they will function under any circumstances.

Of course, we were both right, but I realized that before we as colleagues or, for that matter, we as a country, could analyze or define what good assessments are, what quality teaching is, what successful or failing schools might be, etc... we needed to come to an agreement about why public schools existed in the first place. Even our ability as friends to move ahead with our brainstorm became ambiguous because there was this Tower of Babylon between us. At some point I realized that if I asked every person in that restaurant what he or she believed was the purpose of public education, I would get a different answer from each and every one. So I did.

Well, actually, I chose not to accost people during their dinner, but I did end up asking about 300 people both inside education and outside education what they thought the purpose of public education was. I wondered if the diversity of answers to such a basic question were a road-block to reform in itself. The goal was simple. Answer, in 30 words or less, the question: What is the purpose of public education?

When I broke down the common issues listed from the responses I received, they tended to fall into the following categories:

1. Teach the skills for passionate advocacy
2. Prep the students for their future participation in our democratic process
3. Educate them with the skills to function in the future world
4. Grant equal opportunity and access to the same high-level of learning
5. Develop the skills to have options in life
6. Teach the love of exploration
7. Teach the awareness and maturity of self to be one's own advocate later in life
8. Create a civilized population
9. Prepare students to contribute to an ever-evolving society
10. Fill a student with a sense of service and belonging
11. Foster personal responsibility
12. Create critical thinkers
13. Develop the ability and confidence to question
14. Nurture the skills necessary to participate in the exchange of ideas
15. Develop students who function autonomously
16. Teach social skills
17. Give students the skills to compete globally
18. Create lifelong learners
19. Teach students what it takes to achieve their professional goals

And only one person used their 30 words to specifically to say:
20. Teach them reading, writing, and math.

I can't help but wonder: is it fair to expect our educational system, current or future, to hit them all?

The answers amongst those I surveyed were diverse, to be sure, but more importantly is the fact that despite different careers, political parties, locales, and walks of life, there were many commonalities. Perhaps it is with these commonalities that we should ultimately be piecing together a purpose for public education. From there at least we can advance to improve our system because we can then take on the most basic norm of all, that coined by fellow teacher and blogger, Susan Graham, who said the only rule you need in a room of debate is to "assume good intentions."

For now, as a society, we don't live that missive. After all, education is being attacked from outside its walls, and as a result, there is infighting amongst teachers and administrators. Hey, isn't this how Rome fell? Oh well, that and too much undervalued currency. Heck, let's throw that into the mix as well but equate undervalued coinage to undervalued efforts. If we don't evolve as a system, public education will fall.

If we start with the commonalities that we all agree education must serve, perhaps we can then move forward and develop a plan of evolution and reform that more of this country buys into.

Our next step, and it's a doozie, is to figure out the path across that river towards the shore of achievement. Many people in my survey mentioned the need to cultivate a lifelong learner, but this leads me to believe that there is no "shore" per se, but rather the calmer waters of a student's more autonomous and ongoing future. Do our current schools have what it takes to prepare our students to continue walking on that water? Does society have the commitment it takes to support those schools?

How would you answer my simple question: What is the purpose of public education?