Quick Hit: ‘What’s the Purpose of Education, Really?’

January 28, 2014

The State Board of Education is knee-deep in a strategic-planning process intended to better define the state’s vision for Indiana schools. It should come as no surprise that board members disagree on the most basic of questions: What is the purpose of K-12 education?

It is an essential question that must be answered before, not after, we make decisions on standards, curriculum, assessment and accountability.


If you believe the purpose of education is to impart knowledge — as I do — then the academic standards, curriculum and assessment must be content-knowledge based. For example, a sixth-grade student should be able to solve for x in a simple equation, diagram a sentence or fill in a blank outline map of the 50 states.

If you believe the purpose of education is something else — to build social skills or prepare children for careers — then you likely will believe that standards, curriculum and assessment should be behavior-based. The sixth-grade student should be able to explain the steps needed to perform a mathematical calculation, work collaboratively in groups, and draw a picture generally showing the course of westward expansion.

While the two purposes are not mutually exclusive, the area of emphasis is critical. Without content knowledge, there can be no meaningful skills acquisition. How can a student intelligently debate the merits of immigration reform if he does not understand the history of immigration in the United States? How can a class debate health care if the students do not understanding the workings of our federal system, and the delicate balance between state and national authority?

Schools are not talent agencies that prepare children for the labor market, though many in the business community view them this way. Our children deserve knowledge, which the dictionary defines as “facts, information and skills.” If we can agree that the purpose of K-12 education is to impart knowledge, we can be assured that, over time, students will be ready for jobs and civic responsibilities in the wider world.

— Andrea Neal

The author is an English and history teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School and a member of the State Board of Education.



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