What is the purpose of public education? What is the goal of K-12 education? What defines success?
Knowledge and learning, generally diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement.
So reads Article 8, Section 1, of the Indiana Constitution. As far as a general purpose for education goes, this is not a bad one. It states a particular reason for educating people and offers broad strokes for what that kind of education should look like. The State of Indiana is interested in the mechanism for preserving a free government. It acknowledges that education is essential to this idea and anchors its view of education in a tradition stretching for more than two thousand years, a tradition we broadly describe as a liberal arts education, for it takes in the widest spectrum of subjects in an effort to free people from the dark prison of ignorance.
Education could, of course, be about many other things. It could be about developing the skills to complete task X at company Y. It could be about developing the skills to pursue a hobby while in retirement. It could be about learning how to pick a person's pocket on the subway without getting detected, how to build a deck on the back of your house, or how to win friends and influence people. However noble or ignoble these educational goals may be, they share one characteristic. They are narrow. They belong to that set of activities for which the prisoners in Plato's cave awarded prizes. The English word "education" has its roots in the Latin ex + ducere, to lead out, and in this it hearkens back to Plato's famous allegory in reminding us that true education leads us from the small and the dark into the broad light of truth.
In answering the question, then, of what constitutes success in education, we must be clear what we mean by the word "education." If it is a narrow, limited development of a particular skill, then success can be measured by the performance of that skill. If the pickpocket, for example, makes a clean theft of someone's wallet, then Fagin can be rated a highly effective teacher and his house an A school. When we take a broader view of education, however, we must understand success in a correspondingly broader way.
So what does it mean "to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement?" How will we know that our children have made improvements in these areas? The unsettling answer is that we will not. Those of us alive at the moment will have but the most limited glimpse into the success of our efforts relative to the lives of our children. Our children will know better than we how successful we have been, but it will be years into their own lives and perhaps after some of those who have helped shape those lives have passed from their own. The true measure of success of real education is the life well lived and the society advanced by the collection of such lives. Successful education of this kind both secures the legacy of its community and ensures that the story of the human race continues on the shared journey of discovery. Such success is not measurable by narrow instruments. Then again, as the Mother Superior once realized, you cannot hold a moonbeam in your hand.