What Does “Well-Educated” Mean?

by Steve Wyckoff on January 23, 2010

I’ve been preparing for a presentation that I’m going to do for the school board of one of the largest districts in the state. They are involved in strategic planning, and to their credit they are looking at all aspects of their school district with the intent to improve. My presentation is built around my belief about the biggest issues we face in education. I’ve given this presentation several times, each time modifying it as I clarify the issues in my mind.

I put about 1000 miles on my car this week which has given me a lot of time to clarify exactly what I want to say. But I wanted to put it in writing here because it always seems different when I put my thoughts into writing, or present them to an audience for the first time. So with that in mind…

The issue that I’m dealing with is the conflict between what academia considers to be a well-educated person, and what the greater society that we live in considers to be a well-educated person. The first, academia, is made up of our universities. The second mostly centers around the workplace.

I’ve often ranted that our core curriculum is over 115 years old and was designed by the Committee of 10 which was made up of individuals from the world of academia. In this world individuals who are considered to be “well-educated” have been exposed to the classics in literature, theoretical mathematics and science, and have studied the social sciences through abstractions. Being “well-educated” in academia is measured by what you know.

Individuals who are considered to be “well-educated” in the workplace are knowledgeable about the issues related to the work they do, but in addition their knowledge is concrete and can be applied to real problems in the workplace, adding value to the work being done. Being “well-educated” in the workplace is measured by what an individual knows AND can do.

I know that both of these definitions are oversimplifications, but I think I can provide proof of their accuracy. If you want to get into college the measure is standardized tests, the ACT and SAT. Furthermore, in Kansas and many other states, your high school curriculum cannot have been taken in “applied” classes. Your classes must have been taken in a setting where the content was studied in an abstract manner absent the context of the real world.

When I speak to the business community and I ask them if it makes sense that students should learn math in the context of real-world problems so that the math can be applied in a concrete way, they completely agree. When I tell them that a student who takes a math class in an applied setting does not meet the criteria set by the Board of Regents for entry into the regents universities, they are appalled.

If you look at the regents required curriculum for high schools in Kansas it’s the same curriculum that was designed by the Committee of 10. Sure, there have been modifications to the content over time, but the emphasis on the instructional style and the expectations of the student are still aligned with the curriculum that that committee designed all those years ago.

Making every student take this curriculum really wasn’t an issue in the industrial age. Students who did well in the traditional curriculum went on to college in numbers that were appropriate for the times. But gradually as it became more important to be “well-educated” in the workplace more and more students were encouraged to go to “college.” The problem that arose in the workplace with students who were coming to the workplace with college degrees was that they did not have the knowledge relevant to the workplace, nor the ability to apply the knowledge to real situations. This is a growing problem. Businesses report regularly that students are not for prepared for the work environment they are entering in the 21st century.

You’ve heard it before, somebody describing a college graduate as “book smart” with no common sense. I’m not sure whether or not the student had common sense, but I’m pretty sure they did not possess the appropriate knowledge nor were they skilled at applying the knowledge they had to real situations.

Up to this point the academics have won the argument, or possibly they have just been able to keep the tradition alive. But the reality is we believe that our kids will be “well-educated” if we continue in K-12 to expose them to a curriculum that is abstract in nature, unrelated to the real world, taught in isolation, and measured strictly by what the student knows.

I believe that K-12 schools should be about learning experiences where the students apply the knowledge and skills necessary to solve real-world problems. They should learn to use 21st-century technologies in conjunction with up-to-date knowledge to solve today’s problems.

An unintended consequence of this conflict is the outrageous emphasis on standardized test scores. Standardized test scores have been the traditional measure of whether or not a student is “well-educated.” As students have graduated from college and gone to the workplace there has been an increasing dissatisfaction with our incoming workers. The natural response has been we have to educate them better, schools need to do a better job.

The response of policymakers was to mandate practices designed to improve test scores, thinking that improved test scores would equate to improved workers. It hasn’t worked. I believe the problem could be solved if we could agree which kind of “well-educated” student we want to produce.

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