Redefining Education: From Personal Credentials to Collective Betterment

The Secret Menu
4 min readSep 8, 2023

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Mural created by Design Tech High School Innovation Program Students Annie Phillips and Lauren Wu: Mural is 186 ft long, 13 ft tall and 1475 sq. ft, and most importantly advocates for protecting the environment.

The presidential election season, which never seems to stop, officially began with the first debate a few weeks ago, and one of the hot topics will be education. Our country is once again arguing about the roles and goals of education in our society. It’s an important discussion to have, as obtaining degrees and diplomas play an important part of moving through modern society. Not only do the degrees and diplomas help, but virtually all states have mandates for when children must begin school and when they can drop out. The laws might vary around the process of schooling whether, it’s a public school, a private school a home school, or something in-between, but at a policy level we’ve all pretty much agreed that education is essential in a young person’s development.

One key piece of the debate about education that rarely gets discussed though is whether we should look at education as a public good or private good. David Labaree identified three alternative goals for education in the U.S. in his paper published over 25 years ago: Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals. Labaree highlights the tradeoffs and tensions in these goals and how the goal of social mobility has reshaped education into a commodity motivating individuals to prioritize credentials over learning. Having worked in education for almost 30 years I don’t view this as a positive development. My question is how can we move the system back toward viewing education as public good?

Imagine if we lived in a society where education was viewed the same way that we view clean air or clean water. Something where we truly believed that the more education that there is in our society, the better off we all are. Instead we are stuck in this system where we collectively agree that schools should help students “make the world a better place”, but individual families mainly want schools to provide students the credentials that they need to get ahead or maintain their socioeconomic position. We see this in the relentless pursuit for admission to highly selective colleges and in high schools that focus on college for all. No one makes the case that what students will learn in college is essential to their socioeconomic position, but everyone acknowledges that a college degree is important to a person’s socioeconomic position.

The pursuit of the credential permeates the high school classroom, as we see students worry more about their grades than what they’ve learned, or how long the teacher wants the essay to be instead of using what they’ve learned to make a positive difference in the community. Now go back and imagine if education were viewed like clean air; it would be something that should be accessible and beneficial to all. This shift would have dramatic implications for not only how we allocate our resources, but also what is taught in schools and how it is taught. Imagine how it might play out in something as visible as the college ranking and admission process.

Instead of gaining notoriety for rejecting large numbers of qualified students, colleges would be celebrated for admitting large numbers of qualified students

Instead of publishing the average G.P.A’s and test scores of incoming freshmen, we would have to create a way to communicate a students’ contribution to the public good and sort and select on contribution instead of test scores

Instead of students relentlessly pursuing A.P. classes, students would relentlessly pursue making a positive impact in their communities

Instead of well-resourced students hiring college counselors, well resourced students would hire community liaisons to help them find out how they could make a difference in their community

Right now it is difficult to imagine this type of change occurring in our system, but unless we start to consciously and deliberately take steps toward viewing education as something other than a commodity to buy, sell, or trade for social position, then we face a very difficult path in building an educational system aligned with what we all collectively want, which is a society where each individual’s education benefits as many people as possible, just like clean air.

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