Have you ever looked at your tuition bill and wondered what exactly the purpose of a college education is? Assistant Professor of Psychology Steven Stemler has set out to answer that question, recently publishing a study that compares mission statements from 500 schools around the country in an attempt to discover what school is for.

The research showed that schools emphasized specific goals based on their history or political preference. For example, in Texas, where legislators have championed standardized testing for years, cognitive development was a main concern. Other states, such as California and New York, showed more of a civic theme.

Stemler and Boston College Professor Damien Bebell have been researching the topic for the last 10 years. Stemler said that he believes that the research will help address some of the issues surrounding standardized testing.

“The debate about how students should get tested comes down to what you think schools exist to do,” Stemler said. “Is it supposed to be there for math and science, or for social and emotional [development]?”

Stemler said that he and his colleagues wanted to focus on the question from a tangible, rather than a philosophical perspective.

“We thought, ‘Is there some common place where schools can articulate what their vision is?’” Stemler said. “It turns out to that we landed on school missions statements. Part of the reason for that is because to get credited a school must have a mission statement. It’s one of the few things all schools in the country have to have.”

Stemler and his colleague studied schools from New York, California, North Carolina, Colorado, Washington, Alabama, Michigan, Florida, Texas, and Iowa. Fifty public schools were randomly selected from each state, with a range of urban, suburban, and rural schools.

While Stemler admitted that vacuous words are sometimes included in the mission statements, he said that most are written with specific aims in mind. His coding system divided the mission statements into categories such as cognitive development, civic development and emotional development.

“If they talk about critical thinking, they’re really talking about cognitive development,” Stemler said. “If they talk about global or effective citizens, that’s more of a civic development. If they talk about development or emotional things, those fall in the emotional category. So we were able to sort of systematically come up with words that are associated with each of these connections.”

Out of the 500 schools randomly selected for the original study, Stemler and his colleagues were able to successfully code for 421 schools. According to Stemler, the mission statements for the other schools were not available.

Stemler said that he hopes that his findings will have an impact on standardized testing.

“The standardized tests that are currently used may assess some important skills,” Stemler wrote in an email to The Argus. “If schools and society truly value traits such as citizenship, social and emotional development, ethical reasoning, and creativity, then we need to get serious about attempting to measure those traits so that we can understand how schools are helping students to develop in these areas.”


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