Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Review of the Goals of Education in the United States


Almost no aspect of education is free from controversy. Simply put, this is because we as a society disagree what the goals of education should be. I argue that by reviewing the history of education in the United States one can see that conflicts are inevitable. In essence, these conflicts occur, because our community, State, and Nation, do not agree what the goals of education should be. This post is specific to the US and is not a review of the goals of education outside of that context.

There are three distinct large scale goals involved in this conflict; these are social mobility, social efficiency, and democratic equality. There is an additional; fourth goal in the field of autism education that must be named because of its popularity. This is the ecologic argument at the family level.

Democratic Equality

Democratic equality is a potential goal of education. This goal states that in a democratic society all students must be trained to be competent democratic citizens and it is means to remediate social differences (Labaree, 1997). Democratic equality was seen as a way to break down the old barriers of the class system and the inequalities inherent in the newly formed Nation where some children were born into privilege. It was feared by early politicians that in the absence of democratic training, democracy would fail to work. This goal also mandates that social inequality must not grow too great, or the democracy may also fail (Reese, 2000).

When the public schools were first founded as “Common Schools” in the late 1840’s the justification for these schools was distinctly based in Democratic equality (Labaree, 1997). Whig politicians, who pushed for the founding of these schools such as Horace Mann, believed that in order for the still young United States to survive it would require all citizens to be politically competent. Since that time, no major debate in education in the US has come without someone or a group advocating the importance of democratic equality (Labaree, 1997).
Social Efficiency

Social efficiency is another goal of education. This goal dictates that students should be prepared in their education to members of the work force (Labaree, 1997). This goal could be called practical or pragmatic. The advocates saw school as means to prepare students to contribute and uphold society as workers. Curriculum was designed to applicable to the workplace.

A period of strength in this movement occurred in the late 19th century during the vocationalism movement. The fear was that schools were danger of becoming socially irrelevant and economically damaging (Labaree, 1997). The reformers in this period viewed a politically competent citizen as less important in society when compared to a technologically skilled worker. These reforms can perhaps be viewed as artifacts of the industrial revolution which was in full swing at this time.

Social Mobility

Social Mobility is the third goal of education relevant to this discussion. Social mobility asserts that the purpose of education is to provide students with the credentials or training to promote themselves in the market economy (Labaree, 1997). Social mobility is similar to social efficiency in that they both accept the premise that inequality is inherent in our economy (Labaree, 1997).

However, whereas social efficiency trains workers to primarily benefit society as a whole, social mobility trains workers to primarily benefit themselves and their families. Another difference is that social mobility unlike both democratic equality and social efficiency views education as a private good (Labaree, 1997). Public goods, or benefits that all citizens access such as street maintenance are viewed as “free rides” in the context of social mobility (Labaree, 1997).

Social mobility has been an issue in public education for at least 150 years. This is shown by the rapid increase in higher education in that period (Labaree, 1997). Another aspect of social mobility is the defense of programs that provide differentiation between students. Gifted education and even separate reading groups are usually defended from a social mobility perspective (Labaree, 1997).

Ecologic Argument

The ecologic argument in this sense is at the level of the family. The question here is not how the education benefits the student or prepares the student for employment and society, but how does the student’s education benefit the family itself. This goal is particularly popular in autism. I argue that 3 special contexts enable this.

First I would cite the history of autism itself as critical. As during the 50s and 60s in the US was seen as having arisen from a psychological trauma occurrence with the parents intentionally or not, at fault. At least part of the attempt was to analyze the family dynamic. In current psychodynamic practice in autism part of the intervention itself happens at the family level. I suspect that these early practices set precedent which helped influence current practice.

Second, many of the autism treatments require total family buy-in. Certain ABA programs require total family participation in enforcing certain teaching contingencies. Certain play based therapies require all family members to participate so bonding may occur. Also, more than one parent of a child using the GF/CF diet has written of the need for all family members to be on the diet otherwise the child will sneak food. No wonder then that the family members may expect some family based benefit. A very clear example of this is the PDRF; an autism analysis tool designed for parents, by parents. In one question, the PDRF very clearly asks about the improvements in the quality of life for other members of the family, that the treatment of the child with autism has yielded.

And third, I propose a connection to the type of family itself. Certain families with children with autism pursue alternative therapies. Those who do so seem to be amenable to alternative practices in medicine in general, although this is not always the case. Such families from by subjective observations seem to prize their independence from larger establishments in the field of medicine at least. They do however, put tremendous emphasis on the family unit itself. A comment that is sometimes heard among representatives of this group is that if a child has autism, then the family has autism. If this is the view, then it makes sense that the goal would be improvement for the family itself.


Labaree, D. (1997). Public Schools for Private Advantage: Conflicting Goals and the Impact of Education. In D. Labaree (Ed.), How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning (pp. 15-22). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cuban, L. (2000). Why is it so Hard to Get ‘Good Schools. In L. Cuban and
D. Shipps (Eds.), Reconstructing the Common Good in Education (pp. 148-169).
Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Reese, W. J. (2000). Public Schools and the Elusive Search for the Common Good. In L. Cuban and D. Shipps (Eds.) Reconstructing the Common Good in Education. (pp. 13-31). Stanford: Stanford University Press.


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