Can merit pay, new teaching strategies, or applying “what works” improve education, if we haven’t defined what it means to be educated?

I read education articles on the internet today. My head is spinning with the words of Jay Matthews, Susan Ohanian, President Obama, Arne Duncan, Thomas Friedman, and the late Gerald Bracey. Try it sometime. Your head will spin too. There is so much out there. It is all so contradictory, so arbitrary, so political, and so not-informed by a definition of what it means to be educated.

I should give up. Defining what it means to be educated should be our first concern, but it seems to be our last concern (or of no concern at all).

How did this happen? Where are the writers/analysts/educators who can cut through all the peripheral stuff about merit pay, new teaching strategies, applying what works, etc.? Does anybody see that addressing these concerns will not improve education until we have an inspiring, useful, universal definition of what it means to be educated?

It is illogical to pursue our current definition. Higher test scores bring shallow satisfaction. Nobody says, “Test scores went up! Our children will have fulfilling lives! American schools are great!”

Internet writers discuss peripheral ideas for improving education because social scientists and politicians have a platform, but philosophers do not. The book, NurtureShock, is an example. Its main premise is that “old” social scientific research findings are naive, but new ones are enlightening. It is getting rave reviews (e. g. It is an example of how social science findings receive more attention than natural science findings, and philosophy gets no attention at all. Philosophy doesn’t sell, so we have become an “aphilosophical” people.

The irony is that, if Americans want guidance on raising their children, they should read philosophy and TSVOTEP, not NurtureShock. A philosophy of education is more helpful than all the social science findings in the world because it can pose the questions that enable us to identify the foundation of all child-rearing situations. We simply need to ask, “What does it mean to be educated?”

In the case of the six-virtue definition of “educated,” all child-rearing situations should be handled in a way that models and teaches understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity. Social science findings inform only the first of the six virtues — understanding. The usefulness of philosophy is explained more in the three-part blog on NurtureShock.

(Back to the internet.) Social scientific research and ideas for improving education accomplish one thing. They are political fodder for incessant blogging and commenting. For example, Jay Matthews wants Thomas Friedman and Gene Glass to debate the extent to which American schools are better or worse than we think they are. Would the debate start with a rich, useful definition of what it means to be educated? Does either of them have such a definition?

I read Glass’s book, Fertilizers, Pills, and Magnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America. He makes many of the same points I make in my book. But every book is different, and Glass does not define what he means by educated, unless it means achieving high standardized test scores.

And what is Friedman going to say that is new? Does he have a rich, useful definition of “educated?” He points to test score data about student “achievement,” because he believes “achievement” is reflected in those data. Does he not know people with high test scores and multiple college degrees; who lack imagination, courage and humility? Does he consider them “educated?” If so, why should I listen to him?

Yes — schools should help students score higher on standardized tests, but equating high test scores with “educated” is a low point in the history of American education. Cuban (The Blackboard and the Bottom Line, 2004, p. 34) notes that policy elites, corporate leaders, researchers and administrators are the ones who value high test scores. He goes on to say teachers value these, but they also value, “attitudes, values, and behavior on both academic and non-academic tasks inside and outside of classrooms” (p. 35).

Teachers, parents and students need a more concrete rallying cry. It cannot be, “We define ‘educated’ as high test scores and good attitudes, values, and behavior on both academic and non-academic tasks inside and outside of classrooms.” The six-virtue definition of the educated person could be such a rallying cry. I don’t know anyone who does not want his/her child to develop understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity.

Do you?

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