Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Novel Approach to Education Reform

This week Newsweek Magazine includes an article by Dianne Ravitch titled Obama's War on Education. Dr Ravitch, the acclaimed education historian and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, explains how the Obama administration has continued mindless attacks on our public school system. She points out that the present administration seems just as oblivious to the real problems in public education as the Bush administration, and continues to promote many reform programs that have no validity and are often more destructive than helpful to our educational system.

Louisiana's governor Jindal seems to be doing his part in supporting efforts to privatize our public school system. On Tuesday, Jindal and Superintendent Pastorek presided over the showing of the anti-public education film, Waiting For Superman, (click here for a report on how this film distorts the record relative to charter schools) to a group of education officials and opinion makers in the Baton Rouge area. The idea seems to be to recommend almost any substitute for public education. It seems to make no difference that the evidence is of mainly poor performance and major setbacks in many Louisiana charter schools and voucher options. Maybe because the public today is looking for simple solutions to complex problems, it seems that propaganda is preferable to real performance.

Public schools in the U. S. are certainly not doing as well as we would like. (It really turns out that the under-performance centers primarily on certain groups of students, yet critics are condemning the entire system. . . . More about this later.) So what would be the best approach to reforming and improving our public schools? What about learning from the reform approach of a country that has been extremely successful in improving its schools? That would be a novel approach compared to vicious attacks on our schools and knee jerk reactions that have sprung up throughout the country in recent years.

Sam Abrams, a visiting scholar from Teachers College of Columbia University who has spent several years studying the public education system of Finland was recently interviewed by Dr. Raynard Sanders for the radio program The New Orleans Imperative. Mr Abrams believes that education reformers in this country have mostly ignored the lessons about what really works in education from the country that is considered to have the most successful public education system in the world! While our politicians have turned to trashing schools and efforts to privatize public education, Finland has really transformed its educational system into a highly successful experience for both teachers and students. The rebirth of public schools in Finland began after a special study report in 1971 recommended that considering its few natural resources, Finland should improve the public educational system if it was to become more competitive in the world. Changes instituted over the past 40 years transformed the education system in Finland into a model for the world. Students there now excel in all subjects including science and math, in addition to arts and vocational courses, and they graduate from high school at an extremely high rate. The schools in Finland are producing exactly the type of educated students our reformers claim to want, all without the standardized testing, test rehearsing, grade retention, dropouts, school privatization, and teacher bashing.

Here are the main points made by Mr Abrams in the interview:
  • Finland makes very little use of standardized testing in the measurement of student and teacher success.
  • Teacher candidates are carefully selected from upper 1/4th of college scholars. To get a teaching certificate, candidates must attain a Masters degree in their teaching field.
  • In return, teachers are well paid compared to other comparable careers.
  • In Finland teachers are given much autonomy and latitude for teaching methods.
  • In summary, teachers in Finland are respected and treated like professionals.
The U. S. on the other hand has made standardized testing the primary measure of school success. State testing has been used in Louisiana and other states to determine promotion and retention of students and will soon be used as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Finland fails no students, and continues students with their age group throughout their elementary/secondary enrollment regardless of their academic performance. Mr Abrams points out that students who fall behind in basic skills are simply pulled out for extra help in those skills. Louisiana and many other states have implemented high stakes testing based on state tests and have systematically held back thousands of students because they have not met arbitrary lock step expectations. In Louisiana, our state leaders proudly claim that students are not allowed to receive high school diplomas without passing the state graduation exit exam. Our State
Superintendent repeatedly announces that "failure is not an option" for our students, while thousands of students are pushed out of school with no credentials and little chance of a good job!

Recently however, BESE (at the urging of the State Department of Education) allowed students to be promoted after two years at the 4th grade level even without passing the high stakes test. The Department finally admitted that retention of students was not producing results.

New national subject matter standards are in the process of being developed and adopted that are intended to prepare all students for college and careers. This curriculum, most experts tell us ends up being almost exclusively college preparatory, with almost no emphasis on development of vocational skills. The theory is that if we just prepare everyone for college, those students that prefer to train for vocational careers will still have a good foundation. Finland on the other hand, allows approximately 45% of its students to begin vocational training at the high school level and prepares them for high skills careers within 3 years after high school. Mr Abrams stresses that in Finland there is no stigmatizing of students who choose the vocational or career route. The skills trades are highly valued and well paid in Finland. In Louisiana, students are led to believe that college is the only worthwhile goal of education. State education leaders constantly drive home the message of the need for students to be college and career ready rather than college or career ready. Meanwhile, there has developed a shortage of local skilled workers, craftsmen, and health care workers while Louisiana college graduates often move to other states in search of jobs where they can utilize their credentials.

Mr Abrams pointed out in the interview that skilled, construction and maintenance jobs are the very jobs that cannot be exported to other countries with cheap labor because these jobs must be done on site. Some highly trained software engineers on the other hand have had seen their jobs exported to India.

Are Our Public Schools Really That Bad?
As explained in one of my previous posts, our public schools work just fine for the middle class and for Asian origin students. American students of Asian origin do just as well as their counterparts in the top performing education systems that have Asian population students. Middle class or white students perform very close to the highest performing students in the world (5th in the world as measured by the PISA assessment). The problem is with the relatively large population of high poverty minority students and with English language learners who have a large negative impact on our national average scores on standardized tests. This is where the demographics of the American education system differs significantly from other industrialized countries. Our high poverty population is approximately 20% while Finland has an underprivileged student population of only 5%.

I believe the most serious and unfair misconception about our schools is that somehow most bad schools are serving underprivileged students. Those schools are often labeled as “failing” schools when it would be more accurate to conclude that they are really just schools that happen to be serving low-performing students. In our society it is more popular to blame the schools and the teachers for poor student performance, when often its the negative influence of the out-of-school environment that adversely affects school performance. Many inner city and even some rural schools serve students who are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, neglect, crime, drugs and lack of positive role models for children.

It may be a novel approach to simply focus extra efforts and resources on the students who need more help. The Federal governement and states could provide financial incentives for strong teachers who are willing to put in more time in schools serving high poverty communities. There should be solid programs promoting positive parental involvement, along with extended school days or years without sacrificing PE, arts and vocational programs.

Unfortunately some of the popular education reform efforts today in the U.S. make scapegoats out of many dedicated teachers and school administrators who happen to work in schools serving impoverished communities. The people in Singapore and Finland would be appalled at the finger pointing at professional educators that has characterized much of recent American reform efforts. Most experts estimate that there are very few bad teachers in our schools, so it makes no sense to assume that mass firings or replacement of teachers will somehow produce dramatic improvements. Wouldn't it be sad if we fired and replaced half of our American teachers based on student performance and we found that it made no real difference? Not only is such a scheme impractical (Not many qualified persons want to teach in inner city schools), but it would surely be demoralizing to many teachers. Finland, in contrast chose to support teachers and enhance the profession. It paid off for their children!