The big lesson for schools



One of the Indiana General Assembly’s top challenges this year, we’re told, will involve funding and launching a larger pre-kindergarten program for Hoosier schools.

Getting young children started in school earlier is a good thing. The research shows that those early years are a period when young minds are most receptive to learning. Letting them lie fallow has been a missed opportunity for far too long.

But expanding Pre-K won’t solve Indiana’s education problems.

Not by a long shot.

The only way we solve the problems with our schools – public or private, choice or charter – is by having a different kind of discussion that we Hoosiers have had thus far about education.

Most of our focus for at least the past 20 years has been on the means of delivering education. Should we create a school choice system? Are charters a good idea? Or should we invest more money into improving our existing public school system?

These are good and important questions, but they don’t address the fundamental question:

What do we expect from our investment in education?

In the beginning, long, long ago, we knew the answer to that deceptively simple question.

Our rationale for having government – the taxpayers – assume the responsibility and expense for paying for a public education system was Jeffersonian in nature. We paid for schools as a shared public obligation (and compelled all young people to attend up to a certain age) because education was deemed essential to developing people to assume the responsibilities associated with citizenship in a self-governing society.

Over the years, that has changed. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce long has argued that a primary – if not the primary – focus for our schools should be on churning out skilled workers for businesses to employ.

That argument, of course, raises a question. If the primary purpose of our education system is to prepare labor for businesses, why don’t we just hand over the responsibility – and the expense – of providing education to the business community?

Lately, there’s been a new contention. Spurred perhaps by voucher programs’ inability to produce improved test scores that are in any way proportional to the huge investment of public funds in them, school choice advocates such as Indiana House Education Committee chair, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, now have started saying that education should have a new goal.
And that is empowering parents.

But that, too, raises a question. If the purpose of education is to make parents feel good about their kids’ schooling, then why are non-parents – or, for that matter, parents whose children already have finished school – being asked to pay for education, too?

Those questions of who bears the expense aside, the real reason we need to determine what we want our schools to accomplish is that those schools – public or private, choice or charter – cannot possibly succeed if they don’t know what their primary purpose is. It is almost impossible to arrive at a destination if one does not know what that destination is.

The only way that happens is by accident.

And hoping for happy accidents isn’t sound public policy.

For at least a generation, we Hoosiers have been so preoccupied with questions that focus on which educational road we want to take that we haven’t bothered to ask where we want the educational journey to end.

Or we have assumed that there can be several, often mutually contradictory, destinations.

That’s why education policy in Indiana too often has resembled a clown car at the circus. It drives in circles, does some entertaining crazy 8s and ultimately goes nowhere.

The Indiana General Assembly plans to focus in the next few months on where and how it will expand the state’s Pre-K educational options. That is to the good.

But even finding ways to invigorate young minds when they’re most ready to learn won’t solve our education problems because it won’t answer that simple but hard question:

Where do we want to go?


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