Asking the Question: What Is the Purpose of Public Education in a Democracy?

Today’s blogger is Aaron Samuel Zimmerman, an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education at Texas Tech University, whose recently published article Democratic Teacher Education: Preserving Public Education as a Public Good in an Era of Neoliberalismappears in the special issue of The Educational Forum on educator activism in politically polarized times. In that article, he argues that teacher educators play an essential role in preserving public education as a public good.

In your opinion, what is the purpose of public education?

  • To prepare students with the skills they need for the workforce?
  • To provide students with credentials that will facilitate their social mobility?
  • To cultivate the virtues that students need in order to participate as active citizens within a democracy?

Americans tend to hold multiple (and sometimes conflicting) priorities when it comes to public education (Labaree, 2011). We tend to believe that public schools can prepare students for democratic participation while simultaneously preparing students with the knowledge, skills, and credentials they need to advance in a capitalist economy. When we examine the current state of public schools in our country, however, we disturbingly find that schools tend to function almost exclusively as private businesses catering to consumers rather than as public institutions committed to preserving the public good (Ravitch, 2014).

I understand this to be just one more symptom of neoliberalism, the political and economic ideology that places a premium on privatization and self-interest. At this point, the influence of neoliberalism in our country is so prevalent that we are hardly even aware that it consistently shapes our values and decision-making (Giroux, 2008). One need look no farther than Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—and, before her, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—to see the way in which neoliberal values have crept into public education. Parents are treated as customers, schools are positioned as businesses producing a product, and students are taught how to become diligent workers (and faithful consumers) in a capitalist economy.

Sadly, teacher education tends to perpetuate neoliberal ideology. Most teacher education programs (both university-based programs as well as alternative routes to teacher certification) focus on helping teacher candidates learn how to raise student test scores (Kumashiro, 2010). Indeed, teacher quality is often measured by standardized test scores (Harris & Sass, 2011); but, unless teacher educators actively challenge this paradigm, early-career teachers will enter the profession assuming that high scores on standardized tests represent the ultimate goal of public education.

Of course, this is not to say that we should never measure student achievement or teacher quality through standardized tests. Public education in our nation, however, is in danger of being completely overtaken by this neoliberal logic. Teachers in public schools do more than help students achieve a credential; public school teachers also play a formative role in sustaining democracy by cultivating the virtuous dispositions required for democratic participation (dispositions such as open-mindedness, honesty, imagination, and generosity; see Huber-Warring & Warring, 2006). Our country’s democracy will suffer if teachers and teacher educators do not actively defend public education’s democratic purpose. We need to remind ourselves that public education can do so much more than provide students with degrees, grades, and GPAs. Public education has the potential—and, perhaps, the responsibility—to nurture democratic citizens.

Therefore, I would like to ask teachers and teacher educators the following questions:

  • What do you believe is the purpose of public education?
  • Do you actively pose this question to the aspiring teachers whom you mentor?
  • Do you pose this question to the members in the communities whom you serve?
  • What are ways that we can collectively invite teachers, students, and, indeed, all citizens to reimagine the role that public education can play in our democracy?

I titled this blog entry “Asking the Question” because, indeed, asking the question is half the battle. If we do not actively ask ourselves questions about the purpose of public education, other people will answer the questions for us . . . and those answers are likely to be justified only by a profit margin.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from the special issue of The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through August 31, 2018.

References
Giroux, H. A. (2008). Against the terror of neoliberalism: Politics beyond the age of greed. New York, NY: Paradigm.
Harris, D. N., & Sass, T. R. (2011). Teacher training, teacher quality and student achievement. Journal of Public Economics, 95(7–8), 798–812.
Huber-Warring, T., & Warring, D. F. (2006). Are you teaching for democracy? Developing dispositions, promoting democratic practice, and embracing social justice and diversity. Action in Teacher Education, 28(2), 38–52.
Kumashiro, K. K. (2010). Seeing the bigger picture: Troubling movements to end teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1–2), 56–65.
Labaree, D. F. (2011). Consuming the public school. Educational Theory, 61(4), 381–394.
Ravitch, D. (2014). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Vintage Books.