What is the mission statement for American education?

America’s middling scores on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has spotlighted the conflicted state of American education. Is it in need of improvement and/or reform? Are these scores a reflection of our high poverty rate, as pointed by Diane Ravitch and countless others, or of our misguided and feckless system?

Clearly, both do matter, but poverty is a larger social issue that must be addressed outside of the educational jurisdiction. The school system itself, however, is facing an identity crisis brought on by several disparate trends: increased accountability for students, a growing emphasis on teacher effectiveness, and calls for more market-based solutions (such as vouchers and charter schools). The ensuing polarization of these debates have led to diluted solutions that have not decreased the achievement gap locally or globally. Though it is a vital institution, the nation’s public schools has not inspired much confidence.

At this point it is worthwhile to reflect on America’s educational goal. What do we want? Better critical thinkers or better innovators? Is it more important to produce a collective and active citizenry or self-actualized individuals (fulfilling one’s potential)? Is it all of the above?

Such articulation is necessary, as it will be drive the direction of education reform and improvements. If the goal is to create actualized and critical-thinking citizens, then a broad-based curriculum that includes the arts, sciences, ethics, etc. is essential. Think of the liberal education in antiquity. However, if citizens are seen as economic wards of the state, then an emphasis on STEM education with an eye towards innovation probably makes better sense. Philosophers and education purists like Socrates, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell might point to the former, but historically, educational goals have closely aligned with short term national interests. Obama’s innovation imperative to compete in the global economy is no different. (As a side note, an increasing trend of international migration in the new economy is hastening a class of global citizens and obsolescing the the concept of nation-state citizen. Something to keep in mind when considering whether nationalism is a worthy end goal in education.)

Is America’s educational vision clear? Federal and state education departments have done a poor job articulating that goal, which is part of the reason why the aforementioned initiatives are ineffective, polarizing, and misguided. What are we even working towards?

The Department of Education needs a mission statement.

Companies have a mission statement to clarify their purpose, and all subsequent decisions, actions, and goals are measured against that statement. This is the primary benchmark, and its mission should come across during any transaction with a customer. Here are some examples of effective company mission statements:

Southwest Airlines: The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.

Harley Davidson: We fulfill dreams through the experience of motorcycling, by providing to motorcyclists and to the general public an expanding line of motorcycles and branded products and services in selected market segments.

Google: Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Apple: Apple is committed to bringing the best personal computing experience to students, educators, creative professionals and consumers around the world through its innovative hardware, software and Internet offerings.

To a large extent, every one of these statements ring true to its employees and its customers; it comes across in their advertising and service. Ask any Apple aficionado three qualities that describe its products and innovative, high quality, and peerless user experience will consistently come up. Similarly, unparalleled customer service is synonymous with Southwest Airlines for its patrons.

Is the mission of America’s public education system as easy to articulate?

The federal DOE website revealed its main role in strengthening commitment, promoting improvements and involvements that will facilitate access to equal education. Not exactly inspiring, yet unsurprising given their limited powers in education matters. Most if not all state education department and individual schools have their own mission statements, which only further muddles the national focus. How do we reach the goal if we don’t even know what it is?

NCLB’s goal to ensure that all students are “proficient” in English Language Arts and Math by 2014 can’t be the ultimate goal for America; it would be laughably short-sighted and misguided when compared to the enduring goals of other high-achieving countries’ education systems:

Finland: …Basic education must provide an opportunity for diversified growth, learning, and the development of a healthy sense of self-esteem, so that the pupils can obtain the knowledge and skills they need in life, become capable of further study, and, as involved citizens, develop a democratic society. Basic education must also support each pupil’s linguistic and cultural identity and the development of his or her mother tongue. A further objective is to awaken a desire for lifelong learning…

Singapore: The wealth of a nation lies in its people – their commitment to country and community, their willingness to strive and persevere, their ability to think, achieve and excel. Our future depends on our continually renewing and regenerating our leadership and citizenry, building upon the experience of the past, learning from the circumstances of the present, and preparing for the challenges of the future. How we bring up our young at home and teach them in school will shape Singapore in the next generation.

The mission of the Education Service is to mould the future of the nation, by moulding the people who will determine the future of the nation. The Service will provide our children with a balanced and well-rounded education, develop them to their full potential, and nurture them into good citizens, conscious of their responsibilities to family, society and country.

South Korea‘s Ministry of Education vision articulates building a first class advanced country through science and technology.

With these statements clearly elucidated, any needed reform would work in service to those goals. For the United States, articulating a federal a vision and/or mission statement would provide a similar blueprint that would constructively focus the national discussion and potentially diminish political rhetoric. Here is my suggestion:

The mission of the US Department of Education is to provide equal access and support to high quality education for America’s children. Its service will cultivate self-growth and critical abilities to build upon our nation’s innovative heritage towards improving citizen life through dignity, respect, and cooperation.

This statement capitalizes on America’s unique strengths — its diversity and entrepreneurial spirit — but also emphasizes the need to treat its global neighbors honorably. With this vision and mission established, reform can then be more constructively addressed. Let’s start from the beginning.

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3 comments untill now

  1. FormerTeacher @ 2011-05-22 12:45

    I agree we need a singular national focus, but state rights and America’s long tradition of individualism will make it really hard. But there is hope – the public discussion over a national curriculum is underway…

  2. Many Americans fall behind in the job market because they lack foreign language skills and can’t complete higher math courses. American schools need to initiate a program of foreign language studies K-12 immediately. American schools need to initiate a program of math drills-like Kumon Math-immediately. By refusing to give students high quality math drills in K-5th grade, educators deprive them of the very thing they need most.

  3. Norman Eng

    Are you suggesting that foreign language skills be part of the DOE’s mission statement? If so, how should it be worded? Thanks for your comment.

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