Controversy has raged for some years now about the quality of public education, specifically failure of graduation rates and poor achievement on the part of segments of the population. Schools were held accountable and the No Child Left Behind law led to an emphasis on testing to assess outcomes. Schools and then teachers were penalized for not reaching prescribed results.

This approach led to some unexpected outcomes, specifically teachers “teaching to the test,” in other words defeating the purpose of education by focusing mainly on learning specific facts in order to answer test questions and meet required outcomes.

As this approach was discredited, the search has continued for the reasons behind poor outcomes. What has become increasingly clear is that inequality of outcome is related to inequality of input. Academic success is related to many factors, as is the quality of individual schools. Economically advantaged children are given a wider range of early learning experiences, not only in preschools but in exposure to books, language and other precursors to academic learning.

A recognition of the relationship between early developmental experiences and later academic success has given rise more recently to a focus on early childhood education. Public schools in various communities have added programs for 3-year-olds and numerous preschools now have programs for 2-year-olds and under.

Unanswered however, is an underlying question about the purpose of education in general and more specifically what the goal is in having children in groups at younger and younger ages. There is no way to measure the success of such an approach unless we agree about what we are trying to accomplish. There are some fundamental differences in ideas about the purpose of education.

Ideas about the purpose of education has evolved over the years. In the United States, a country built by immigrants, public education was instituted in the service of the “melting pot,” that is a means of creating a cohesive whole out of new and older arrivals. At the university level, however, the ideal has been one of free enquiry, that is open-ended learning and research for their own sake. But this conception has always operated in the middle of counterforces.

The modern university has always had more utilitarian functions than liberal education and pure research, such as professional education. This in turn has led to an increased emphasis on credentialing through comprehensive exams — again encouraging a student culture of learning for the test.

American universities have tried to straddle the divide between practical economic pursuits and the “life of the mind.” Apparently, however, the pressure for outcomes pervading the grade school years is afflicting higher education as well, with an attempt to obtain quantifiable data that reveal what skills students are learning. The hope is that a supposedly data-driven analysis will deflect the charge that students pay too much for degrees that mean too little.

The emphasis on assessments seems to have coincided with an attempt throughout the country to reduce spending on public universities as well as other social services. This began moving more of the cost of higher education onto students. It has been politically convenient to hold universities responsible for this higher cost. It is similar to the attempt on the grade school level to hold schools responsible rather than the socio-economic factors involved.

With the higher cost of education has gone the demand for training in skills that will enhance employment opportunities. The irony is that the true value of higher education may be that of carving out space for pursuits of the mind apart from their market value.

The conflict between them continues.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at