What is the Purpose of Education, and why do we seem to be arguing about it?

The Purpose of Education is to provide opportunities to lead fulfilling and productive lives.

That is my own formulation.  This statement of the Purpose of Education really shouldn’t be objectionable to anyone.  It says that we should prepare students both to thrive in our economy and to be good citizens.

It appears that we in Florida are now arguing about the Purpose of Education.  Orlando Sentinel journalist Leslie Postal reported that both House Speaker Richard Corcoran and House Education Committee Chair Michael Bileca object to Governor Scott’s frequent emphasis on education as preparation for a job (for example, see this press release from last year).  The Sentinel article quoted Corcoran saying during a Florida Face to Face interview that “The purpose of education goes to the meaning of man. You want to raise up a great citizen.”  The Speaker also said that focusing too closely on job preparation is “almost offensive”.

Chair Bileca reflected on the same issue during a House Education Committee meeting earlier this month.  According to the Sentinel, he asked “What is the purpose of education?  Should the focus be narrowed only on what is needed to get a job? Or is it more about developing citizens of character that can fully participate in our democratic republic?”

The answer to Bileca’s question about whether education should be “narrowed” to only what is necessary to get a job is clearly “no”.  But it is just as true that K-12 education should prepare each student to fulfill her or his potential in our modern economy, just as it should prepare each student for their civic and personal lives.

The problem with having this discussion in an either/or format (preparation for either citizenship or the economy but not both) is that it provides a rationale for leaving math and science out of the discussion about educational priorities.  If we are going to make sure that every college-bound student is prepared to choose any major when arriving at college – including the best-paying ones that have words like “engineering”, “physics” and “computer” in them (see below) – then we must commit as a state to improving the opportunities students have to learn math, science and computing at the middle and high school levels.  Preparation for STEM careers can’t wait until college – it has to be an integral part of the K-12 experience.

Students who are not heading for four-year colleges deserves to have the STEM option as well.  That means making sure there are plenty of teachers on high school faculties who are skilled at bringing average students to a level of proficiency in Algebra 2 and preparing them with technical skills that are in demand in Florida’s workplace.

Right now, preparation for STEM careers is Florida’s K-12 Achilles heel, and changing that would take a considerable investment of effort and focus on the part of policy-makers.  It’s still early days for the 2017 legislative session, but so far it doesn’t sound like legislative leaders are interested.

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