What is the Purpose of K-12 education?

               Summer is a great time for me to catch up on my reading.  I spend many a happy afternoon on York Beach, enjoying the summer and immersed in a good book.  Of course, my wife reminds me that sitting on the beach, a book in one hand and a highlighter in the other, is hardly “enjoying the beach,” but I manage to balance both activities somehow.

                Even since I read Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s frightening book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back several years ago,  I’ve been sure that education has been moving in the wrong direction.  But, I could never quite put my finger on what was wrong and what needed to be changed.  This summer, determined to focus on that question and encouraged by the parental support that emanated from the PTO’s May 2017 screening of the movie, Most Likely to Succeed, I focused most of my reading on books that challenged the status-quo in education.  Most of the titles I found through my PLN (Personalized Learning Network), a group of thoughtful educators with whom I interact on twitter, sharing ideas and challenging each other’s thinking.  As I looked out over the view of Nubble Light from Long Sands Beach, it occurred to me that each of the books I had read had posed a deceptively-simple, yet provocative question:

What is the purpose of K-12 education?

Noted educator, Sir Ken Robinson, outlines his thoughts regarding what he thinks the purpose of K-12 education should be as follows:

“Education should enable students to:
        become economically responsible and independent;
        understand and appreciate their own cultures and to respect the diversity of others;
        become active and compassionate citizens; and
        engage with the world within them as well as the world around them.”[1]

Another author, John Spencer, suggests that “our job is not to prepare students for something; our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.”[2]

Greg Couros, a very popular author with teachers, encouraging them to inject a higher level of creativity in their classrooms, describes his view of the purpose of education this way:  “In a world where new challenges constantly arise, students must be taught to think critically about what they are facing.  They must learn to collaborate with others from around the world to develop solutions for problems. Even more importantly, they must learn how to ask the right questions -- questions that will challenge old systems and inspire growth.”[3]
                Finally, renown educational thinker and the expert in residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, Tony Wagner suggests that “the purpose of education is to engage students with their passions and growing sense of purpose, teach them critical skills needed for career and citizenship, and inspire them to do their very best to make the world better.”[4]

               The similarities in these four noted authors’ thinking is astounding and matches the requirements needed to reverse America’s plight described by Friedman and Mandelbaum in This Used to be Us. Who can argue that we don’t want our graduates to “be economically responsible and independent,” or “prepared for anything” or “able to collaborate with others from around the world” or “inspire[d]... to do their very best to make the world better?”  What I found astonishing in each of these expressions of purpose was the absence of the words “Mathematics” or “English Language Arts” or “Science,” etc.  Yet, as a country and as a state, we measure our schools by how well they do in state-wide standardized tests in those three subjects, but do nothing to assess a student’s ability to, as Couros suggests, collaborate with others.  In my opinion, today’s schools spend too much of their time preparing our students to perform well on their state-wide standardized tests, and not enough time building the skills needed to be successful adults. 

To me, the question of purpose is more simply stated…

Is the purpose of K-12 education to create “deep thinkers” or “expert test takers?”
While the question as I pose it is hard to answer any other way, I believe that Holliston and most high-performing school districts in Massachusetts and across the country spend too much classroom time each year creating “expert test takers” at the expense of creating “deep thinkers.”
I think this trend needs to be reversed.  So this year, I kicked off the school year by sharing these words with our faculty: “It’s time for me to remove our handcuffs and challenge us to boldly embrace innovative instructional practices that help students explore their world, discover their passions and develop the critical skills they’ll need to be life-long contributing members of our society until they retire in the year 2085.”  I concluded my remarks by saying “we are officially going out of the ‘test prep’ business!” 
To that end, the administrative team of the Holliston Public Schools is working together to develop our own statement of purpose -- the belief system that we hope will guide instructional practices going forward.  That statement will be shared with the community in my next blog post.

[1] Robinson, K. & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 45-51.
[2] Spencer, J. & Juliani, A.J. (2017). Empower: What Happens When Student OWN Their Learning? San Diego, CA: IMpress. p. xxxiii.
[3] Couros, G. (2015). The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent and Lead a Culture of Creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. p.5
[4] Wagner, T. & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. New York: Scribner. p.44.


  1. Bravo! I am thrilled to know that the emphasis in Holliston Public schools will be on "deep thinking" and not test-taking. In the working world, deep thinking *is* the test that is rewarded.

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