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What Are Public Schools For?

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What Are Public Schools For?

Parents have a different answer than activists and policymakers do. December 14, 2021
Education
The Social Order

Recent battles over racially divisive curricula prompted Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe to remark, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” But those battles, and the peculiar response that parents are best kept away from the process of educating their children, are signs of a much larger crisis. The gap in perspective between professional educators and the communities they serve about what public education is for has grown unsustainably large.

The gap is most evident, and costly, on the question of what outcome a good education should lead toward. For the current generation of reformers, the answer is simple: a college degree. Embracing this college-for-all mentality, secondary schools have become college-prep academies held accountable to rigorous testing regimes and college-going rates, while policymakers have plowed hundreds of billions of dollars into subsidizing higher education. Leading proposals for “free college” and student-loan forgiveness reinforce those commitments.

American parents disagree. In partnership with YouGov, my organization, American Compass, surveyed 1,000 American parents with a child between the ages of 12 and 30 about their priorities for the public education system. We asked: Which is more important, helping students “maximize their academic potential and gain admission to colleges and universities with the best possible reputations,” or helping them “develop the skills and values to build decent lives in the communities where they live?” By more than two to one, parents chose life preparation over academic excellence.

Uncommon for contentious issues in American life, this opinion holds across all the usual divisions. “Build decent lives” earns 68 percent among Democrats, 69 percent among Republicans, and 77 percent among Independents. It earns 68 percent among lower-class parents (defined by education level and income), 69 percent in the working class, 75 percent in the middle class, and 71 percent in the upper class; 68 percent with women and 74 percent with men, 76 percent with whites, and 63 percent with nonwhites.

Parents also express this view across various experiences for their own children. While having a child drop out of college is correlated most strongly with a preference for life preparation (79 percent), parents whose children have completed college still choose it over academic excellence 69 percent of the time. The preference also holds by similar margins regardless of whether parents report their children are “living the American dream,” “getting by,” or “struggling.”

An optimistic educator might argue that developing the skills and values to build decent lives is what public schools already do, but parents would again disagree. Most rate their school system’s performance as good or excellent at teaching students academic skills and engaging students in extracurriculars, but not on life preparation. In a parallel survey, young people aged 18–30 were even more frustrated with their schools’ academic focus. They gave priority to life preparation by a four-to-one margin; fewer than one-third rated their school’s performance on that task positively.

Parents and young people with recent experience in America’s education system seem to understand something that the experts designing it do not: college isn’t always the answer. Nationwide, only one in five young people moves smoothly from high school to college to career. Twice as many never enroll in college at all; twice as many enroll in college but drop out, or graduate into a job that doesn’t require a degree.

Educators have their most obvious blind spot on this question of outcomes. They usually pass through the college pipeline themselves and live and work in bubbles of friends and colleagues who did likewise. The professional class also, broadly speaking, has different aspirations. For instance, asked whether they would prefer their children to go from high school to an educational program that offered “the best possible career options but was far from home” or “good career options close to home,” parents with postgraduate degrees chose the best career far from home by a 24-point margin. The remaining respondents chose a good career close to home by a 17-point margin. Young people inherit this gap: if they had a parent with a postgraduate degree, they chose the first option by 22 points; otherwise, they preferred the second by 14.

A third blind spot, though, may be causing the most damage in practice. Professional educators cling to an ideal of equity that bears little relationship to what parents know about their children and want for them. Educators have long despised the idea of “tracking” students. Over a century ago, Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University, said, “I refuse to believe that the American public intends to have its children sorted before their teens into clerks, watchmakers, lithographers . . . and treated differently in their schools according to their prophecies of their appropriate life careers. Who are we to make these prophecies?” In the 1980s, the New York Times reported that “traditional ability grouping is under attack from education experts as racist, elitist or simply a bad way to teach.” In recent years, The Atlantic has taken to calling tracking “The Other Segregation” or “Modern-Day Segregation.”

This year, reflecting the latest fads in education ideology, California proposed mathematics guidelines that reject the idea of naturally gifted children altogether, while New York City announced plans to discontinue its gifted and talented program. The dogma of college-for-all is an inevitable corollary of this orthodoxy: if all students have the same potential, all should be on the same track; if all are presumed to have the aspirations of the college-educated professional class, then of course public education should be built to send them all to college.

Parents consider this hogwash. By 61 percent to 39 percent, they say that “some students have the academic ability to succeed in college, and others do not” rather than “with the proper support, nearly every student can succeed in college.” Most strikingly, they support tracking by overwhelming margins. Given the choice between a model for high schools in which students are kept in the same courses with the goal of preparing all for college versus one in which families can choose different tracks that place their children in different courses headed toward different endpoints, parents choose tracking by more than six-to-one. That preference holds across political parties and across classes, including a 94–6 split among middle-class parents.

In political circles, conventional wisdom holds that while tracking might make sense in theory, you can’t say “tracking” because of purportedly negative connotations. This is simply wrong. Our survey split its sample, using the term “tracking” with half of parents and the more fashionable “diverse pathways” with the other half. Parents couldn’t care less.

A cynic may reply that of course all parents say they support tracking, because all think their own children will be on the college track. He would be wrong. Which would parents rather see their own children have access to after high school: a three-year apprenticeship program leading to a valuable credential and a well-paying job, or a full-tuition scholarship to any college that the child was admitted to? Parents overall prefer the three-year apprenticeship by 57 percent to 43 percent. The preference holds for parents at every education level through four-year college degrees, and Republicans and Independents with postgraduate degrees are closely split.

The main constituency for the college fixation is Democrats with postgraduate degrees, who prefer the idea of full-tuition scholarships by more than two-to-one. Yet that perspective seems to dominate public debates. For all the political energy expended on college costs and college debt, meaningful non-college programs that would help students develop the skills to build decent lives in the communities where they live are scarce. Most parents want options that meet the needs of their children; this means not only that high schools should cater to the majority of students who will not succeed in college, but also that public education should offer as much after high school to this non-college majority as it offers those fortunate enough to pursue a college degree.

In The Making of Americans, education scholar E. D. Hirsch observes that our tradition of public education began with an emphasis on “common knowledge, virtue, skill, and an allegiance to the larger community shared by all children no matter what their origin.” Our schools were “the central and main hope for the preservation of democratic ideals and the endurance of the nation as a republic.” Today, they resemble strip-mining operations—serving the needs of the academically talented by extracting them from their hometowns to ivory towers in faraway lands from which they will never return. Some go on to run the education system and see nothing wrong with this state of affairs. For reformers to succeed in improving public education, they will need to remember what public education is for.

Photo: fotosipsak/iStock

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