The Purpose of Education In America

It used to be the primary purpose of public education in America was to create a literate population in order to prepare them to vote intelligently. Public education was seen as a fundamental underpinning of democracy. That is still a good basis for providing public education in America.

This basic purpose was extended to college preparation and employment preparation in America’s high schools. Recently however, the college preparation portion of the curriculum has taken over exclusively as the purpose for high school in America. This elitist rationale for the existence of public education is fundamentally flawed. Since only thirty percent of American high school students go on to graduate from college, this reason for existence is too narrowly construed. It completely ignores the supermajority of our youth.

The supermajority of students deserves a reason to come to high school every day. They deserve to be respected, even though they are not academically high achieving students. These lower achieving youngsters deserve to be fully included in the American high school experience. The condescension of the American educational system toward low achieving high school kids is a form of bigotry. It is extremely harmful and must be called out, exposed, and extinguished. This institutional condescension damages lives of young people. And for what purpose?

We must encourage the college prep kids do well in their elite courses, but provide and appropriate education for the supermajority as well. We must provide a career preparation program and let a students fully participate in the high school. This means sports and theater and cheer. Just because some kids do not achieve at high levels does not mean they are to be treated as second-class citizens. We do not wish to replicate the European class strata. We are the country that fought for democracy. This means public institutions such as the high school must serve all students. We know the statistics show half the students are below average in ability. These kids have no chance at succeeding in college preparation or college itself. In addition to college preparation, we must provide career preparation to the supermajority that are not elite academic students.

These non-college prep kids deserve career technical education that prepares them to go to work. They deserve to enjoy this education without being treated as inferior. They also deserve education in consumer finance rather than algebra. They deserve to learn business soft employment skills. They deserve a parenting course to prepare them for one of life’s great adventures. They deserve a nutrition course to help avoid the overweight country that we have become. The high schools of America have multiple purposes and a very difficult job. The purpose of America’s high schools is to prepare all of our youth to survive and prosper in a complicated world.

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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