May 26, 2010

What is the True Purpose of Public Education?

Below you will find an excellent essay by Des Moines, Iowa teacher and activist Dave O'Connor that refocuses us on the true purpose of public education.

Run, rabbit run.
Dig that hole, forget the sun,
And when at last the work is done
Don't sit down it's time to dig another one.

For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave.

“Breathe”, Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon

Lyrics by Roger Waters

One of America ’s preeminent education writers Alfie Kohn, asked in the September 19, 2007 issue of Education Week: “Is the main mission of schools really to prepare children to be productive workers who will do their part to increase the profitability of their future employers? Every time education is described as an ‘investment,’ or schools are discussed in the context of the ‘global economy,’ a loud alarm ought to go off, reminding us of the moral and practical implications of giving an answer in dollars to a question about schools.”

If Kohn is right, and I believe that he is, then alarm bells like those found on Pink Floyd’s seminal “Dark Side of the Moon” classic “Time” should be ringing in the headphones of all American educators who see public education as more than a punched ticket into a knock-down, drag out global competition where our students race toward Roger Waters’ “early grave.” Those of us who value the democratic purposes of education envision a higher calling; one that emphasizes a citizen’s role as a critical thinker who questions authority and hierarchies of military and corporate power. Because, as retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) William J. Astore has written: “If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job -- if it's merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods -- you've effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.”


A politician’s beliefs about the true purposes of education are a fundamentally important issue that shines a bright light upon the policies he or she will pursue in office. Coming on the heels of 16 years of federal education policy that has put corporations at the forefront of policy development and the democratic purposes of education on the back burner, Obama’s approach is nothing new. However, given that he won election on the theme of change and on the backs of hard-working members of teacher’s unions, it is disturbing to note the singular emphasis he places upon the economic purposes of public education to the outright exclusion of the democratic ends.

Nowhere on the President’s “Organizing for America ” website, for example, does he discuss the democratic purposes of education. In fact, the “Education Issues” page of the Organizing for America site begins with these words:

“At this defining moment in our history, preparing our children to compete in the global economy is one of the most urgent challenges we face. We need to stop paying lip service to public education, and start holding communities, administrators, teachers, parents and students accountable.”


On the President’s White House page, under the heading “Guiding Principles” for education we find these words:

“Providing a high-quality education for all children is critical to America ’s economic future. Our nation’s economic competitiveness and the path to the American Dream depend on providing every child with an education that will enable them to succeed in a global economy that is predicated on knowledge and innovation. President Obama is committed to providing every child access to a complete and competitive education, from cradle through career... President Obama will reform America’s public schools to deliver a 21st Century education that will prepare all children for success in the new global workplace”


Since becoming president, Obama has pursued these ends with great vigor, turning over the shaping of federal education policy to corporate interests who have unveiled Race to the Top as their first major offensive. Diane Ravitch has gone so far as to say that corporate interests are “directing national education policy.” The evidence is persuasive:

  • Arne Duncan’s signature Renaissance 2010 reform initiative in Chicago , in one publications opinion was all about “…shuttering public schools, replacing them with privatized or militarized schools, shutting out teachers' unions and taking power away from community members and citizens - all on the recommendation of the city's corporate elite.” As Obama’s choice for Secretary of Education, he is now the Elmer Gantry of federal/corporate education huckstering.
  • Joanne Weiss, chief operating officer of the New Schools Venture Fund was appointed to run the Race to the Top grant competition. Jim Horn, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College referred to the New Schools Fund as “…a vast web of corporate and corporate foundation cash strategically invested in the cause of privatizing education, all the while collecting huge tax credits for…vulture philanthropists.”
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been intimately involved in the financing of Race to the Top initiatives at the state level providing significant funding to all of the 16 finalists chosen for the first round of the competition and the eventual Round One winners, Tennessee and Delaware . That should come as no surprise since in Horn’s words, “Not only does Gates have the house keys at the Department of Ed where the Gates and Broad Foundations have set up shop, but the Foundation has also tutored each state in how to write grants to fit the criteria of judging that /his/ Foundation ‘helped’ to develop.”
  • Obama has received his marching orders on education policy from Democrats for Education Reform who have uncomfortable ties with far right, anti-union organizations like the American Enterprise Institute who have long championed privatization. Three of DFER’s four founders sit on the boards of Charter Schools while the fourth waits to see if his application to do the same is accepted.

What are the potential consequences of continuing to cede education policy to corporate interests? Astore, a former military man himself, paints a very grim picture: “What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty…It's a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country's direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself -- and so your own limits and those of your country as well. To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions…education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds -- a struggle against accepting the world as it's being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.”

This corporate vision of education isn’t why we entered the profession. As Jonathan Kozol reminds us in The Shame of the Nation, good teachers “…refuse to see their pupils as…pint sized deficits or assets for America ’s economy into whom they are expected to pump ‘added value”.

Educators have a duty to resist the corporatization of our schools. As Alfie Kohn has written: “Our loyalty, after all, is not to corporations but to children. Our chief concerns—our ‘bottom line’ if you must—is not victory for some, but learning for all.”


Dave O’Connor

Humanities Educator

Merrill Middle School

Des Moines, IA


Anonymous said...

True purpose? Ask a worker.

Pedro Garcia Millan said...
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Tedd said...
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