In general, one can surmise there is consensus regarding the role of formal educational systems: the public supports and maintains the system to prepare youngsters to participate in the economic, political, and cultural life of society. The nature of the experiences designed to meet this purpose changes over time. Traditionally, the domain of education includes a wide range of subjects such as literacy (including reading and writing), numeracy (the mathematical equivalents of reading and writing), specific subject area knowledge (sufficient to become an informed citizen), acculturation to include civics (sufficient to permit participation in our democracy), vocational skills (to contribute to the economy), personal skills (to support healthy development), and academic skills (frequently called critical thinking, problem solving, or lifelong learning).
To accommodate these goals, the curriculum in K-12 schools has expanded in recent decades so that it now includes topics such as advanced mathematics including computer programming, a broad survey of the sciences including the social sciences, foreign languages, performing arts, visual arts, physical education, health, and the trades. Despite evidence that experiences in the arts and opportunities for physical activity are associated with higher levels of academic performance, it is not unusual for those activities to be perceived as superfluous to the academic or intellectual purposes of education, thus these tend to be cut from school budgets in misguided attempts to improve academic performance.
While individuals will identify all of these goals as purposes of education at any moment, changing conditions or situations cause individuals and groups to update their priorities regarding these. A relatively recent argument for “good education” has been “to get a good job.” In particular, political leaders are recommending students focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as these are anticipated to have the greatest economic effect. The more insightful leaders include the arts in that list.
Debates about the appropriateness of diverse curricular offerings illustrate the divergent opinions about the purposes of education within a jurisdiction. Differences arise from perceived economic demands of providing a diverse curriculum, advantages for students who experience the curriculum, concerns about the moral or ethical implications of some curricula, and concerns about the adequacy of the skills students develop in schools. In the Unites States, also, laws are in place to prevent disadvantaged sub-populations from being discriminated against so as to limit their access to public services, including education. All of these factors complicate the task of reaching consensus on the purpose of school or even defining the essential characteristics of schools with clarity.
In an environment of many and conflicting points of view regarding school expectations, it is reasonable for school leaders to undertake strategic planning on a regular basis. The intent of this activity is to promote school organization and pedagogy that results in the purposes of the school being accomplished for the populations it serves. Achieving these goals (as defined and measured with these plans) in large part defines the activity within a school. Despite the commitment to being inclusive in planning, the degree to which all populations are equally represented in the strategic goals of the school.