Assessment Opinion

What We Mean By Being ‘Well-Educated’

By Deborah Meier — February 14, 2008 4 min read

Dear Diane,

I’ve been exploring PISA and TIMSS scores via the Web and the more I know the less impressed I am at how significant it all is, especially with regard to whether we need a more centralized curriculum. For example, on the latest TIMSS there are nine participants above and 25 below us and 11 statistically in the same place. The top nine include one district of China and many quite small countries; and the list of “competitors” who aren’t part of the study at all (like France, Germany, Austria, Greece, Spain) is considerable. Furthermore, some do and some don’t have a mandated national curriculum. But, like you, I am impressed with some of the samples I’ve seen of how math is taught in some other classrooms and countries, and hope we learn from these.

But I want to pursue the issue of what it is we mean by being “well-educated”, as well as “smart”. While I am dubious about the possibility of our agreeing, I’m not dubious about the value of discussing these issues rather than falling back on empty slogans like “all children can learn”. Even phrases like “high-level thinking” or “problem solving” leave me unimpressed.

I just got in the mail a huge two-volume “compendium” called “Battleground Schools” (edited by Sandra Mathison and E. Wayne Ross), which contrasts John Dewey’s views with those of Frederick Taylor a century ago. Taylorism is what I think we’ve returned to in our current reform wave, with its focus on “scientific management”, efficiency, and enthusiasm for testing. The authors say of Dewey’s followers that they were “focused on the effectiveness of schools in promoting democratic principles”. They believed schools should “(1) help each individual reach his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs and cultural identity and (2) [aid in] developing a critical, socially engaged intelligence, enabling individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good.”

I know, Diane, that it is far more complicated and hardly an adequate description of either. We’d disagree about both the history of progressivism (what happened to both forms of progressivism—Taylor’s and Dewey’s) and how the best of Dewey’s ideas should have been implemented. What else?

My concern with Dewey lies, in fact, with the first of his goals, and the degree to which he did not rethink some historically commonplace assumptions about individual human “abilities”, “interests,” and “needs”. This failure made it easy for many progressives to see Dewey’s ideas as applicable more to wealthier Americans (thus their enormous influence on private schools or wealthy public schools) than to those at the other end of the socio-economic scale—add in race. This failure made the testing movement seem like a useful adjunct to progressive ideas, and certainly did not lead to a fight against the use of IQ and so-called achievement testing in deciding who got what kind of schooling.

Nor did it sufficiently contest the related idea that “academics” were beyond the reach of the bottom half, nor that even Dewey’s supporters were defining “academics” in a narrow and sterile fashion. That’s where I join Gerald Graff in his critique of “the academy” in “Clueless in Academe” (which I mentioned earlier). And that’s where Ted Sizer’s study of American high schools picked up. “Learning to use one’s mind well”—in Sizer’s terms—turned “academics” on its head in a way that you and I may disagree about. It weakens the rigid boundaries between “practical” schooling and “academic” schooling, between the liberal arts and vocational education. Our vocation as citizens (to go back to Dewey) and as productive members of society can and are best served together. The “how” is still an experiment and should be explored with patience, tentativeness, and respect. The positive side of the 60s-70s was in the start of a number of interesting schools that tried to explore these ideas in action.

In the rush to small schools we probably both decry the ways in which choice lands us back into the same “ability tracks” that Sizer was criticizing and into the same assumptions that underlie them. The names of the new little schools make it easy to guess their demographics—the “school for arts and sciences” versus the “school for x or y career”. In too many places, as if this weren’t enough, many small schools have entrance requirements based on the assumption that “high-level academics” isn’t do-able for all.

I know our beliefs in the capacity of “all children” to learn to be powerful members of society rests on sand when I realize that the currently powerful are extremely hesitant (to say the least) to educate their children in settings which actually match the larger population. This phenomenon crosses all ideological boundaries. It troubled me, and still does, with regard to my own children a half-century ago. Private progressive schools, and private non-progressive schools, do not accept all children (even all those who can pay—on a lottery basis). They rely heavily on “test scores” in deciding who to admit. Between kindergarten and 12th grade they, furthermore, become choosier and choosier. “He’s just not ‘right’ for us,” is an oft-heard phrase in even my favorite private schools—and in an increasing number of public schools of choice.

These are subjects about which there is too much silence. Let’s pursue this train of thought for a while?


P.S. “Dear Josie”, by Joseph Featherstone is still in print and worth reading. Featherstone has a great short chapter entitled “Five Big Ideas” that summarizes what I think he and I mean by a “good education”. But it is not “mandatable”. For a good critique of modern Taylorism, I like Larry Cuban’s “The Blackboard and the Bottom Line Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses”.

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