The Efficacy of our Education System

Earlier, I posted a link to an article out of New Zealand about how the education system is “out of step” with what parents want. In response, Ms. Cornelius wonders if perhaps the fears regarding the efficacy of the public schools is not just an American phenomenon and if there might also be "blocs that are attempting to dismantle support for public education..." My first reaction to that notion is that the public schools do well enough at that on their own. Why would we need an organized effort? Then, as is often the case with me, I began thinking about the word efficacy itself.

Its first recorded appearance in English was in 1527. It comes from Latin efficacia meaning “effective” which is itself derived from efficere, meaning “work out, accomplish.” From Webster’s 1828 Dictionary:

EF'FICACY, n. [L. efficax.] Power to produce effects; production to the effect intended; as the efficacy of the gospel in converting men from sin; the efficacy of prayer; the efficacy of medicine in counteracting disease; the efficacy of manure in fertilizing land.

What does this mean when applied to the public schools? To answer this, we need to answer two questions: "What is the purpose of public education?" and "Does the outcome match this purpose?" Also of interest to the discussion might be who gets to determine the purpose of education in the first place. I offer here a brief synopsis of the historic purposes of public education and how this has shifted since the early 1900s, leaving parents and schools with differing purposes.

April 13, 1635, the Puritans established the Latin Grammar School, thereby creating the first free public school in the Colonies and laying the foundations for what was to become the public school system of America. Their vision?

…to secure a body of learned scholars and ministers who, by acquaintance with Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Syriac, could obtain knowledge of the Scriptures in their original langugages.[1]

This purpose was reiterated in some of the colonies’ first laws. In 1642, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony became the first state in the history of the English speaking world to require its citizens be taught to read. Why?

…one chief project of the old deluder, Satan [is] to keep men from the knowledge of Scriptures—by keeping them in an unknown toungue.”[2]

This reflects well the chief purposes in the founding of our free and public education system in America. Knowledge of the Scriptures was also viewed as fundamental for keeping our nation and its citizens free. While some of the purposes of education had begun to shift by the early 1800s, this concept was still reiterated by Abraham Lincoln in a speech in 1832.

…That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves.

Here the primary reason has shifted to the ability to read the history of our nation and appreciate the value of our free institutions, with a mention of the advantage of being able to read the scriptures for ourselves.

Today, the purpose of education falls more into John Dewey’s goals, outlined in School and Society (1916).

In a complex society, ability to understand and sympathize with the operations and lot of others is a condition of common purpose which only education can procure.

This spawns the ever popular question posed to homeschoolers, “What about socialization?” It has become the primary purpose of public education. Unfortunately, this has left the primary purpose most parents have for their children in education. Most parents are concerned that their children will grasp the fundamentals: reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and science. They worry about the practical abilities of college and career. Socialization may be a factor, and may be part of a reason they have decided to achieve these goals via public education rather than homeschool, but it is not the driving force behind their purpose in educating their child. The purposes of public education have left the purposes of its clientele.

So we see reports highlighting how our educational system is out of step with what parents want.
But instead of addressing the issue and bringing the schools into line with the purposes of the parents of the children attending these schools, we strive to further educate parents into the social goals of education. And bring about legislation to make alternatives more difficult, including the increased regulation of homeschools and the banning of certain types of curriculum in private schools. We completely nationalize our public school system so that our central government mandates the education system in individual districts, a power that was never given to our central governemnt. The parents are silenced and their support of public education wanes. And those who question this are accused of forming blocks to undermine the efficacy of public schools.