When mission creep is the mission

The most likely cause of disappointing results from the various reforms is not poor teaching but poorly conceived reforms. They have been primarily structural in character. They have not systematically grappled with the grade-by-grade specifics and coherence of the elementary-school curriculum. Educational success is ultimately defined by what students learn. If the grade-by-grade content of schooling remains undefined, schooling will remain unproductive over the long run, no matter who is teaching.

— E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Don’t Blame the Teachers

To grapple with curriculum coherence would require Americans to articulate, by consensus, precisely why we have K-12 public education in the first place. Almost every debate about education reform in this country seems to consist of various parties talking past each other because nobody has bothered to establish the primary purpose of our curricula. Is it to produce liberal-democratic citizens? To prepare young adults for the job market? For college? To instill discipline and respect for institutional authority? To inspire free thought and innovation? None of these is mutually exclusive, but it would help if anybody engaging in this debate would clearly state what big thing the 21st-century American school curriculum primarily is supposed to do. It can’t be all things to all people, because no institution can.

Too many folks are under the impression that the school system is the one institution whose omnidirectional mission creep is an asset. Incoherence is not an asset. It is, however, a nice way for generations of Americans to let themselves off the hook for not bothering to have a fundamental debate about the purpose of education. First they ask our schools to train our kids to be and do everything at once. When kids, quite inevitably, can’t be and do everything at once, society blames the teachers, who struggle every day to bring cohesion to a system which mandates that parents render their children unto it, even as the system has no cogent idea what to do with those kids once they’re inside it.

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