Culture & Society

Social Justice Is Now the Fourth Purpose of Public Schools and All Four Are in Conflict

We can’t decide whether K-12 education is any good until we agree on its goal

Image Credit: JGI/Jamie Grill

The purpose of a university has historically been the pursuit of truth. But many universities are adopting social justice as a second purpose, as Jonathan Haidt notes. He questions whether any institution can have two purposes: “What happens if they conflict?”

K-12 public schools are at a similar crossroads. They too have adopted social justice as a purpose. But public schools already have a long history of competing purposes. The story of schooling in the U.S. illustrates the conflicts that arise when an institution fails to adopt a single primary purpose. Understanding this history is crucial for understanding the current state of our schools.

Since the passage of compulsory school laws in all 50 states, starting with Massachusetts in 1852, the debate over the purpose of public schools has never been settled. That’s because there are many stakeholders pulling in different directions. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, employers, various levels of government and the public all have an interest in the outcome of schooling, but they don’t agree on its ultimate goal. On the most basic level, these competing interest groups don’t even agree about whether schooling is primarily a private good (benefiting the individual) or a public good (benefiting society).

Three primary purposes of public schools have been defined over the years, according to education historian David Labaree:

  • social mobility (schools should prepare students to compete for higher social positions)
  • social efficiency (schools should focus on training workers)
  • democratic equality (schools should mold citizens)

These purposes are at odds with each other. Until this conflict is sorted out, it will be impossible to determine whether schools are successful, as Robert Stout, Marilyn Tallerico, and Kent Paredes Scribner, scholars of the politics of education, note: “As a nation we cannot possibly agree on [whether schools are any good], given our inability to agree on the prior question of purpose.”

Going to School to Get Ahead

With the social-mobility approach, “education is a commodity, the only purpose of which is to provide students with a competitive advantage in the struggle for desirable social positions,” says Labaree. This purpose defines schooling as a private good: Schooling benefits individuals by preparing them to compete in the workforce and in the world at large. Students benefit the most from this purpose, and teachers and parents ascribe to this purpose because it benefits students. For example, parents seek homes in affluent urban and suburban school districts that boast a record of graduates going on to elite colleges.

The social-efficiency approach “argues that our economic well-being depends on our ability to prepare the young to carry out useful economic roles with competence,” says Labaree. This purpose defines schooling as a public good that serves the interests of taxpayers and employers. Schooling sustains a healthy economy with a growing tax base; thus, society must invest in schooling to increase the productivity of the workforce. Policymakers espouse this economic-development argument to justify why so much of taxpayers’ income is diverted to public schools. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and vocational schools, for instance, are popular among policymakers and businesses because they put students on track to take up needed roles in the workforce.

Yet the original purpose of universal public schooling was to build citizens. Public schools were a way to develop the nation-state. They were created to socialize people who had different religious and national affiliations by making them part of a unified culture and community called “America.” Learning was something that students did in schools once the schools were in existence, but it was not the original purpose for starting the schools.

This democratic-equality approach argues that “a democratic society cannot persist unless it prepares all of its young with equal care to take on the full responsibilities of citizenship in a competent manner,” says Labaree. In a democracy, where the rule is one person, one vote, schools serve to “promote both effective citizenship and relative equality,” he adds. This purpose defines schooling as a public good that serves the interests of all citizens. Schools that prioritize this purpose instill a commitment to the American political system and teach about American culture through the liberal arts, such as by implementing a classical curriculum.

The perpetual state of tension among the three purposes was the context for the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Public schools have since focused on producing equal academic outcomes across different racial, socioeconomic and other groups of students. The outcomes are typically measured by standardized tests and graduation rates. Test scores and letter grades determine whether students can advance to the next grade and graduate with a diploma.

The credential of a diploma allows for social mobility, while maintaining social efficiency by indicating to employers that potential employees have at least a minimum level of knowledge in subjects such as English, math and science. The credential also indicates that job applicants have a work ethic strong enough for them to finish school.

The third purpose, democratic equality, has lost favor under this new regime. Schools mainly pursue this purpose with social studies education, specifically civics. But learning civics is generally viewed as secondary to getting a competitive edge in the workforce. And preparing citizens with enough knowledge of the U.S. governance system to participate effectively in elections takes a back seat to developing future workers with skills for employment.

Here Come the Social Justice Warriors

On the other hand, social justice is gaining ground as a purpose of many public schools, and that just adds to the conflicts over what schools are supposed to be doing. The contemporary social-justice approach advocates for equity, which is incompatible with democratic equality. Although both social justice and democratic equality are focused on the betterment of society, they differ in their prescriptions. The social-justice approach calls for an unequal distribution of resources to achieve equal outcomes, regardless of how those outcomes are defined. In contrast, democratic equality calls for equal treatment of students in the process of schooling, such as by the use of a uniform school curriculum.

If a practice of a school or teacher is not achieving equal outcomes, the social-justice approach would end that practice to achieve equal outcomes. For example, San Diego’s school district voted to overhaul its grading system because nonwhite students were achieving at lower levels than white students.

Social justice is also in competition with social mobility. Social-justice advocates are suspicious of claims that schools are meritocratic, or that they are the great equalizer, as they are often described. This is apparent in the San Francisco school board’s vote to do away with Lowell High School’s merit-based admissions policy to address what it believes is “pervasive systemic racism” and “a lack of diversity.”

Finally, social justice opposes capitalism while social efficiency aims to prepare workers to participate in a capitalist system. For instance, Oregon’s education department promoted a professional development resource that aims to “challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist views,” among other goals.

Critics of the social-justice approach point out that social justice does not achieve an objective of public schools: to raise academic achievement as measured by test scores. But this assertion is difficult to evaluate until there’s a consensus about which purpose of public schools should be the primary one.

Reaching a consensus is no doubt a difficult task, but we must settle on a purpose before we start debating whether schools should adopt, for instance, patriotic or anti-racist social studies curricula. One solution might be to choose the purpose that will best enable schools to make progress toward the other goals. For example, putting democratic equality ahead of social mobility, social efficiency and social justice might help a school achieve all four goals.

But this decision shouldn’t be centralized. Each state has its own department of education and numerous school boards that address the needs of their schools and community, and the task of choosing a purpose is best left to them.

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