Why Send Kids To School?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 27th, 2009

“The single biggest problem in American education is that no one agrees on why we educate,” observes Diane Ravitch. ”Faced with this lack of consensus, policy makers define good education as higher test scores.”  Ravitch’s comments come in a forum published by the New York Times Magazine, which also features input from Tom Vander Ark, Geoffrey Canada, Charles Murray and others.  Ravitch writes:

Why do we educate? We educate because we want citizens who are capable of taking responsibility for their lives and for our democracy. We want citizens who understand how their government works, who are knowledgeable about the history of their nation and other nations. We need citizens who are thoroughly educated in science. We need people who can communicate in other languages. We must ensure that every young person has the chance to engage in the arts.

Reflecting on the theme of “How to Remake Education,” Vander Ark stumps for more attention to technology.  “By 2020, I believe most high-school students will do most of their learning online,” he writes.  “It shouldn’t take that long, but it will.”  Charles Murray argues we should “discredit the bachelor’s degree as a job credential”; while Canada believes we should lengthen the U.S. school year, which is “one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world.”

I’m with Diane. There is a clear failure of vision in American education at present, especially in poor, urban schools.  We have narrowed the definition of what it means to be educated in America.  When affluent parents choose a school for their children—when they enroll in a private school or buy a home near specific schools–reading scores are simply not part of their calculus.  It is assumed that in a good school every child will learn to read, and then read to learn.  That’s simply what schools do. When policy makers, education reformers and even teachers and administrators evaluate what makes schools in poor, urban neighborhoods good or bad, however, a single litmus test applies: performance on standardized reading tests.  For the children of the poor, a good grade on a state reading test has become what it means to be educated.  The contrast could not be clearer:  we set the finish line for other people’s children where we set the starting line for our own.


  1. If reading comprehension ability is a function of general knowledge (as Hirsch says and I believe), then shouldn’t reading tests be a decent measure of how well schools have imparted general knowledge? I know, I know: schools are currently slashing content instruction in order to boost reading scores. But, if Hirsch is right, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. The best way to boost reading scores would be to adopt a Core Knowledge-type curriculum, no? (That seems to be the lesson of those NYC schools that have adopted CK.) So perhaps we shouldn’t inveigh against reading tests as the ultimate measure of a school’s worth, but rather convince ed leaders that a meaty curriculum is the path to their Holy Grail, astronomical reading test scores. I’ve acutally been contemplating sitting down with my superintendent and trying to convince him of this, so please save me embarrassment and show me the flaws in my reasoning if you see any!

    Comment by Ben F — September 27, 2009 @ 11:50 am

  2. If you think education is lacking in the grades lower than a 2 college,
    you should how they learn in a 2 year college. All of these kids coming from the “No child left behind schools” were are they still thinking the same as in high school. The people aren’t learning the basic mechanics of the subject but how to pass the test and hand in the sheet. Test scores in the work place aren’t of great importance as critical thinking skills is. The bottom line is so many are convinced that we have the best education system and it is working at optimal performance.

    Comment by RJohnson — September 28, 2009 @ 9:37 am

  3. It is assumed that in a good school every child will learn to read, and then read to learn. That’s simply what schools do.

    The contrast could not be clearer: we set the finish line for other people’s children where we set the starting line for our own.

    Doesn’t this have something to do with the tendency of middle-class parents to start by educating their own children to read?

    KenDeRosa published this fascinating analysis of how the children of poor parents performed in school areas drawing mostly on well-educated students.
    The conclusion – there’s no evidence to support the idea that schools in rich areas are any better at educating poor kids to read than schools in poor areas.
    This implies that the reason that affluent parents don’t worry about whether the schools they send their kids to will teach their kids to read is that their kids don’t need the schools to learn how to read, not that the schools in rich areas are any better at the job.

    And this implies the answer to your final question, we sent the finishing point for other people’s children where we set the starting point for our own, because we have to start somewhere.

    Comment by Tracy W — September 28, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  4. By the way, I’m sure you know about this, but in case you don’t…


    Comment by Miss Eyre — September 28, 2009 @ 11:59 am

  5. The reason why education reform is such a contentious issue is because people cannot agree on what the purpose of education is. Is it preparation for college and/or a career? Is it creating informed citizens? Is it to remake society? Is it to maximize the individual child’s intellectual potential? Is it to provide moral instruction? Is it to get students to score well on standardized tests? Is it some combination of the above? Is it something else entirely?

    Comment by Crimson Wife — October 1, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

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