Improve purpose, achievement follows

Educators and policymakers misunderstand the relationship between purpose and achievement. Many believe public schools are structured to achieve educational purposes, but teachers perform too poorly to achieve them.

Actually, the relationship is reversed. Institutions attended by young people for six hours per day, 180 days per year, over 12 years are bound to achieve the purposes embedded in their structures. The two-fold point of this blog is that: (1) unsatisfactory results are due to embedded purposes that are not educational, and (2) in order for schools to improve, more educational purposes must be built into school structures.

As insiders, however, we can’t see this because we graduated from schools that lacked key educational purposes. It’s a classic Catch-22.

Looking at other countries

As an “outsider” to both Japanese and Jamaican schools, I can see better than “insiders” how purposes determine educational achievements. I can see that purposes embedded in structures are bound to be achieved because they drive what is modeled and taught.

Both countries provide free, universal education. And both have educational purposes that explain their structures. One of Japan’s stated purposes is to pass on social norms and traditions. Another is to prepare young people to work in post–World War II industries. One of Jamaica’s stated purposes is to provide opportunities for upward mobility in a class-tiered society.

What is achieved in Japanese schools?

Achieving the first purpose of Japanese schools means teachers model and teach that: “The peg that stands up gets pounded down” — a strong, traditional norm in Japanese society. Relating to the second purpose, though, Japanese policymakers now believe Post-WWII Japanese economic prosperity depends on graduates who can think more independently and creatively.

To achieve this purpose, Japanese teachers would have to stop teaching the embedded, traditional norm. Without doing so, they can’t graduate more independent thinkers. It is easy for me to see this, but difficult for those who were taught “The peg that stands up gets pounded down.”

What is achieved in Jamaican schools?

Jamaican officials say the purpose of public schooling is to provide opportunities for upward mobility. The structure of Jamaican schools, however, achieves the opposite purpose. Schools are stratified so that upper class students attend the best ones, and lower class students attend the worst ones (in terms of teacher qualifications and other resources). So, the real purpose of Jamaican education is to preserve the existing social and economic order. But those who attended Jamaican schools see this as a social norm, not an educational purpose.

For example, my Jamaican friends and I react differently to national stories about the success of a poor student in a school for wealthy students. They experience the inspirational quality of the story, but I wonder why it receives national attention. The reason, of course, is that it is rare. Therefore, it is easy for me to see that their system of schooling ensures that upward mobility does not threaten the existing social order. My Jamaican friends see this as a social norm, not as an educational purpose.

What is achieved in American schools?

Similarly, American schools are successfully achieving the purposes embedded in their structures. As with all systems of schooling, embedded purposes are powerful and bound to be achieved. What are those structures and purposes?

The structures are annual calendars, daily schedules, grading periods and requirements, assignments, tests, curricular disciplines, co-curricular activities, and pupil-teacher ratios of 23-1. The actual purposes of American public schools are being achieved because of these structures. What are those purposes?

In TSVOTEP I wrote that public schools model and teach (1) understanding that is intellectually incompetent, (2) strong character that is fearful of truth, and (3) generosity that emerges from pride. Those are the purposes embedded in the structures. Here is how they are taught and learned:

Today’s public school purpose is to prepare students for exams (teach understanding). Teachers use materials created by textbook publishers and other sources (model intellectual incompetence). They require assignments to be completed by deadlines (teach strong character). They warn students about the consequences of bad scores, low grades, and bad behavior (teach fear of truth). They give of themselves and their time to students (model generosity). And they tell students they are proud of them and students should be proud of themselves (teach pride).

Was that your school experience? Did you receive high grades for high test scores (understanding), extra effort (strong character), and helping the teacher or others (generous behavior)? Were you taught to sit down, stay quiet, follow directions, and not ask too many questions (intellectual incompetence)? Were you taught to fear the consequences of wrong answers and bad behavior (fear of truth)? Were you taught to be proud of your country, state, school, yourself?

These purposes of American public education are being achieved. What is your experience with public school graduates who are your colleagues and companions, today? Are they imaginative or unimaginative, are they courageous or fearful of truth, are they humble or proud?


We should expect to achieve the purposes embedded in American public schools because of the time students spend with adults who model and teach three virtues and three vices. In order to improve education, we have to first adopt more educational purposes. Only then will better methods and more resources improve education. If our purposes were to model and teach all six virtues, instead of three virtues and three vices, we would graduate a more educated citizenry. But we can’t see that because our education taught us to be unimaginative, fearful of truth and proud of it. I love irony.

The good news is that school administrators and teachers can adopt these purposes at no extra cost to anybody. And they don’t need permission from anybody, either. They simply need to model and teach the six virtues of the educated person.


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