Please Read Bill Mathis’ Profound Reflection on the Public Purpose of Education in America

According to his biography posted at the National Education Policy Center, “William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year. He currently serves on the Vermont State Board of Education and chairs the legislative committee.”  Bill Mathis brings a long career of experience—a local, state, and federal perspective—to his thinking about public schools.  An excellent writer, Mathis has penned a short defense of the public role of public schools in the United States.  I urge you to read Mathis’ paper in full.  Here is just a taste.

“We have made great progress in establishing a universal education system, as evidenced by graduation rates being at an all-time high.  Yet, substantial disparities in educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes continue to undermine our vision—and ultimately our society… Given the broad scope of inequities in schools and in society writ large, the most sensible approach would be to inventory the full range of social and economic needs, and address the multiple factors—which extend well beyond the traditional boundaries of schools—that contribute to the enduring and increasing opportunity gap that children experience in schools.  Fair housing policies, investments in distressed neighborhoods, good jobs, and policies that reduce income disparities are all essential… Misreading the achievement gap as an indicator of school failure rather than a measure of unequal opportunities, some economists suggest that simply improving math scores will eradicate economic malaise.  This mindset provided the rationale for the prevalent reform philosophy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: test scores will make the nation strong, and those scores can be improved by pedagogy and driven by punishments, regardless of the vast differences in student circumstances.  This approach failed.”

Mathis worries, “Unfortunately, with the ascendance of test scores and international economic competitiveness as education’s most loudly proclaimed purposes, the nation has forgotten that universal public education was established primarily for the benefits it provides to the common good… (E)ducation is the bedrock of democracy.  It is different from a private good or a market commodity.”

Changing course from the disastrous policies of the past quarter century will, according to Mathis, require reconsidering the purpose of public education—its goals including “civic responsibility, democratic values, economic self-sufficiency, cultural competency and awareness, and social and economic opportunity.”  Our society will need to ensure the fundamental resources for all schools and especially in high-poverty neighborhoods, and develop public policy “that is supportive of equal opportunity…rather than high-stakes purposes….”

Mathis calls us to recommit ourselves to the long valued public purpose of schooling.