Today, K-12 education reform in the United States is driven by the business model of competing in the global economy. The result has been a narrowing of education that is counter-productive because business models are ill-suited to solving education problems. With traditional jobs disappearing and unemployment levels unacceptable, the focus on jobs as the ultimate goal of education is understandable. This economic purpose of getting a job or getting into college in order to get a better job has evolved into the de facto primary purpose of K-12 (and higher) education.
The business standard drives education policy and practice in various ways. Like dollars in our market economy, standardized test scores, with all their limitations, become the primary measure of success. Questionable dollar-driven spinoffs: for-profit schools and management, including many online and charter schools, performance pay for teachers and students; corporate marketing; soda and snack contracts, and privatizing initiatives in general.
Businessmen see businessmodel solutions as the answer to education problems, and some of them donate hundreds of millions of dollars to implement their unaccountable vision in public schools. But the business models they advocate and help fund aren't a good fit for education problems. Indeed, Michael Edwards in Small Change (2010) makes a strong case for why market models don't work for social change in general.
There is an alternative that would serve us better: the civic standard. By shifting the emphasis to the critical thinking and empathetic citizens necessary to make our democracy work, the civic standard would also produce the kind of graduates that employers need.
Founding fathers' civic standard
Although the origins of the business standard in our schools are unclear, the civic standard is rooted in the founders' vision of the primary purpose of education. One could imagine, of course, that economic (or academic) goals might have been the focus of the founders, but their concept of education's primary purpose was never so narrow. They had a broader civic purpose in mind and saw the nation's interest in education as growing out of a desire to make our constitutional democracy work.
Perhaps George Washington in his Farewell Address of 1796 said it best: "Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened."
Even such fierce political adversaries as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson concurred. Adams: "Education is more indispensable and must be more general, under a free government than any other." Jefferson: "It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction." Consider also the words of Benjamin Franklin: "We must have a system of public education; its purpose must be to educate our people in their public duties."
The exact words may differ, but the basic concept stressed by the founders is the same: preparing the informed and active citizenry necessary to make our democracy work. Although it has been reiterated for its rhetorical value ever since, few pause to consider the prioritizing implications of the concept. The concept proposed as the civic standard, with each word having important implications for public school policy and practice: The primary purpose of public education is to prepare students to participate effectively as citizens in our constitutional democracy.
The civic standard requires a basic knowledge of how citizens govern themselves in our democracy. Citizens must know our core values, such as the Bill of Rights, how those values translate into practice, how that practice differs from the ideal, how to know whether the practices should change, and how our democracy enables change and resolving conflicting ideas. …