Merrill Vargo

Merrill Vargo

Why have public schools anyway? We’ve all heard the answer: Public schools are the engine of our economy, the cornerstone of our democracy, and the avenue for individuals to achieve their dreams.

This list of goals sounds like mere rhetoric, but these three goals are worth thinking about. The first observation worth making about these three goals is that we don’t get to choose; we need to do all three. Second, though reformers like to emphasize the ways that these three purposes overlap, these three purposes also pull us in different directions. This means that when educators start to implement something, they are always doing a balancing act. That’s okay, and in fact puts education in the mainstream in this nation, which has found great strength in finding ways to balance opposing forces. But it’s never easy, and it might help if we admitted it.

It is important to keep both the three goals – economy, democracy, and individual dreams – and the balancing act in mind as we begin serious work on the Common Core standards. The primary impetus behind the Common Core is the first of the three goals: public education as the engine of the economy. The urgency behind the Common Core comes from concerns about global competitiveness. The hope is that by having internationally benchmarked standards that are “higher, clearer, fewer” we can energize the economy and avoid being left behind by nations like China and India. This is a legitimate goal, but it is only one of three. A failure to acknowledge this will cause the Common Core to fail. Let’s think about how this can happen, what implementers need to do to avoid it, and how policymakers can help.

Strengthening democracy

Today this nation is facing two challenges that are every bit as important as the economic one. The challenges to our democracy, goal two, in the 21st century are many. Citizens are increasingly distracted and sometimes it seems that civic engagement itself is out of fashion. Public schools have traditionally had an important role to play in teaching and giving students a chance to model the idea of citizenship. And, this nation is facing a flood of immigration, legal as well as illegal. People are headed to this country from all over the world, bringing a variety of skills, hopes, and dreams but also their own languages and cultures. This nation has welcomed floods of immigrants before. We know how, and it makes us a stronger, better place to live. But schools must be there to help build the common language, culture, and values that hold us together. All in all, schools are a key part of what make us a nation. Can the Common Core State Standards help with this goal Yes. Will they automatically do so? No.

The other challenge that faces us today is about goal three, the chance for individuals to achieve their dreams. While we think of opportunity as central to our national identity, statistics suggest that the chance to get ahead is scarcer these days than ever before. This is what parents care most about, and schools cannot neglect the goal that is most central to their key customers.

For our strongest students, the Common Core State Standards provide a roadmap to college and careers and therefore hold out the promise of upward mobility. But for many other students, higher standards and a tougher, better test won’t help but instead will increase these students’ need for additional support. This can take the form of differentiated instruction in the classroom, extended learning time, access to one-on-one or small-group tutoring or new online tools. There are many solutions to this problem, but none is free. For these struggling students, the Common Core will help them if and only if we are willing to make the investment in these additional supports as well as in the standards themselves. In a world of scarce resources, such investments can’t be taken for granted.

So, can the Common Core State Standards enhance global competitiveness, build common language, culture, values, and also provide more kids with access to college and a career?  Maybe, but only if we keep all three goals in mind and don’t expect teachers to do a perfect job of meeting any single goal.

This last element is how policymakers can help. If state policy replicates the high-stakes accountability approach that was central to state policy over the last decade, if policymakers do their best to put as much pressure as possible on schools to produce high test scores on a test that is both substantially different and substantially harder, they run the risk of upsetting the delicate balance between the three goals that is the strength of our public school system.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.


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  1. navigio 11 years ago11 years ago

    I wanted to comment on this article before it expired to page 2 because it raises what I feel are some important points, but I'm not sure I can dedicate enough time to do it justice. Anyway, I'll try quickly. I am quite interested in the list of 3 goals for public education as a concept. While you're right that they generally are so assumed that they sound like rhetoric, I think it actually is worth … Read More

    I wanted to comment on this article before it expired to page 2 because it raises what I feel are some important points, but I’m not sure I can dedicate enough time to do it justice. Anyway, I’ll try quickly.

    I am quite interested in the list of 3 goals for public education as a concept. While you’re right that they generally are so assumed that they sound like rhetoric, I think it actually is worth asking whether these things are true. Not because they might not be, but because they might remind us why we care about public education. Allow me to play devil’s advocate.

    First off, on what do we base the notion that public schools are the drivers of the economy? In the past, public education has only finished schooling a small portion of our population. Obviously that portion has been growing, but its important to remember that maybe 5% of people graduated high school at the turn of the last century. Even in the late 40s it was 50%. And even of those graduates, a large portion of them never participated directly in driving the economy (at least not through work or innovation). The economy clearly grew in spite of that. And anecdotally speaking, there are many, many examples of people who were nothing short of a foundation for our economy who never even finished school (Thomas Edison is one particularly important one who comes to mind). Of course I admit that these types of anecdotes are empty since the lack of school should not be equated with the lack of an education. And I do think things are going to get more interesting in this regard as it becomes harder and harder to predict what the future societal and economic demands will be on education that needs to happen decades ahead of time. So even if we can argue that education is the foundation for our economy, it may actually become less so over time. Its possible the gyrations over ever shorter curriculum cycles are a symptom of that. Regardless, I do agree that we need to question how education provides for the economy’s needs, even if it will be difficult to do that with any level of accuracy.

    The next idea is about the cornerstone of our Democracy. This is one that is even harder to see having an historical connection. While I do agree that it has absolutely provided access to many people who were systemically excluded, I question whether our notion of democracy in this country is a function of public education. The fact is, very few people are truly engaged in the democratic process. And even many of those who are, arent at a level that would be considered responsible. Regardless, whether that engagement has anything to do with education per se, is unclear. I do agree that highly educated people are very prone to be more involved and in a more complete way, but for everyone else, this involvement can be a function of so many other things than education. I do agree with the interesting comment about immigration. I used to know a particularly blunt Persian, who told me the reason America was so good at stuff is that all the people who came here were risk-takers. That the mere act of dropping one’s entire life and emigrating to another country is a significant risk, and those kind of people are what really drive an economy. Its an interesting concept and I think may be part of why you say ‘it makes us stronger’. I dont think we actively intend for the schools to be the thing that builds the common language, culture and values. Some people clearly do, but this seems like something we have not yet decided on. And even if/when we do, I’m not clear there is consensus on how to achieve it.

    And the last, the avenue by which people achieve their dreams. I do agree that this is probably the central goal for the ‘customer’ (in fact this is he one that has always resonated with me as a parent, so I dont think I can play devils advocate here..). However, one of the things I’ve noticed about private schools (especially really expensive ones) is that the value often is not so much the pedagogical environment or resources, rather it is the connection with other people, groups and communities that allow an easy and clear progression to ‘success’ (or specifically some goal). Even in some communities, this culture is part of the public system, but only in certain ones (and those with means, imho). Regardless, I do absolutely agree that the barriers to ‘success’ are destroyed as one progresses through the educational system, be it public or private, but I think for a large part of the early portions of education, the way this is achieved is clearly through a steady process of learning fundamentals, rather than focusing on this as a direct goal. Im not saying thats the right way, nor that it shouldnt be happening earlier, nor even that there are not other parallel means, but I do think there is a ‘process’ that almost always has to be a foundation for the ultimate process of ‘achieving one’s dreams’. And I guess this is where the curriculum aspect would come in. I do find it particularly troubling that there is an expectation that the curriculum itself might act as a barrier for some kids.

    Anyway, I really appreciated this article and I appreciate the invitation to think more about why we have public education. I dont think we think enough about this, or take some of the reasons for granted. I’ve love to hear others’ thoughts, even if they are different than mine. 🙂

  2. John Zoccola 11 years ago11 years ago

    Great article. I thought I’d let you know about a new initiative underway on the technology end of things, as we prepare for Common Core. That initiative is Project Based Learning ( I’d love to know your thoughts on how technology and social learning can help further the ideals you outlined.

    John Zoccola

  3. Paul Muench 11 years ago11 years ago

    That’s right, mind the knowing-doing gap. That can become especially hard during our political season.

  4. John mockler 11 years ago11 years ago

    Wonderful article. Very important discussion.