Tuesday, February 14, 2012

With such powerful forces for mis-education arrayed against actual learning, is there any hope for American education?


"I thought, how delightful to discover a nation that cares passionately about the physical environment in which children learn and adults work," Diane Ravitch writes of her visit to one of the schools featured in the book The Best School in the World: Seven Finnish Examples from the 21st Century. Pictured here: the Kirkkojärvi School in Espoo, which, according to the NYRB photo caption, "accommodates about 770 students aged seven to sixteen and also includes a preschool for six-year-olds."

"[T]he central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish education is cooperation, not competition."
-- Diane Ravitch, in "Schools We Can Envy," now posted,
from the upcoming (March 8)
New York Review of Books

by Ken

Just day before yesterday I wrote ("Are you sitting down? It turns out that the class divide in education has gone through the roof!") about the nearly complete separation of the U.S. educational system into one that provides rich rewards for the rich and not much for anyone else. As if American education wasn't already sufficiently under siege to focus on the production of thought-disabled conformist humanoids, it has now come into the grip of a coalition of sorts between the traditional right-wing anti-educationalists who believe that the key to education is the worship of ignorance and a new breed of bogus "reformers," whose goal, when you get right down to it, is more or less the same.

Diane Ravitch, one of the country's sanest and most outspoken of actual educational reform, is only too aware of how far out of the "action" she and other educators and education researchers who share her view of the educational process have fallen. The above-quoted characterization of the goals of Finland's educational system is offered as a marked contrast with what the Finnish education specialist Pasi Sahlberg "refers to as the 'Global Education Reform Movement,' to which he appends the apt acronym 'GERM.'"


Sahlberg, we should pause to establish, is (per Ravitch) "a government official, researcher, and former mathematics and science teacher" who has written a book called Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, in which he "explains how his nation's schools became successful," as a result of "bold decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s," a story he believes important because "it gives hope to those who are losing their faith in public education."
GERM, he notes, is a virus that has infected not only the United States, but the United Kingdom, Australia, and many other nations. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program are examples of the global education reform movement. Both promote standardized testing as the most reliable measure of success for students, teachers, and schools; privatization in the form of schools being transferred to private management; standardization of curriculum; and test-based accountability such as merit pay for high scores, closing schools with low scores, and firing educators for low scores.

Ravitch's latest NYRB piece is desperately important because it focuses on an educational system that by universal acknowledgment works remarkably well. And it stands, she says, as a down-the-line refutation of all the pillars of the currently ascendant American "accountability"-themed, standardized-test-based education philosophy espoused by people she calls " 'no excuses' reformers," whose ranks have included pols and policymakers like the last President Bush, former NYC and DC schools chancelors Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, and current Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who --
maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.

Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation. The reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, but because of bad teachers. These bad teachers must be found out and thrown out.

In her last NYRB piece on the subject, "School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade," Ravitch dealt scathingly with these delusional school "reformers," given powerful impetus by Bill and Melinda Gates's foundation and a whole coterie of Wall Street types, many of them Democrats, who brandish their utter ignorance of what goes on in classrooms like a credential. (I wrote about it at the time in a post called "When we put the plutocrats in charge, we get their crackpot ideas on matters like education.") She offered this distillation of the consequence of turning educational thinking and planning over to people like this:
When test scores become the goal of education by which students and schools are measured, then students in the bottom half -- who will inevitably include disproportionate numbers of children who are poor, children with disabilities, children who barely speak English -- will be left far behind, stigmatized by their low scores. If we were to focus on the needs of children, we would make sure that every pregnant woman got good medical care and nutrition, since many children born to women without them tend to have learning disabilities. We would make sure that children in poor communities have high-quality early childhood education so that they arrive in school ready to learn. We would insist that their teachers be trained to support their social, emotional, and intellectual development and to engage local communities on behalf of their children, as Dr. James Comer of Yale University has insisted for many years. And we would have national policies whose goal is to reduce poverty by expanding economic opportunity.


Apparently even the corporatistic educational delusionaries approve of the Finnish example, "apparently not recognizing that Finland disproves every part of their agenda." Ravitch notes that traditionally envious Americans -- who in the mid-19th century hailed the highly structured Prussian educational system, in the 1960s "flocked to England to marvel at its progressive schools," and in the 1908s "attributed the Japanese economic success to its school system" -- have now made Finland their "most favored nation."

There are "four good reasons," she says. (I tried to abridge or paraphrase this for our purposes but found the losses from any omissions unacceptable. Actually, the same is true of the piece as a whole. There just isn't any "unimportant" or "tangential" stuff in it. Note that it's the first of two articles.)
First, Finland has one of the highest-performing school systems in the world, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses reading, mathematical literacy, and scientific literacy of fifteen-year-old students in all thirty-four nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United States. Unlike our domestic tests, there are no consequences attached to the tests administered by the PISA. No individual or school learns its score. No one is rewarded or punished because of these tests. No one can prepare for them, nor is there any incentive to cheat.

Second, from an American perspective, Finland is an alternative universe. It rejects all of the "reforms" currently popular in the United States, such as testing, charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, competition, and evaluating teachers in relation to the test scores of their students.

Third, among the OECD nations, Finnish schools have the least variation in quality, meaning that they come closest to achieving equality of educational opportunity -- an American ideal.

Fourth, Finland borrowed many of its most valued ideas from the United States, such as equality of educational opportunity, individualized instruction, portfolio assessment, and cooperative learning. Most of its borrowing derives from the work of the philosopher John Dewey.


Sahlberg deals with obvious reasons why detractors will say Finland can't be taken as a model for the U.S. It has the luxury of ethnic homogeneity! (But, he points out, so do Japan, Shanghai, and Korea, highly esteemed by the corporate reformers for their reliance on standardized testing.) It's too small! (But, he points out, "about 30 states of the United States have a population close to or less than Finland.")
Sahlberg speaks directly to the sense of crisis about educational achievement in the United States and many other nations. US policymakers have turned to market-based solutions such as “tougher competition, more data, abolishing teacher unions, opening more charter schools, or employing corporate-world management models.” By contrast, Finland has spent the past forty years developing a different education system, one that is focused on
improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals.

To an American observer, the most remarkable fact about Finnish education is that students do not take any standardized tests until the end of high school. They do take tests, but the tests are drawn up by their own teachers, not by a multinational testing corporation. The Finnish nine-year comprehensive school is a "standardized testing-free zone," where children are encouraged "to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity."

Ravitch was one of a dozen educators invited to meet Sahlberg in New York in December 2010, and then in September 2011 he served as her guide when she visited Finland.
I visited bright, cheerful schools where students engaged in music, dramatics, play, and academic studies, with fifteen-minute recesses between classes. I spoke at length with teachers and principals in spacious, comfortable lounges. Free from the testing obsession that now consumes so much of the day in American schools, the staff has time to plan and discuss the students and the program.


A key element is a radically different concept of teacher preparation and qualification. Admission into training programs is "difficult" ("only one of every ten applicants is accepted") and the program "rigorous." Those admitted into the programs --
have already taken required high school courses in physics, chemistry, philosophy, music, and at least two foreign languages. Future teachers have a strong academic education for three years, then enter a two-year master’s degree program. Subject-matter teachers earn their master’s degree from the university’s academic departments, not -- in contrast to the US -- the department of teacher education, or in special schools for teacher education. Every candidate prepares to teach all kinds of students, including students with disabilities and other special needs. Every teacher must complete an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in education.

Because entry into teaching is difficult and the training is rigorous, teaching is a respected and prestigious profession in Finland. So selective and demanding is the process that virtually every teacher is well prepared. Sahlberg writes that teachers enter the profession with a sense of moral mission and the only reasons they might leave would be “if they were to lose their professional autonomy” or if "a merit-based compensation policy [tied to test scores] were imposed."

Sahlberg had already told the group of American educators he met in New York in December 2010 that Finnish educators think not of the corporate reformers' vaunted "accountability" but of responsibility. ("Our teachers are very responsible. They are professionals.") Incompetent teachers are no problem because they would never make it through the process to be appointed. And if Finnish teachers were told that students were to be judged by test scores, "They would walk out and they wouldn’t return until the authorities stopped this crazy idea."

Finland does have a "national curriculum in the arts and sciences," which "requires the teaching of a mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish), mathematics, foreign languages, history, biology, environmental science, religion, ethics, geography, chemistry, physics, music, visual arts, crafts, physical education, health, and other studies." But the curriculum "is not prescriptive about the details of what to teach or how to teach it." It's left to teachers to decide "what to teach, how to teach, and how to gauge their pupils’ progress."

Ravitch notes that Finnish children "enjoy certain advantages over our own children,"
The nation has a strong social welfare safety net, for which it pays with high taxes. More than 20 percent of our children live in poverty, while fewer than 4 percent of Finnish children do. Many children in the United States do not have access to regular medical care, but all Finnish children receive comprehensive health services and a free lunch every day. Higher education is tuition-free.

Ravitch concludes this first article in the new pair (in the second, she says, she will deal with the amateur-teaching Teach for American program, much admired by corporate reformers of the right and the left, alongside the Finnish model) with the contrasting educational goals of the Finnish system and of our corporate reformers, which I quoted at the outset. I think this part is worth repeating:
[T]he central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish education is cooperation, not competition.

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At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cooperation? That sounds like SOCIALISM!!!!

At 10:31 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Yeah, it does, Anon, doesn't it?

Never mind.


At 3:04 AM, Blogger Michelle said...

Everyone knows that the U.S. education system is in trouble. However, with the technology U.S. are into, I know they will do their best to improve it.

Famous Women in Business


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