Mike Rose On Education: It's More Than Jobs

Race to the Top of What? Education Is About More Than Jobs

The race is on. Forty-one states have just finished the mad dash to submit proposals for the Obama education initiative, Race to the Top. Now that the first round of competition is over we should be asking the basic questions that got lost in the flurry: What is the true purpose of all this reform? What should it be? Why do we send our kids to school?

The answer given for decades, from the national to the local level, from Democrats and Republicans, is that education prepares the young for the world of work and enables the nation to maintain global economic pre-eminence. There is an occasional nod to the civic purpose of schooling in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, but that goal pales next to the economic justification.

To be sure, economic prosperity has long provided a potent incentive to fund and improve schools in the United States, but it is only one of multiple goals of education in a democracy. The architects of public education knew this. In a landmark report to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1848, state Secretary of Education Horace Mann did make the economic argument—original at the time—that education is the great equalizer, fostering social mobility and national prosperity. But this economic goal was embedded in a celebration of the physical, intellectual, civic and moral goals of schooling.

We need to reclaim that broader vision, for we have terribly narrowed our thinking about school. Our tunnel vision is dangerous because the reasons we give for education affect what we teach and how we teach it. Vocational education provides a cautionary tale of what a strictly economic focus can yield.

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