What is the Purpose of Public Schools?

Public school is never something I was a part of until college. I was fortunate enough to attend private school from kindergarten through high school. My parents thought religion was very important and I should have a strong foundation of my faith before I ventured out in this great wide open space, the world. I can honestly say I received a stellar education. I had great teachers that went above and beyond for me, beyond the role of their definition of being a teacher. I never had a bad teacher (who I would consider bad) until I went to college. It was a public college called University of California, Riverside. It was honestly kind of a culture shock. Suddenly instead of my whole school worshipping in the gymnasium with a huge band it became an acoustic guitar on the first floor of some chemistry building tucked away in the back of the school. My teachers that made themselves available for you at 10pm at night suddenly became professors who put haphazard lectures together last minute, scheduled office hours at 6am, and never returned emails. Having attended both, I wonder, what is the purpose of public school education? It has changed over time to what it is today, but the general ideas of equality and education standards are prevalent in the school system today.

Public education’s original purpose was to provide education for children in cities.  It was only available in big cities and only more rural cities had access to teachers by pitching in funds to hire one. These became the original dame schools (Mondale, 2001). At this time, most of the schools had a foundation of religious belief and were focused around the teachings of the bible. The inability to access education basically made it only available to the wealthy, widening the income gap, and educating children to be the replacements of their parents in the workforce, but nothing greater. When Thomas Jefferson saw that all these people were being educated just to the point of being able to read the bible, newspaper, and do their own taxes, he saw the future of a democratic America in peril. He wrote into law thjeffersonat everyone was to attend three years of public school to be able to learn the history of America and its freedom, to promote democracy, and educate people because we now elect our own leaders (Mondale, 2001). This makes sense. The founding fathers worked so hard to attain liberty from Britain and they wanted every generation to know this history. He wrote this into law in order to protect it and elect leaders who could push America to be better and to push its people to do better.

After Jefferson, Horace Mann saw the purpose of public schools as a means of improving society but also as a way to create equality among everyone, rural and urban. When he first became the Secretary of Education, he saw that the first schools varied in quality and teachers had no training. Citizens no longer wanted to pay the taxes that supported these dilapidated one room shacks (Mondale, 2001). Mann came up with the Common School movement, which would have a common body of knowledge and create equality among all schools. Slowly a state by state effort started to improve the public schools to create equality among the classes (Goldstein 24). This public effort to improve schools helped promote the “American Dream” idea by encouraging children of all wealth class to study and be the best they could be.

The purpose of public schools today is slightly more complicated than to just provide an education to everyone and educate children to be knowledgeable citizens of democracy. These original points brought about by the forefathers of education still stand today, but questions remain about whether they can do more. Today, educators debate how far the public school education system should go in educating children. How much should public education be involved? As John Green asks, “Do you only prepare students for the work force or should they get a wider education in the arts and the sciences?” As more social issues arose in the 1960’s and the government offered funding in exchange for a hand in education in the form of Common Core, public education’s purpose evolved and continues to evolve today (Green, 2013). As educators discuss how much and what will be implemented in their schools, the purpose of public school education and its limits is continually being talked about. Public school was originally created to educate everyone with equality and a common body of language, but today, growing government pressures and social changes in society are changing the landscape of public schools. As the landscape of America changes with the growing needs of children today, the purpose and function of public school education will continue to change as well.

Goldstein, D. (2014). The teacher wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Green, J. (2013). What is the Purpose of Public Education Today? Retrieved September 07, 2016, from http://fauquierfreecitizen.com/what-is-the-purpose-of-public-education-today/

Patton, S. & Mondale, S. (Producers), & Mondale, S. (Director). (2001). School: The story of American public education [Documentary] . United States: Stone Lantern Films. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL00795BC38B4368D4

Tilus, G. (n.d.). Rasmussen College. Retrieved September 06, 2016, from http://www.rasmussen.edu/student-life/blogs/main/educational-quotes-from-our-founding-fathers/ (Image provided)



10 thoughts on “What is the Purpose of Public Schools?

  1. Erin, I too went to a private school. It was a private Catholic school. Did you catch how Catholic schools formed. I always have wondered. It was because of a Bishop who went by the name of Dager John. At the time, many Irish-Catholics were immigrating into America. I was astonished at how the Protestant faith made such outrageous statements about how they were “damned.” It just shocks me at the ignorant lies they had printed in the text books. The Irish-Catholics were sending their children to school so they could be taught they were some sort of evil people.

    Bishop John fought against the NY Board of Education and won his case. All religious material was removed from the books. While it may have been considered a win, Bishop John was not satisfied with the end result. He fought to create a system where children could learn about their faith and school subjects at the same time. This creation was the Catholic school system. I imagine my great, great grandfather immigrating to America, and being sent to this school so that he would be taught from an educational standpoint of his culture which was then passed down from generation to generation. The Catholic school system still stand.

    Another thing I have always wondered is how is American english so different from British english. Well I discovered the answer in the form of Noah Webster. He was responsible for making the decision to remove all things British from the textbooks. He created a blue-back speller which taught a new language.

    America was full of dreamers back then. They dreamed of many great things. Educational founders were no different. They created a system that allowed the non-literate farm boy an opportunity to learn. They fought the elite system whom found it funny almost insulting to think that some poor child was capable of understanding the same information their elite children could. Because of these dreamers, we now have doctors rising from all ranks in life to practice. We have children of parents who did not graduate school moving on to learn how to become a lawyer. Before free education of all, this was not a possibility. There is still a wide gap to close, but at this time, if you are motivated to achieve a dream through education, the possibility is there.

    Thanks for your insight on our material. I enjoyed hearing what you learned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commenting. I also saw it as really interesting how Catholic schools were formed. It took Bishop Hughes a lot of fighting to be able to just take the hateful words out of the books in the schools back then. It was interesting to me how the founders of our country wrote the first amendment describing freedom of religion into our constitution as the most important amendment. In looking back on the history of religious freedom from Britain, it was really interesting how public schools did not afford that same freedom of religion in public schools to immigrants. I know that it wasn’t financially feasible to have many different public schools of different religions, but to not afford those same rights really bothered me when I first heard about it.

      I also agree that in the beginning, offering schooling to just the elite wasn’t great for the whole populace, but I think there was a reason why. I think that there were misconceptions about the abilities of the poor and the government focused on the elite that was a safe investment for education. Even today that stereotype is perpetuated in today’s higher education. I think there is value from everyone’s experiences in life and those experiences provide a better society for children, regardless of rich or poor.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Erin Simpson,
    Want to start out by saying that I really like reading your blog on “ What is the purpose of Public Schools” I like how you started out talking about your life as a student that went to a private school. I can honestly say that I don’t know of a lot of people that went to private schools. I was a student raised in public schools and I had my fair number of bad teachers. I come from a family that both parents did not go pass the 4th grade. So growing up it was always difficult as my parents could not help me out in my education. I really like your insight on your early childhood education. This kind of brings up the question on what is really the purpose of our educational system and is it really preparing us for the future. Many people take education for granted, but not many know how hard it was for a push in educational reform. Thomas Jefferson the father of the “Declaration of Independence” was on the first pioneers that wanted some sort of educational reform. He did believe that the betterment of society is based on a good education. As it was mentioned on the YouTube series (School: The Story of American Public Education) Jefferson said “Raking a few geniuses from the rubbish and giving them scholarships to go on to secondary schools and then to the university of having a meritocracy in which the most able people could be educated of public of public expense up to a higher level”. Many of assemblymen viewed his ideas irrational and did not want the advance of the lower class people for example farmers as it was stated in the (School: The Story of American Public Education). It was not until Horace Man came in and challenged the Massachusetts politicians that there needs to be a change in our educational system. With his hard work and determination he did create an educational system that we still use today. That is the common schools, which gave an equal opportunity to all whether wealthy or poor. In our time this still stands. Free education is granted to all, but like to question that you asked can we do more in our in public schools. Public Schools are here help the betterment of society, without them we could not advance. We live in an age of change and public school and the educational system has to adapt to it. I really enjoyed your blog post keep on the good work.

    Louis Ordonez

    Liked by 1 person

    • Louis thank you for commenting. I agree that seeing the different perspectives of schools shows us the positives and negatives of both. School has so many functions both academic and personal. Children learn how to be adults and get along with others. They learn how to work hard to get rewarded and how to tackle people who don’t agree with you. I think the essential classroom standards in schools help create better people for society. I would challenge your position on how the constantly changing environment of society has to force the education system to adapt. I think some things probably shouldn’t be taught in schools and I think the changing society today may not be the best environment to raise your child in school with. My parents specifically sent me to private Christian school because they didn’t want me to be taught common core, and taught things that didn’t align with their political and societal views. I think because public schools are becoming so societally directed, it is not necessarily what parents want for their children, just the affordable option. This issue would be one that could probably bring some valuable research and insight to public school education in the future

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Erin! I also had the privilege to obtain a private education and public education. I have always been fascinated at the difference between them. Although, your experience did not seem good with the public system. I would like you to know that it truly varies from school to school. I attended a public school from pre-kindergarten up to 3rd grade and then my junior year of high school (only because I begged my dad to let me experience the difference of a public high school vs. a private one).

    Once I went to private school I noticed the difference, it was no longer as competitive as public school. My first years of education in a public school I was placed in ESL and I excelled to the point where they ended up telling me that I needed to go to another district because I was not being challenged enough. My parents decided to put me in a private school so I could continue to excel and be challenged. However, I felt that my private education was easier.

    Beecher believed in hands on-learning, through field trips and science experiments. (Goldstein, 2014). This idea was centuries ahead of its time. This was the case with my junior year in high school. We were doing science experiments that I would later end up doing in my organic chemistry lab in my sophomore year of college. I also noticed that in the public schools I attended, we had more field trips than in private school and it also seemed to be more substantial. In private schooling we had a monthly field trip to the symphony. Which was a wonderful experience, but I think we would have benefited more from a trip to a science lab.

    You mentioned that you experienced a bad teacher when you got to college. I find it so fascinating how different our experiences with education where. In my public education I saw more of the techniques like those of Cyrus Pierce where the Principal would go into classrooms just to visit, observe, or sometimes even to teach it. It was my understanding when I was in private high school that the teachers there actually got paid less more than a public school teacher. I noticed that a lot of them were more passionate about the subjects they taught. Most of them were even retired public school teachers who just could not give up on teaching just like the 70 brave volunteers that helped initiate the Board of National Popular Education back in the late 1830s (Goldstein, 2014).

    I truly believe that the education we receive can differ from each institution and from each teacher we have. Even though we have tried to maintain the beliefs of Mann & Beecher, I think we still have a lot to learn and to evolve.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Carolina, Thank you for posting on my blog. I completely agree that not all public schools are the same. I have great friends that have received public school educations and they had great experiences. I think the difference for me in the experiences when I set them side by side with my friends who have gone to public school is that I feel like I was able to have more opportunity and opened doors. My friend said he was able to avoid bad teachers in school because his parents, who were teachers in the school, would help him into the good classes. He said they never really went on field trips, which was completely different than me. Through my time in elementary all the way through high school I was able to go to the LA Zoo, Astrocamp for 2 weeks, New York City and Broadway, Washington D.C., Amish in Pennsylvania, and Key West, Florida. I think that hands on experience is a huge thing and I like how you see it as important too. I feel really blessed I had all those experiences and that my teachers really invested in my education. I think it really depends on the person in which they like better. I think both have pros and cons and I’m glad to have been able to experience both to have a better perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a Catholic mother I truly appreciate integrating religion into my children’s lives but I’ve always been a steadfast believer that it was my duty to model those religious teachings instead of the school. After all, once my children are grown up, they will have the freedom to choose whatever religion, if any. I think students who consider themselves “fortunate” to obtain a private education is fortunate in the sense that they parents were able to afford it; not fortunate meaning that they received a better education than someone who attended public schools. Every child has a right to a good education; not just those who can afford it.

    While the teaching of religions provides an excellent historical education for our students, we see from the video The Story of American Education how religion in the public school system creates a challenge. Protestant-based teachings conflicted and, at times, insulted Catholic teachings. I can totally understand, during this era, why I would put my children in Catholic schools. Today’s public education is not the same as it was 100 years ago.

    As discussed earlier, every family does not have the financial means to a private education but that should not put them at a disadvantage for academic success. Our public schools are far from where they need to be but the purpose should lie in providing equal, supportive, free, available and effective opportunities that will not only educate them in various academic areas, but provide an experience that motivates student’s to see and believe in their full potential and meet that potential. If private schools were the only available option, then we would have a lot of disadvantaged Americans just because of financial means. Children are born into a variety of situations that are completely out of their control. Poverty is one situation of many but through a free, public education they could change their future to avoid a cycle of poverty

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Erin, I am also familiar with private education. Like you, I think I had a stronger education at the private school as well. For the first half of my compulsory (thank you, Beecher!) education, I was enrolled in a private parochial school through sixth grade. After that, I was transferred into the Garland ISD, and there was a little bit of an adjustment period for me. In my personal experience, aside from a few classes in public school, I found that private education actually worked better; discipline was better, children were calmer (school uniforms helped with distractions), more focused, and more eager to reach the next educational horizon.

    Granted, I lived a quite a bit more of a sheltered lifestyle while in a private catholic school (I didn’t know how to defend myself in an altercation until after attending public school… we were taught that fighting back effectively sends you to hell), and social interactions were much more diverse, as there were children of many faiths and creeds, races, backgrounds, etc in public school.

    I think that Thomas Jefferson’s motives for some compulsory education were well-founded (I think teachers are biased when it comes to this kind of thing!), because the government is only as good as its people; a well-educated population is better than the alternative for a democratic system of government. Mann furthered this goal as Secretary of Education with the Common School movement. I wonder what he would think of the push for common core programs today?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Howdy, Erin!

    There’s definitely something to be said for the difference between private and public schooling. I also started my educational journey at a private Catholic school and transferred to my local school district in middle school. Thankfully, I had time to adapt to the social norms of public school life. My friends who stayed at private school through high school, however, had a far more difficult time. St. John’s School closed its doors when my grade level was in 9th grade, so those students had to begin the assimilation process as sophomores in high school. The culture shock you described in your post is definitely the most accurate way to describe their journey, and I think the change of involvement level from teachers and parents and larger class sizes definitely became a hindrance as many of those students began their college years, as they spent crucial high school time focused on the cultural changes rather than their educational experience as a whole.

    Thankfully, the inconsistencies that many have attested to between their private and public educational experiences don’t apply to the general purpose of public education throughout the years. Even if a specific educational goals change at a particular point in history, the need to standardize and bring equality to an experience that can hold the key to a child’s future remains fairly constant. A common theme across the reasons for public schooling that you mentioned was to educate future contributing members of society. Honestly, I would think this was (and still is) the main reason for standardizing the school system. In an article from the National Schools Boards Association, preparing children for civic life was listed as the least important reason in a survey of almost 900 school board members (Peifer, 2014). It seems as though more contemporary goals for education, such as allowing students to reach their potential and preparing them for a fulfilling life have become the focus. Do you think this development has to to do with an increased awareness and focus on the importance of psychology’s role in education?

    I loved reading your post this evening! Being able to take a lot of historical information and applying the implications of those events and decisions to an ever-changing field is one of the marks of a great educator.

    Peifer, A. (2014). The purpose of public education and the role of the school board. National School Boards Association National Connection. Retrieved from http://www.nsba.org/sites/default/files/The%20Purpose%20of%20Public%20Education%20and%20the%20Role%20of%20the%20School%20Board_National%20Connection.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You were definitely fortunate to be able to avoid public school until college. Similar to yours, my experiences at Catholic private school and collegiate charter school were exceptional. My teachers and professors continually pushed the limits of my abilities while simultaneously providing just enough scaffolding that I was never completely stuck on something. These schools rewarded good behavior and used discretion when dealing with any behavioral issues. Zero-tolerance policies were not the norm at these schools, thankfully. At my collegiate school, I even formed some excellent relationships with both the principal and the curriculum director for the school, resulting in several fascinating conversations. On the other hand, excluding three teachers in primary and secondary school, my experience with public school was one of half-measures, hopelessness, and hostility. Despite what I encountered, I still feel that public schools instill quality moral behavior within students, the initial end-game goal of Mann and Beecher for education (Goldstein, 2014, p. 32).

    As a metric for morality in the United States, murders and violent crimes are currently in decline. Examining the current statistics, there’s a long-term downward trend on the number of violent crimes committed, reaching the lowest levels of violent crimes committed since the 1970s. Note that this trend is estimated based on the voluntary reports of law enforcement agencies. Violent crimes dropped from a whopping 758.2 in offenses per 100,000 people 1991 to a much smaller 365.5 per 100,000 in 2014. Murder and non-negligent manslaughter are also in a downward trend, reaching 4.5 per 100,000 people in 2014. This is even lower than the trend from the early 1960s, which was at its lowest at 4.6 per 100,000 people (Gross, 2016). In a time when communications and whereabouts are much more easily monitored than in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States’ trends on violent crime, murder, and non-negligent manslaughter are looking quite favorable, comparatively. While obviously not solely influenced by modern public school education, these trends provide a glance at morality in the U.S., something that Mann and Beecher held most dear with regards to education.

    Gross, Z., Robertson, L., & Wang, J. (2016, July 13). Dueling Claims on Crime Trend. Retrieved from http://www.factcheck.org/2016/07/dueling-claims-on-crime-trend/


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