Why School?

“Defining problems is far more important than generating solutions.” - Cuban

“Generating solutions to the wrong problem, or for a misunderstood purpose, may create ‘innovation,' but it won’t necessarily create positive change.” - Raab

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.” - Einstein


If we are to realize improvements in the American education system, we need to start with a clear definition of the problem. While there are many symptoms of the problem, at the root of the issue is a basic and foundational question. Once we become clear about the purpose of schooling, we can focus on the real issue of how to improve the system to the goals aligned to that purpose.

So, why school? Or, more precisely, what is the purpose of the U.S. school system? At the root of the issue of how to reform schools is a lack of consensus about the purpose of schooling.

Typically, a flip answer to the question of “Why school?” is to provide all children with the opportunity to get an education. Giving just a little more thought to the issue, though, it becomes clear that this is a more complex issue. To what end is the education intended? What are important elements of the education? Is the education for the individual’s or for society’s benefit? Is an opportunity sufficient or is an education required? Who determines whether or not the education has been realized? What seems to be a simple question quickly becomes complicated and, when one considers it even further, complex.

Is it really important that we think deeply about these things? one might ask. It is. “If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?” And, as importantly, if you don’t know what it is you are trying to achieve, how will you decide what strategies to use to achieve it? This lack of clear direction guiding hundreds and thousands of teachers in a school or district results in chaos, inefficient use of resources, teacher/student/parent dissatisfaction, and underperformance. And, the confusion isn’t limited to what happens locally. The involvement of legislators, state education departments and even local school boards, among others, becomes problematic rather than helpful. Laws, policies, requirements, funding, and other decisions drive school systems to specific goals, but those often are in conflict with each other. Further, these perhaps well-intended, but often tunnel visioned decisions become more problematic as they don’t consider unintended consequences for their implementation in the “real world”.

Erin Lynn Raab, in her December 2017 thesis Why School?: A Systems Perspective on Creating Schooling for Flourishing Individuals and a Thriving Democratic Society, describes schooling as a teleological system and argues that the improvement of American schools will require a systems approach that begins with a deep understanding of its purpose, the values that must be evident in the system, and goals. Personal experience concurs with Raab’s position.

Again, then, what is the purpose of schooling? Many have documented the history of American public schooling and the evolution that has occurred. Most agree that at its inception, the purpose of schooling in the United States was to socialize citizens. Over time, however, other purposes for schooling arose. These included intellectual purposes, such as developing reading, writing, and math skills; economic purposes, such as preparing graduates for jobs; developing capacity in students to live pragmatically and successfully in their current environment; creating emotionally healthy children and adults; creating lifelong learners; and more. A Google search on the purpose of education turns up numerous articles, books, papers, websites, and blogs. And, the advocated purposes seem to be as numerous as the sources promoting them. There are even websites inviting the public to express their opinions about what the purpose of school should be and, again, there is no clear consensus. There are recurring themes, however. Among them is a growing belief that schooling is to develop the individual student, a purpose that appears to be 180° from the original purpose.

The lack of consensus for the purpose of school speaks more to the complexity of schooling than disagreement among stakeholders. While there are a few voices that advocate strongly for this purpose or that, it is more likely that posing the question elicits responses similarly to the blind men describing the elephant they are touching in the well known folktale, with each describing what he is experiencing and what is relevant to him. To carry the analogy further, it is far more feasible that the purpose of schooling is really a system of purposes that must co-exist in delicate balance.

Raab’s Meta-Framework is useful for organizing thinking about these purposes, as the goals or aims of education seem to align neatly with her four domains:

Briefly, Raab uses two axes that juxtapose opposites. The Individual-Collective axis contrasts the purposes that relate to the individual’s benefit from school with society’s, or the collective’s, benefit. The Intrinsic-Instrumental axis contrasts the process of schooling or the means, called the Intrinsic extreme, with the outcomes, or the Instrumental extreme. This 2 X 2 matrix results in the four domains:

  • Individual Human Possibility: This domain refers to what is typically termed “education”. It is the development of the individual students to achieve his or her full potential.

  • Individual Efficiency: Here, the focus is still on the individual, but on his or preparation for future life, e.g. to get a good job, to go to college, to achieve recognition.

  • Social Possibility: This domain focuses on sustaining or creating a desired culture and society. While it focuses on indoctrinating individual students, the purpose is for the benefit of society which requires the school to create an environment which will promote those values.

  • Social Efficiency: Here, the focus is on outcomes that will benefit society, such as making sure there are enough doctors, welders, and farmers to meet society’s needs and to support economic growth of the society.

The aims or goals for school aligned with these domains include things like:

  • Preparing youth to live in a democracy

  • Developing good citizenship in youth

  • Instructing youth in religious doctrine

  • Assimilating youth into a society

  • Creating emotionally healthy youth

  • Teaching youth math, reading, and writing skills

  • Preparing youth for college and/or career

  • Developing analytical reasoning and critical thinking in youth

  • Producing the nation’s needed workforce

  • And more

Raab asserts that all four purposes need to be present simultaneously and that the purposes for schooling don’t change based on environment or era, but that the aims will vary from place to place and from time to time. She also acknowledges that one or more purposes may be more dominant than others depending on events and circumstances.

Given that efforts focused on supporting only one of the purposes can be counterproductive for other purposes, it becomes clear that a systems approach is warranted and that schools are indeed highly complex entities.

While some advocate for a common understanding across the United States of the purpose and goals for schooling, this is unrealistic. Not only is it unlikely to achieve that kind of consensus, but it also cannot be legislated. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the context may have an impact on the balance of purposes and goals, so this discussion is always evolving. It is incumbent, then, on each local community to determine the purposes and aims for schooling and to revisit this discussion regularly.

Coherent Governance©, a derivative of Policy Governance© developed by Randy Quinn and Linda Dawson of the Aspen Group International, LLC, provides a process for district leadership to engage in discussion about “ownership” of the district, as well as the purpose, value, and results desired. This is a good place to start. To fuel the discussion, boards might want to read Raab’s thesis or use the survey provided by Wesleyan University at Alternatively, Sepati Ingera, LLC welcomes the opportunity to support your work by facilitating these discussions. Give us a call.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All