The Purpose of Education: Truing the Balance Wheel

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Key New NEPC Brief Takeaway: Education cannot become the “great equalizer” without strong investments and supports.

The father of the common school movement, Horace Mann, proclaimed universal education to be the bedrock of democracy. Education is the “great equalizer of the conditions of men” and the “balance wheel of social machinery,” he said, and it deserves significant public investment. Mann passionately argued for education to be “universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends.”

In a new brief released today, The Purpose of Education: Truing the Balance Wheel, William Mathis explores the belief in the power of universal education as a core requirement for democracy, and how this vision has been undermined by substantial disparities in educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes.

With the ascendance of test scores and international economic competitiveness as education’s most loudly proclaimed purposes, the nation has forgotten that universal public education was established primarily for the benefits it provides to the common good. Disparities in American family incomes have been increasing over the past five decades, leading to an ever-widening income gap between families in the top and bottom of income distribution.

The resulting opportunity gap implicates a range of social and economic factors contributing to the current divide. Mathis points to a dozen factors that must be seriously addressed if we hope to provide a true balance wheel—if we hope to equalize educational opportunities.

“Given the broad scope of inequities in schools and in society writ large, the most sensible approach would be to inventory the full range of social and economic needs, and address the multiple factors—which extend well beyond the traditional boundaries of schools—that contribute to the enduring and increasing opportunity gap that children experience in schools,” Mathis concludes.

Dr. Mathis is Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. This brief is one in a series of concise publications, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking, that takes up a number of important policy issues and identifies policies supported by research. Each section focuses on a different issue, and its recommendations to policymakers are based on the latest scholarship.

Find William Mathis’s brief on the NEPC website at: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/research-based-options

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (greatlakescenter.org).

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: http://nepc.colorado.edu

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William J. Mathis