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What is education even for? Philosophy, policy, opportunity and street-level bureaucrats

What is education for? You may have different answers whether you are a parent, teacher, business owner, college student, but the answers are not merely based upon your role. Philosophy determines perspective, and ultimately, policy, when street-level bureaucrats implement policy through their philosophical lens.

A recent article in The Week, “The value of education is not what you think” by Jeff Spross (2019) relates how two different philosophies of education, human capital and signaling, result in quite disparate national educational policy. The human capital theory argues that education increases earnings because it adds knowledge and skills to workers, making them more valuable as employees. Signaling theory counters that idea with research showing that education is much more valuable as degrees that signal employers the employee has what it takes in intelligence, perseverance, and economic and social resources. Human capital argues that education develops employees; signaling argues that education is most valuable as a signal to employers.

While the clash of these theories, may seem, well, merely theoretical, the resulting policy and implementation of that policy can be opposite sides of controversial education policy. For instance, human capital proponents are more likely to advocate for free college, because more developed people should aid the entire nation. Bureaucrats and politicians who believe in signaling want to defund higher education, arguing that the glut of people with degrees causes the employers to require degrees for careers that should not necessitate that level of education. Degree inflation, if you will.

But both of these philosophies assume that’s education’s chief goal is economic. Economic, like “politically neutral” (Rippner, 2015, pg. x), seems to be code for only considering the effects of education on the white, middle class. Rippner’s book (2015), The American Education Policy Landscape, contextualizes American education policy since Harvard, without feeling the need to mention how women, the poor, and people of color were excluded from early education systems or how those systems were built for a very narrow segment of the population. 100 pages through Rippner educational access and equity for people of color only get a mention of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education IN 1954. There is no mention of gender differences in college attendance or STEM fields. The National School Lunch program has fed millions of American schoolchildren since the 1950s, making education more accessible for them, but didn’t warrant a mention from Rippner. This “politically neutral” (Rippner, 2015, pg. x) perspective on education follows the neoliberal trend of valuing education mainly as an employee-training ground, with no glimpse of how education policies affect equity.

This is surprising! Discussion with most any group of teachers in California or the language of the Teacher Performance Expectations (TPE) would show that teachers and bureaucrats in California think education exists to provide opportunity and equity in a democratic meritocracy. Like many teachers, I became a teacher to provide all students with the opportunity to choose their own life path, regardless of ethnicity, socio-economics, gender, or religion.

As Rippner mentions, much de facto policy is made by street-level bureaucrats, the boots on the ground (Rippner, 2015). “Policemen decide who to arrest and whose behavior to overlook. Judges decide who shall receive a suspended sentence and who shall receive maximum punishment. Teachers decide who will be suspended and who will remain in school, and they make subtle determination of who is teachable (Lipsky, 2010, p. 13).” Increasingly, teachers believe all students are teachable and are fighting for equity; a recent study found that 97% of teachers and principals agree that, “Equity in education for all children should be a national priority (Scholastic, 2018, p. 12).”

There’s no wonder the education system can seem so disjointed! Politicians and policymakers argue over whether or not schools are preparing students for the workplace while teachers wonder which students? who decides? how can we make workplace preparation fair? Policymakers and street-level bureaucrats have different philosophies and thus ask different questions.

The best policy takes into consideration the needs and viewpoints of the stakeholders. It’s a cliche for a reason, but politicians and policymakers, please come to my classroom. I teach in a county with one of the highest Adverse Childhood Experience Scores (ACES) in the state. Come meet my amazing, wonderful students before you leave equity out of education. They are brave, smart, resourceful, hard-working and deserve a fair education system before they are recruited as employees.


Commission on Teacher Credentialing. (2013). California Teaching Performance Expectations. Retrieved from

Lipsky, M. (2010). Street-Level Bureaucracy, 30th Anniversary Edition: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service. Russell Sage Foundation.

Rippner, J. A. (2015). The American education policy landscape. Routledge.

Scholastic. (2018). Scholastic Teacher and Principal School Report: Equity in Education. Retrieved from

Spross, J. (2019, July 22). The value of education is not what you think. Retrieved July 29, 2019, from The Week website:


  1. Amy,
    Thanks for this perspective from a boots-on-the-ground teacher who is working for students! I agree that Rippner (2015) oversimplifies policy making, and leaving many critical contextual points out of her analysis. I think Fullan and Quinn (2016) also over-simplify the drivers for school changes. They assume common ground, without acknowledging how hard it can be to get to common ground when a school or university has so many stakeholders have valid and divergent needs when it comes to education policy. When Rippner (2015) discusses public vs private education as if they're just two sides of the same coin, rather than vastly different coins - where private K-12 and higher education can follow very different rules than public education, essentially giving those with means a choice about how accountable or flexible they can be and enacting convoluted assessment and economic constraints on public schools to ensure they are somehow an efficient proposition.

    As a finance professional in public higher education, it has been increasingly frustrating to be asked from outside our institution as well as from inside, how we can be more efficient, while also preparing the future workforce. If we want the next generation of leaders, workers and creators to be "produced" through public education, why are we willing to allow it to be so underfunded while also holding it up to such high standards...investment makes so much more sense.

    And so does investing in each and every student - as you show us that you do! I agree that the policy-makers need to see the perspective of the stakeholders more - to see what it takes to provide each and every student the education they deserve. I also believe policy makers need to better express the intent of new changes, so teachers and administrators aren't left wondering, not just how to implement something new, but why? Maybe the next policy fix would be more helpful if everyone was coming from the same "why"?


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