Obama vs. Romney, The Great Debate: The Mission of Education in 21st Century America

 “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
– Peter Drucker

When it comes to contrasting the essential differences between presidential candidates, I can’t think of anything more revealing than their responses to the question: what is the mission of education in twenty-first century America? How a president envisions the role of education in shaping the future of America is a telling indicator of his or her core beliefs, philosophies, economic theories, values, morals, and ethics.

Because the world is changing faster and more complexly than at any time in human history, the security and prosperity of 21st century America will depend, like never before, on how well it educates its children. But beyond the party platitudes, what does that mean? What is the role of learning in how children become adults? What is the role of government in leading the learning of its children? What is the purpose of education in this new digital age? What is education’s responsibility to each individual child…to parents…to the local community… to the economy… to the nation… to the planet?

If you could ask Romney and Obama a question, what would it be? What questions about education do you think would force them to dig deeper than the platitudes and reveal their visions for the future of American education?

I propose we  get the debate moderators to add a new dimension to the upcoming debates. First, in a break from the traditional approach, we give them advance notice and allow them to formulate a two-minute response to our question: “What is the mission of education in the twenty-first century?”  Because we don’t want to settle for gross generalizations and rhetoric, we need a comprehensive response to the question that addresses a number of critical issues and considerations.  So, after each has given their presentation during the debate, the moderator can choose among our other questions to draw them into a deeper and more detailed sharing of what their respective ‘mission statements’ mean.

What are those sub questions, issues, and considerations?  Few things could be more important to our nation’s future than educators engaging with each other to work them out. Towards that end, I sincerely hope you will get involved, contribute your questions and share your comments. In the meantime, and with hope of helping support the process, here are a few issues and questions that I think should be considered:

Question:  What does your forecast of the economy 15 to 20 years from now, particularly its human skills requirements, tell you about what our educational priorities should be today?

Robotic assembly lines eliminated tens of millions of manual labor jobs. Office computing eliminated tens of millions of routine office jobs. Computers have become a billion times more powerful (cost v processing power) in the past few decades and it’s estimated that they will continue becoming exponentially more powerful in the next few decades. Already, today, machines are competing with humans for ‘thought work’ jobs like grading college essayswriting news storiesmanaging entire cities and for ‘high skill’ jobs like ‘diagnosing human illness’. What human skills will be in demand 15 or 20 years from now when the machines are tens of millions of times more cost-effective at performing what had been exclusively human jobs? (see “The Challenge of Change“)

Obviously there will be ever fewer opportunities for human beings who can only perform repetitive manual labor, remember factoids, or perform routine intellectual functions. What should children be learning today that will make their future employment opportunities less vulnerable to becoming obsolete as the machines continue to advance?


Question: What does your forecast of the role of technology in human learning 15 to 20 years from now tell you about what our educational priorities should be today?

What should today’s children learn in order to be ready for a world in which virtually everything known about everything known is instantly available through inexpensive mobile devices? What facts should they remember? What mental skills must they have when these same devices will be able to coach them, in real-time, through learning to perform virtually any task they are challenged by?Given the coming ubiquity of this on-demand learning support power, what should we most be ‘putting into’ children and what should we most be ‘drawing out’ of them? What must they know and be able to do in order to be ready to succeed in their futures?


Question: What do NAEP reports tell us about the state of American education and the performance of our students? 

66% of our 4th graders and 66% of our 8th graders are below proficiency in Reading.
60% of our 4th graders and 65% of our 8th graders are below proficiency in Math.
73% of our 8th graders and 73% of our 12th graders are below proficiency in Writing.

What does it mean that most of our children are chronically improficient in the skills most critically important for success in school? (see previous post) Are these numbers just the aggregates of imprecise and unreliable tests? If they are anywhere close to depicting the performance of our students, do you think our student’s chronic improficiencies reflects some deficiency in their abilities to learn or in our educational system’s priorities and practices?


Question: From curriculum and assessments to cafeteria menus and teacher training, the federal government uses financial leverage to manipulate schools into conforming to its policies and, implicit in those policies, its conception of the mission of education in America. What is the federal government’s educational mission? What gives the federal government the right to use financial leverage to impose its mission on state and local education institutions?

Which aspects of education’s ‘mission’ must the federal government define, involve itself in, or be responsible for, and which aspects should be left to the schools and parents?

Any role of government in education involves serving at least five masters: the child, the parents, the local community, the larger society, and the overall economy.  How should education be prioritized in terms of serving these different, and frequently conflicted, masters. Child first or parents first? The local community or the overall economy? Is education primarily a system for serving individuals or a system for preparing individuals to serve the society and economy?

Question: We need a 21st century curriculum and having common core standards is a vital part of the equation. What is the purpose of CCSS? What is it designed to do and for whom? What is its mission and what does its mission say, implicitly, about the underlying educational mission it serves?

If we don’t engage in the deeper dialogue, CCSS could go the way of the reading wars. We could get mired in polarized and superficial arguments (like phonics v whole) that impede rather than enhance the kind of professional learning educators most need to engage in.


These questions are ‘big picture’ and ‘future focused’. There are many other more immediate questions to be asked and I will suggest some of them in my future posts.  If you disagree with these questions and/or have other questions you think we should be discussing, please get involved and share your thoughts and questions. If it turns out we can’t get the questions into the debates, we will still have benefitted, as a community, through the process of identifying and discussing them.

What do you think? Why not? What could they debate that is more important to what you do as an educator or to the long term health of the nation?  If you like this proposal, share it with your staff and teachers and have them formulate questions.  Share this post with others and with your contacts in the press. Post your questions here or send them to me by email.

Wouldn’t it be great if the nation started discussing this? With the impending debates we have a rare opportunity to get the conversation started. Let’s use it.

Note: This post is combination of two posts originally published in my blog for the National Association of School Superintendents

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