Educational decision making involves value judgments. As decision makers aim for improvements, they need standards that tell them what counts as an improvement. However, they typically lack a rich and sophisticated language for talking about values and articulating trade-offs. Our main purpose in this paper is to enrich the language available to educational decision makers, and to the researchers whose work informs their deliberation, by offering a framework for thinking about the goals of education. The values (or range of values) commonly held in Western countries today clearly are not the same as those held in all other countries and at all other times. As a result, our framework has broad, but may not have universal, relevance.
We have coined the term “educational goods” to refer to the knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions that children develop both for their benefit and for the benefit of others. These goods are varied, including cognitive skills, the ability to work with others, and appreciation of beauty, among many others. We offer a way of thinking with some detail and precision about the educational goods that educators should aim for in schools. Defining educational goods is the first goal of this paper.
Decision makers typically care not only about the average level of educational goods that students acquire but also about how these goods are distributed across children. Their evaluation of a policy will depend on how the policy affects the overall distribution of educational goods in combination with the importance that they place on different distributive principles. One decision maker may place substantial weight on equalizing educational goods, while another may focus more on improving the educational goods of those with the least. The second goal of the paper is to lay out clearly the distributive considerations commonly relevant to education policy choices.