What does it mean to be "well educated"? If you asked that of people on the street in a context divorced from schools and public education, very few people would include scoring well on standardized tests or the ability to recite dozens of unrelated facts. I bring this up because Jay Mathews in his weekly column discusses the concept of being well educated and other issues involved about helping children become successful adults with Deborah Meier. Meier is the founder of Central Park East, a school in Harlem that has had tremendous success educating children from low income families without banks of multiple choice tests.

The whole article is terrific and well worth your time to read. Meier has a refreshing approach to the capabilities of kids when put in the right environment, especially in contrast to the rather pessimistic view embedded in many of our educational policies and programs. Most remarkable is her philosophy of evaluating students based on their actual work and their success after leaving school.

I’ve pulled out a couple of my favorite items but read the whole thing for a small dose of inspiration (or rant material for those fans of bubble forms out there).

It mostly depends on how one defines being "well-educated." You get what you ask for. For those who define it as KIPP or Edison do, clearly the test-prep approach works, although they’ll soon discover its limits. I’m for their right to define education that way and to use assessments that best capture what matters to them. But I think time will demonstrate that narrowing the gap between low- and high-income test takers is a never-never-land game — for many reasons — and that a better definition of being well educated offers a better shot at real equity.

The impatient folks at the federal and business level are frustrated at the difficult-to-budge support that public education gets in poll after poll. If only, they complain, parents all realized how dumb their schools, kids and teachers are. They remind me of 1960s lefties, ready to bomb our complacent schools. Maybe this law was designed to make us so discouraged with public education that we can move on to unregulated privatized education. By labeling 75 percent of our schools failures, we can soon drop the old American love affair with the "common school" and move on to the marketplace.

Not only do the tests not measure basics, but they also distract us from teaching the kind of stuff that might engage kids’ minds and hearts, stuff that would force them to engage in the real discipline of intellectual life — weighing evidence, seeing other ways of looking at the same data or situation, comparing and contrasting, seeking patterns, conjecturing, even arguing. The trouble with such skills is they don’t come packaged with right/wrong answers.

I’ve been asked, "But Deb, how can folks use such higher order skills if they don’t first pile into their brains the facts — the yes/no stuff? Who wants to know your opinion on World War I if you are not knowledgeable about it?" Not a bad point. But since the average school experience never teaches us enough about anything to have an opinion, we never get to the task of knowing how educated people arrive at opinions or judgments — and not always at the same ones! Where are youngsters supposed to learn about this?

I nominate Deborah Meier for Secretary of Education!