I just read a piece that doesn't necessarily say anything new, but puts it all in a useful frame. Let me show you the first paragraph:
There’s no such thing as a “good school” in the abstract. Every school serves a particular community, in a particular time and place, with its own needs and desires. A good school in rural Montana might not be a good school in Midtown Manhattan, just as a good school in 1920 might not be a good school today. This doesn’t mean that we can’t define school quality. It does, however, mean that we can’t define quality without first considering the needs of a school’s time and place.
This is from the Phi Delta Kappan, a publication I don't always trust (hell, they give a platform to William Bennett), written by Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brooking Institution, a place that often demonstrates why economists should stay the heck away from education policy. "Good schools for a troubled democracy" has the hallmark of Brookings writings, a sort of odd atonality tied to the sensation that perhaps within Brookings they never actually read any of the mountains of prose about education policy.
Valant's thesis is that "the school system we have today in the United States--and our conception of a good school--is mismatched to the needs of our time." This will make more sense if you don't think of yourself as included in "we" and "our." His basic framing of modern education history is what makes this piece worthwhile.
Valant focuses on the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, the infamous Reagan era hit job on public education. While Valant notes that the report did mention the needs for education to create better citizens, "the rhetoric of economic ruin and international competition drowned out the message."According to the logic of the times, the nation’s most pressing need — and, consequently, the most urgent task for our public schools — was to strengthen the workforce.
A good system of measurement and evaluation can be a powerful tool for school improvement. However, we built a bad one, which is worse than having no system at all.
As David Labaree (1997, 2018) has described, Americans have, over the long term, changed how they’ve thought about education. The country built its public school system to mold virtuous citizens, but our focus has shifted toward preparing students to be capable workers. Now, he argues, we tend to see education as a private good (benefiting the individual student) more than a public good (benefiting the community at large). We think of schools as existing mainly to provide credentials, which young people rely upon as they attempt to outcompete each other for a limited number of desirable college and career opportunities.
The most severe threats we face as a country, now and in the foreseeable future, aren’t about workforce training. They aren’t threats that can be neutralized with better literacy and numeracy, or even by helping more students make a successful transition to college (though those things may help). The problem isn’t that we’re unprepared for our 21st-century economy; it’s that we’re unprepared for our 21st-century democracy.