Photo: Flickr: Leo-setä
I trawled around rather wistfully in my wishing well of ideas for this editorial on the biggest problem and the best solution for America’s ailing public schools.What would it be? Creating a world-class universal pre-school system so every child has a chance of entering kindergarten on a level playing field?
Or, how about halting our runaway obsession with high-stakes standardized tests so that schools can be free to teach, and not just chase numbers? I could imagine tackling either of these with equal gusto.
But wait. What’s the point of promoting anything when economic inequality tends to thwart most big-think policies anyway? Instead, let’s rethink our school district boundaries so each has a shot at having a healthy balance of incomes and races in their schools. That would provide a radically improved foundation for other changes. The mind boggled with all the possibilities – all of which were sure to generate an overheated response.
That’s when I realised, as I caught my breath, that I was missing the biggest problem of all. It lay in the question itself — what’s wrong with our public schools and how do we fix it? It presumes there is one overarching ill in the complex quest to educate every American child that can be vanquished by one silver bullet. It feeds into our pugilistic need to identify one idea, decide whether it’s conservative or liberal, form camps on either side, and begin to duke it out. We all love a good battle; especially journalists. No wonder we seem to tread water year after year with our education progress.
So I’ve decided to instead dedicate the rest of this op-ed to what’s wrong with our conversation about public education in America, in the hopes that my fellow journalists will take heed and watch their language in the future.
In short, we talk about all the wrong things, in all the wrong ways. Our vocabulary about schools has become ever more polarising and oddly jarring over the decades. It is language culled from the lexicon of business, not from the realities of the classroom. We talk about students “performing” and “achieving,” as if the holistic world of learning is a contact sport or a musical production. We talk about giving teachers “incentive-pay” to do their jobs, as if they are trading in a simple commodity. Schools are held “accountable” to governments, but not necessarily the other way around. The federal government encourages states to design “value-added” algorithms to rank its teachers.
Experts know that children learn best in collaborative, egalitarian settings. Yet our language is all about competition; it’s combative, not cooperative. It presumes a need for winners and losers, for either’s and or’s. One either believes that small class sizes are the answer, or quality teachers. Considering both is not an option. Back in the day, one either embraced phonics or whole language as the best way to teach reading. Most educators know a blend of both is best. The problem with public education is either high poverty, or the strangle-hold power of the teachers union. The discussion narrows into a fight over competing statistics.
A list of vocabulary misfires cannot be complete without considering “education reformer”—one of the most misused terms in this debate. Lately, it has been adopted by those who believe teachers’ unions’ are the key impediment to change and charter schools are the answer to education excellence for disadvantaged children. Anyone who takes issue is “anti-reform,” or “pro-status quo.” Hedge fund financier Whitney Tilson (who also helped to found Teach for America, Democrats for Education Reform and New York City’s Knowledge is Power Program network of schools), goes one step further, adding the word “genuine” to the label. He, of course, counts himself among the “genuine reformers,” implying that anyone who criticises his agenda is somehow less than genuine. Not much wiggle room for consensus, there.
I was never more aware of how strange, and ultimately toxic our conversation had become until I visited schools in Finland last spring. I was there to try and understand how its schools continually ranked at the top in the world on the PISA exams for the last decade, while America’s muddled around in the mediocre middle. Reporting for a story in Smithsonian Magazine took me to several unusual schools with high concentrations of new immigrant and special needs children.
At one point I asked a lively group of teachers about accountability. Finnish children famously start school at age 7, spend fewer hours in the classroom than those in most industrial nations, and take only one standardized exam at the end of their high school career. And yet the schools consistently produce more students than most other industrialized countries who are creative problem solvers, literate in several languages, and have mastered higher concepts in maths and science.
“Since you don’t have test scores to compare how your students are doing with other kids,” I said to the group, “how do municipalities hold you accountable?”
The teachers’ lounge went silent as they tried to figure out what I was talking about.
“Do you have this word – accountability – in Finnish?” I asked, trying to be helpful. I could barely believe a group of public school educators didn’t worry about it on a regular basis.
The answer was no, not really. No word for accountability. “Maybe in banking,” one teacher offered, looking around the room for the English teacher to rescue her. “We have bank accounts.”
Finnish teachers are required to complete five-year masters’ degrees in education before setting foot in their own classrooms. Schools provide them consistently with small class sizes, autonomy to teach as they see fit, and a team of professionals to help them with students who may be falling behind. Their “incentive” to “perform” well, so to speak, is wrapped up in their professionalism. They do not seem to need a wall of external monitors and test scores to “hold them accountable.”
As a result, Finns have a completely different way of thinking and talking about their public schools. There is consensus that teachers are as highly respected in Finland as doctors and lawyers. Parents tend to trust their children’s schools and teachers. Equity and collaboration are important to all schools, not competition between them. Finland’s schools are known for having the most equal resources and equal results between them of any other schools in the world. Teachers talk about preparing students for life, not for exams, or for global competition.
In one conversation with Principal Kari Louhivuori, I began explaining the battery of tests New York City children take every year, and the way the numbers are used. Scores from these exams are used to give letter grades to schools, to rank teachers, to compare one school to another.
Bewildered, Louhivuori finally had to interrupt: “What does all that have to do with the children learning?” Exactly right. It’s the conversation we should be having.
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