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Public Service: Building a Foundation Toward a Capable Workforce

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Candi Choi
April 2, 2018

Anyone familiar with expectations for public service knows citizens are interested in performance as well as ethical conduct. In Motivation in Public Management; The Call of Public Service, James Perry and Annie Hondeghem examine the core values of public service across the globe, common elements include “integrity, honesty and probity, objectivity and impartiality, selflessness, respect for human dignity, respect for the rule of law and due process, protection of the vulnerable, accountability, openness and responsiveness to government… efficiency and risk taking.” Historically, the U.S. has defined public service as “altruistic” or “prosocial.” The former being a common motive working toward the public good and to shape the well-being of society. The latter, the behavior performed by a member of an organization while carrying out his/her organizational role while promoting the welfare of those with which he/she is directed. These are the ideal models for which public institutions strive so that the population served can either be inspired or desperately influenced by the way they achieve their goals. Meanwhile, adhering to these common values and expectations ultimately leading to social welfare.


The largest of the U.S.’s public service organizations is the education system. A place where our workforce is founded and drawn from. Looking at the current education system, there are plenty of barriers, expectations, ideals and interests bartering with the modeling of public values. Of course, there are other members in one’s life who model, inspire and influence, but the most consistent of them are parents, teachers and friends and they all collide at school. Yet, there is still dissatisfaction among administrators’, teachers’ and parents’ barters that are not conducive to each other. To meet this demand, the foundation of the system has been processed by reformers and thinkers, alike. In the Death and Life of the Great American Education System, Diane Ravitch, even admits there is no panacea to addressing the constraints found within the system.

The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act continues to govern current education policies. Within the Act, indications of low “performing schools” are two-fold. One indicator is the “number of students who test proficient in reading or language arts and mathematics.” Standardized testing, a tool provided to school systems to measure the proficiency of their students and could be used to focus on enhancing students’ areas of weakness. Instead they are an apparent measure of how well a teacher, curriculum or school system is doing. In Daniel Koretz’s book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Improve Schools he writes about the misuse and abuses of testing that make ill-equipped judgements. With distorted measures (Cambell’s Law) about students, teachers or schools, there isn’t much that can be improved upon. If test scores are the only things driving decisions, then our values and goals are displaced.

Further, the Every Student Succeeds Act interprets “the number of students who successfully graduate” as an indicator for “school performance.” However, if the student has reached graduation without addressing their mistakes/true level of education with integrity—alongside their parents and the school system—then how can society objectively consider that the school has been successful or not. Making mistakes helps inform critical thinking. School systems have taken mistakes and replaced them with retakes and grade changes. For example, some school systems (like Philadelphia, PA) now promise to provide at least 50 percent grade in any class. Students can even re-take tests if graded less than 80 percent in Fairfax County, VA. So, students can essentially take tests without studying and then focus on the test material to retake later. Or, if the first and second quarter they receive a C and then don’t do anything for the rest of the year — they can still pass the class. Students need both challenge and success with the goal of learning to meet their challenges with success. Proactively, the public cannot determine the capacity of the future workforce within the current model.

Case in point, in Prince George County, Maryland “nearly one of four high schoolers over a two year period were allowed to graduate without meeting classroom requirements.” In fact, an audit concluded that “4.9 percent of graduated seniors were ineligible to graduate because they did not meet classroom requirements” or acquire “enough hours for service learning, even when their grades had already been changed.” While some grades were even changed after graduation ceremonies. Almost half of the students audited graduated even though they had “more than 10 unlawful – unexcused – absences, which is supposed to result in an automatic E grade for a course.” Several 2017 graduates “had more than 50 such absences.” To simply focus on increasing the graduation rates of a population that has low levels of education and training; we are certainly doing a disservice to the social welfare of our society.

Sure, nobody wants anybody to fail, but if we can’t see failure for what it is then how can we objectively see success. Diane Ravitch reiterates, “without more precise understandings of which outcomes we care about and which distributions of those outcomes are fair, decision makers lack orientation. Their decisions may end up relying on data about outcomes that happen to be available rather than about outcomes that align with their goals.” After all, what are we asking of public education—for students to simply graduate or to pursue the common good—a qualifying workforce at the point of graduation. Institutions eventually deteriorate when values that motivate our public service are no longer implemented. Harmony can naturally occur without the promise of everyone getting to the same place at the same time. Now, a better educational foundation for our future workforce is necessary, by first addressing weaknesses within place and time (not at graduation). To that end, individuals are better able to align their interests with the greater good — at the pace necessary to gratify the quality of the interests that everyone pursues.

Author: Candi Choi holds an MPA with specialization in local government management. She has experience with local budgeting, planning and constituent affairs. Her contact email is [email protected]

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