Teachers need an inspiring definition, others don’t

Why do legislators, school board members, district administrators, professors of education, and parents define “educated” as scoring high on standardized tests?  In TSVOTEP I argued that the standards and accountability movement is the cause.  If we go deeper, we can see a simpler, more concrete reason.

The “high-score” definition of educated has been adopted by Americans who don’t need an inspiring definition. Teachers, however, need a definition that inspires them and their students. Policy makers, school administrators and parents only need a definition that can be used to hold teachers accountable.  Therefore, they believe the educated person is one who scores high on standardized tests — a definition that holds teachers accountable, but does not inspire.  Never once, in more than 30 semesters of teaching Introduction to American Education, did one of my students ever say, “I want to become a teacher to improve student test scores.”  That is simply not a reason that inspires anyone to become a teacher.

K-12 teachers need an inspiring definition of the educated person because they work with 20-25 students, five hours a day, 180 days a year.  If they aren’t inspired, they can’t inspire their students.  Our best teachers get inspiration from defining the educated person as one who: (1) is a life-long learner, (2) thinks for himself/herself, (3) lives a productive life, (4) contributes to society, (5) participates in democracy, (6) makes the world better, (7) develops the six virtues, etc.  It is ironic that legislators, school board members, district administrators, professors of education and parents want their own children to have inspired, inspiring teachers, but they have pushed an uninspiring definition onto teachers — ironic, but not surprising because they don’t get up 180 days a year to face classrooms full of needy students five hours each day.

It is time for teachers to explain that they need an inspired, inspiring definition of the educated person.  This is no small matter.  The definition of “educated” is the most important issue in the debate about how to improve schools.  Every improvement initiative starts with a definition of “educated” — either explicit or implicit.   Today’s improvement initiatives start with the explicit intention of raising test scores because that is how governing elites have defined “educated.”   This satisfies their need for a useful definition, but not teachers’ need for an inspiring one.

Here is my advice to teachers:

When policymakers, administrators and parents focus on standardized test scores,  you can agree that high scores are good.  Then remind them that everybody cannot score high.   In the world of norm-referenced test results, exactly one-half of students can be above average.  The other half must be below average.  It’s a mathematical requirement.

You should follow the policies of governing elites, but also explain to your students and parents that the “educated” person is one who develops six virtues.  Tell them you will model and teach those virtues, and students are expected to develop them.

If policymakers and administrators object, saying you are supposed to teach knowledge and skills, further discussion is fruitless.  They want what has never happened and never will.  There is no teaching-learning situation in which a young person learns knowledge and skills, without bringing understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility, and generosity to the learning situation.

Teachers need to model these virtues, so students can develop them and tap into them as they learn knowledge and skills.   If teachers do this, their student test scores will be fine.



#1 Debra Robert on 03.29.12 at 7:12 pm

Administrators look at the “whole” candidate before hiring. This is because they want teachers to be able to accomplish everything. ..the impossible. Saying, “My test scores are always high” will not alone get a teacher hired. I always said that my students did well on tests because of the community I create. My parents and students are thrilled because they learn life skills and lessons in my class. It is because I model being a kind and caring person that my students succeed. Honestly, there were years that I was suprised at how well my students did because I spent a great deal of time processing feelings and mediating disputes. My students continue to write and thank me. Their parents often e-mail me telling me how my name came up or how their son/daughter did something differently because of my guidance. We can make a difference.

#2 Helen Rubin on 03.29.12 at 7:29 pm

The missing pieces of the educational puzzle are the first 5 years of life. We do not revere these years, except on paper, in books and various journals that purport to promote ‘the best early care’. The most expensive childcare is not necessarily the best and neither is it possible to provide the best when so many caregivers of the very young aren’t well educated in their field.

The true fact is that money holds the keys to education, not how much money you make but whether you are willing to give up that money to ensure that your child will develop neurotypically such that he ought to be able to learn when he goes to school. But that makes an assumption……that teachers are ready for that well prepared child. Teaching at all levels requires passion – without passion it’s just blah, blah, blah, following the instructions ‘by the book’ every day.

28 years ago I presented my oldest son, ready to learn, to the public school system – they weren’t ready for him! I knew my responsibility as an immigrant, a parent and a British trained nursery school teacher and exercised that responsibility to the highest level in the first 6 years of my son’s life. The principal of his elementary school told me “We have no cause to provide anything more for your son” when I discovered the classroom teacher used just one basic curriculum box for everyone and lectured one child, my son, who wasn’t a behavior problem as an example to get the rest of the class in line! Outrageous! Within a year he was back at home being the avid, focused, passionate learner that he had been for his first 6 years of life.

We didn’t risk public school with his brother. They were both educated at home until they were 18. They’d already been working throughout their teenage years – at responsible jobs I might add. They are currently functioning very well, at 34 and 31, according to your definition of an educated person (comparable to mine).

Perhaps that’s why more and more people are giving home schooling/unschooling/home education, whatever we choose to call it, a try. As I recently said to a parent thinking about trying alternative schooling for their 11 year old – there is a risk in leaving your already failing child in public school just as much as there is a risk in trying something different. Why waste the next 7 years of that child’s life when he will more likely become ‘an educated person’ if you take the alternative route?

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