Why Do Students Go to School?

by Robert Pondiscio
February 23rd, 2010

If you know what your goals are in education, you know what outcomes to measure, observes Dan Willingham.  Sounds obvious, right?  But if it’s so obvious, what exactly are our goals for schooling?   Writing at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Willingham notes that while measurement is essential to progress, there’s “remarkably little discussion of big-picture goals.”  Why do students go to school?  He offers three possible reasons:  1) So that they can better carry out their civic duties;  2) To prepare for the workplace, and 3) To maximize the potential of each student, whatever his or her talents and interests might be.

“That parents might hold very different goals for schooling seems inevitable,” Willingham concludes.  “Rather than having schools try to be all things to all people, this diversity of goals strikes me as a good (but not definitive) argument for school choice.”

I worked for a principal who liked to say “you must inspect what you expect.”  At present, we apparently expect kids to read on grade level and graduate more or less on time.  That doesn’t directly address any of the big picture goals Willingham describes.  Nor is it a very satisfying definition of “educated.”


  1. You teach the skills and content, including non-occupational skills and content. Then, you hope that the by-products of citizenship and self-development happen. For those outcomes, you can create the opportunity but you can’t force the result.

    Comment by Jane — February 23, 2010 @ 9:20 am

  2. Nobody describes and analyzes this question better than David Labaree.

    From a review of his book, “Nobody Succeeds in School Without Really Learning:”

    “Getting ahead and getting an education are inseparable in the minds of most Americans. David Labaree argues, however, that the connection between schooling and social mobility may be doing more harm than good, for the pursuit of educational credentials has come to take precedence over the acquisition of knowledge.

    Labaree examines the competing intellectual and ideological traditions that have fought for dominance in our public schools from the nineteenth century to the present. He claims that by thinking of education primarily as the route to individual advancement, we are defining it as a private good — a means of gaining a competitive advantage over other people.

    He endorses an alternative vision, one that sees education as a public good, providing society with benefits that can be collectively shared — for example, by producing citizens who are politically responsible and workers who are economically productive.

    He points out that when education is seen primarily as a private consumer good, a number of consequences follow. Formal characteristics of schooling — grades, credits, and degrees — come to assume greater weight than substantive characteristics, such as actually learning something. Grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses. For these and other reasons, the pursuit of certification and degrees takes precedence over the goals of learning, and the private benefits of schooling take precedence over its democratic and civic functions.”

    You can add “test scores” to that list of credentials, too. A great book–one of the few books about education that aligned with what I see as a practitioner.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 23, 2010 @ 9:53 am

  3. An interesting point, Nancy. Especially since I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the opposite problem: a betrayal of the idea that education and social mobility are linked. In my view, when we dumb-down the definition of well-educated to little more than “reads on grade level and graduates on time” we fail to prepare kids — especially low-SES kids — for higher educational attainment and career success. It’s possible, even likely, for such kids and their families to do absolutely everything that is asked of them and end up completely underprepared. This strikes me as a profound betrayal of the ideals that generations of Americans have takeen for granted: go to school, work hard, play by the rules and you’ll be OK.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 23, 2010 @ 10:03 am

  4. I wonder why there is so little attention to education as preparation for (and encouragement of) a life of the mind. A life of the mind–an ability to work with knowledge and ideas throughout the day–is essential in the workplace, in democracy, and in personal life. It can take the boredom out of dreary tasks; it can allow us to pursue substantial projects, whether collaborative or solitary; and it can enable us to learn new things that may be useful or not, on the job or in our lives.

    What is it? It is the habit of working on problems, reading, toying with ideas, concentrating on puzzles until they solve themselves. But it can’t be done in a void–it needs material that inspires such concentration. At the same time it exists beyond specific ends–we finish one problem and start another, sometimes because we have to, sometimes because we enjoy doing so.

    Kids often avoid showing signs of a life of the mind, lest they appear nerdy. In my high school, which was academically selective, students were reluctant to talk about class outside of class. Only a few would do more than what was expected of them academically (which, granted, was a lot). It was more acceptable to put passion into an extracurricular activity than into a history paper. Yet the students cared about what they were learning and carried the works and ideas into their lives; this was because there were works and ideas worth carrying.

    In my teaching, one of the most rewarding things is to see students carry things with them: to see them remember a poem or something we discussed in class. It is great when the learning lingers–not just when students remember what they have learned, but when they enjoy thinking about it. One student made little booklets about each of the books we had read–not for extra credit, but because she loved those books.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 23, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  5. @Nancy, As Dan Willingham points out so very well in his book, the learning needed for academic success is difficult. Why would a student put in the enormous individual effort required unless there was some personal benefit? That society enjoys tremendous benefit from an educated populous does not negate the fact that it is all learning is done by the individual.

    Additionally, grading, by definition, is a social function not a pedagogical one. Feedback, coaching, specific instruction are pedagogical. Grades are summative and come after the effort has been completed (not during the learning process). Grades are used to communicate to the outside/social world the level of learning that the teacher believes the student has obtained.

    @Robert, You make a good point that schools might be misleading low-SES students about what it takes to be successful in our country. We both would probably agree that the level of content needs to be greater, but what else do you think that schools should/could be doing? Is your point that the real bar for post-secondary success is set artificially low in K-12?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 23, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

  6. I don’t have an answer, Erin, but I have a fear. I fear that “universal proficiency” and “college and career readiness” may be mutually exclusive. Here’s a statistic that keeps me up at night: Last year fewer than one in four of all U.S. high schools grades were prepared to do C-level college work on all of the subject areas tested on the ACT. That’s everyone from Thomas Jefferson and New Trier High on down. If one out of four of all U.S. students are “college ready” what do you suppose the ratio is among low-SES kids? One in 40? 400? At present in ed reform we have, I’m sure, boxcar numbers of kids who are “lost in the data.” By the debased metrics we have, if a kid is at grade level, we say “mission accomplished.” Anyone who has been in a classroom knows it’s not so, and knows how hard it is to push on grade level kids to their full potential, while simulaneously doing right by the strugglers. In short, instead of No Child Left Behind, we get No Child Gets Ahead. So is the new civil rights struggle schools where all the kids read at grade level? I don’t think so, because that’s not a very high bar, and it’s a guarantee of nothing. But the higher the bar, the more than won’t clear it. My article of faith is that while every child should be proficient, education will cease to be a bulwark against poverty unless we make a special case of high-achieving and potentially high-achieving low-SES kids. If we overprepare them — give them the education they need for high educational attainment and to lift themselves and their children out of poverty, we’ve achieved something. If they get enough to get by and economically march in place, then we’ve broken faith.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 23, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

  7. Robert, If we look at just the US data, universal proficiency and college/career readiness do seem mutually exclusive. And I share your concern that our “bar setting” ed reform process (standards + data) will fail to improve the lives of any child let alone the high-achieving low-SES ones.

    What gives me hope that we might be able to approach that goal at some point in the future is the fact that the top-performing school systems around the world (Finland, Singapore, etc..) are able to simulataneously do both; reduce the achievement gap due to low-SES status and prepare students for post-secondary success. But maybe that will only happen after we have exhausted all of these other ineffective/misguided attempts at improving our schools (NCLB, RttT, process-dominated low-bar standards, etc…).

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 23, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

  8. @Erin,

    “Grades are used to communicate to the outside/social world the level of learning that the teacher believes the student has obtained.”

    I completely agree with this statement. Grades should reflect the level of learning a student has obtained as opposed to the number of meaningless points a students has accrued in the grade book.

    Unfortunately, I am not confident that grades are actually used that way more often than not. I am constantly bombarded with questions about my grading policies… why I don’t offer extra credit, why I don’t give students points for every little thing (some teachers give points for things like bringing in kleenex), why only summative assessments count for points while formative assessments are used to provide students with practice and feedback.

    The reason I have to answer to these questions is that I am one of the only teachers in my building whose grades represent student achievement. I can’t say for sure whether my school is representative of American schools, of course.

    What I’m getting at here is that reform in how grading is done and what grades mean would go a long way towards helping parents and students understand the degree to which students have achieved their school district’s goals, whatever they may be (and assuming the district has goals).

    Defining goals is crucial, but grades that measure students’ progress towards achieving them would be nice, too.

    Comment by AJGuzzaldo — February 23, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

  9. @AJGuzzaldo, Some of the top performing school systems around the world get around that grading problem by not having the teachers grade, but by having authentic external summative evaluations (not just fill in the bubble tests). This is not something that we, in our country, have had much experience with, but this approach seems to be used in multiple countries and does go a long way towards addressing the difficulties that you cite above.

    Are there other approaches that you would advocate in reforming how grading is done?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 23, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

  10. The grading practices of many teachers was one of the primary reasons for education reform in this country and the explosion of NCLB state tests.

    Parents, and the public in general, were sick of seeing everyone being promoted, everyone graduating, and everyone getting great grades. Someone, somewhere, had to come up with a system that objectively demonstrated what kids were or were not learning. Teachers lost the trust of parents and the public with their grade inflation practices. This also goes a long way toward explaining why teachers have not been included in the education reform dialogue. If you can’t trust their judgment, why seek their input?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 24, 2010 @ 7:53 am

  11. Under the best of circumstances, grades seem to hide as much as they reveal. If we had a national curriculum, could *grading* be expressed in terms of what a child had mastered sufficiently to move on to the next item in sequence? F’rinstance, at the end on 2nd grade one child’s report might be that he could add automatically numbers up to six, another could add numbers thru 9, and yet another could do that plus multiply thru five. It might be expressed in terms of school year plus months, such as 2.2, 2.6, and 3.2. Then the next teacher would know what to expect in a way that a C or a 89 does not convey.

    (I’m not a trained teacher. I don’t know if I’ve expressed this well and maybe my examples are good but I hope you can see what I’m driving at. One of the joys of homeschooling is that I don’t test or grade but I can see whether my granddaughter is ready to move on or not and whether she might benefit from more time on a topic taught from a different point of view and text.)

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — February 24, 2010 @ 10:17 am

  12. Erin,
    External summative evaluations would be an excellent approach.

    Really, our whole system needs to be revised. Too many teachers don’t even have lesson objectives, let alone assessments that align to them.

    I would advocate ensuring school work is meaningful (do away with busy work) and that it provides students with practice in preparation for summative assessments. These assessments should be aligned to the learning objectives of the curriculum and should determine students’ grades. Students’ grades then, would better represent to parents and students the degree of each student’s achievement.

    Grade inflation, extra credit that really amounts to elevating a student’s grade if they complete a stack of busy work, participation points, etc., have all contributed to the distrust of teachers and the public education system, as Paul Hoss pointed out above. It never ceases to amaze me how many of my freshmen have skills several grade levels below what they ought to have, but they earned straight A’s in junior high. These students have been done a disservice.

    I realize these seem like obvious suggestions and I believe they represent the “basics.” However, most of the teachers I’ve worked with do not even follow these basic practices.

    Authentic external summative assessment would be ideal, but we have to master the basics to be able to get to that point. Until that happens, grades are pretty meaningless.

    Comment by AJGuzzaldo — February 24, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

  13. @AJGuzzaldo, The AP exams are one of the few external summative evaluations used in our country. While they have been criticized for being more factual and not problem solving based, it appears that AP teachers are quite positive about the influence that the external exams have on their classroom dynamics (~80% AP teachers believe the test is good unlike the views that teachers have on standardized tests.) I realize that AP classes are usually reserved for the more motivated students, but what types of difficulties would you anticipate if this model (defined course syllabus with summative exam, teacher choice in textbooks and instructional techniques) were extended to the normal courses in high school?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 24, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

  14. @AJ, Pretty much the same problems that you cite. It is interesting though that in the countries that use that model (e.g. Ireland), teachers actually love that they are not the enforcer/grader in the classroom because it allows teachers and students to build a warmer/more collegial relationship, one built more on academic learning and less on pleasing the teacher.

    Also, it might take away the school district autonomy (but I guess state/national standards are already doing that).

    So why do you think that this approach isn’t part of the ed reform dialogue?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 24, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

  15. A student can not fullfil any of the three goals mentioned without reading on grade level. Giving up when it comes to establishing the basic skills necessary to succeed has lead to the situation we’re in, where the system rewards attendance and graduation, but doesn’t track learning in any substantial way…all because of abandonment of a commitment to timely mastery of basic learning skills…

    Comment by Jon Ryker — March 5, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  16. Students should go to school because they learn they will be educated

    Comment by Anonymous — February 9, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.