Home > Uncategorized > Betsy DeVos’ Advocacy for Vocational Focus Leads Me to Think: MAYBE We Need to Restore Public Education’s ORIGINAL Mission

Betsy DeVos’ Advocacy for Vocational Focus Leads Me to Think: MAYBE We Need to Restore Public Education’s ORIGINAL Mission

February 23, 2019

A recent New Republic article about Betsy DeVos’ misunderstanding of the history of public schools written by Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, got me thinking that maybe we should restore the original mission of public education. In the article, titled “Betsy DeVos Is Fabricating History to Sell a Bad Education Policy“, Mr. Schneider asserts that Ms. DeVos is either unknowingly or intentionally misrepresenting the true history of education to satisfy her intent to narrow its mission to vocational training. He writes: 

Over the past several years, DeVos…  has argued, (that schools) were modeled after factories, and “students were trained for the assembly line.” But as the economy shifted over time, schools failed to keep pace. As she has repeatedly insisted, schools remain “stuck in a mode” from 100 years ago.

The solution, then, is seemingly quite simple. Schools need to be overhauled so that they focus on preparing young people for the jobs of the future. According to DeVos, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”

But as Mr. Schneider accurately notes, the factory school was a construct that emerged in response to Taylorism that swept the nation at the turn of the 20th Century, a construct that altered the original purpose of public education. And what was that purpose?

As historian Ethan Hutt told me, “Early advocates of public education were generally unconcerned with what we would think of as workplace training. Their priorities were social and political in nature.”

State constitutions enshrined public education as a right in the nineteenth century, yet they hardly mention vocational instruction. The most common educational aim described in these documents is the “general diffusion of knowledge” for the “preservation of rights and liberties.” Many of these constitutions go so far as to confirm the value of education for its own sake. Tennessee’s, for instance, “recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support.” Montana’s states that public schools should “develop the educational potential of each person.” And the Illinois constitution supports “the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.” Only six states make any mention of training for work.

So the progressive ideals of John Dewey are enshrined in laws and constitutions written well before his time while the ideals of efficiency and training advocated by the Robber Barons are embodied in today’s schools. And Ms. DeVos wants to focus more on the training and less on learning for learning’s sake. Based on historic precedent, Mr. Schneider doubts that this change is focus will occur:

Jobs certainly matter, and the future labor productivity of today’s students will impact the entire economy. Yet even if schools could be reoriented to focus effectively on job training, the result would hardly be an unqualified good. Any shift in the present orientation of schools will come at the expense of school activities organized around the preservation of rights and liberties, as well as the inherent value of education. By and large, Americans of the past were unwilling to make that trade-off. If they’re aware of what’s happening, Americans of the present may be no different.

I share Mr. Schnieder’s broad optimism… but fear that too many of the recent graduates of public education never experienced “education for the sake of education”; they only experienced “education for the sake of passing tests” and, consequently, are comfortable with the notion that “test scores” are a proxy for “merit” and, consequently, are the desired end of education.

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