What Should We Do About Education?
American public schools too often fail our children, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This is not a new problem. The achievement gap between children from higher income families and those whose parents struggle socially and financially is wide and has been a persistent for the last 50 years. And, it must be noted, the problem is not the fault of teachers, but of faulty and politically-charged policy making. Other countries have found solutions, but we continue to lag behind. Why? The following is an abridged section from my 2013 book, The Idea of America.
A 2007 McKinsey study examined the world’s top-ten rated school systems. Teachers in these systems came from the top 10% of their high school and college graduating classes; teaching was one of the top three career choices among college graduates.
The report stressed that “those nations that have improved significantly have done so primarily because they have produced a system that is more effective in doing three things: getting more talented people to become teachers, developing those teachers into better instructors and ensuring that these instructors deliver consistently for every child in the system.”
Why Don’t We Understand?
Why, I wonder, do we in America not “get it?” Why do our politicians cast blame on teachers while remaining blind to the fact that many educators are underpaid, overworked and labor in crowded classrooms with outdated books and supplies? The answer is: because most of our politicians would rather approach complex problems that require money and attention by casting blame instead of investing time and resources in qualitative solutions. We must understand that fixing our education system is complex, politically contentious and will be expensive if we are committed to doing it well.
To develop a national agenda for American schools means trespassing on local and national political landscapes. But adhering to the political or social biases of elected officials (from governing board members to members of Congress) should not be part of the discussion. We must become laser-focused on the quality of education, rather than on ideology.
Finland Does “Get it”
Are there any models for accomplishing this task? Yes, Finland. In the 1980s, Finland’s education system lagged behind other nations. Today, Finland is among the world leaders in all measurements of educational achievement, and they climbed to that peak of excellence by making radical policy choices. For instance:
All teachers are required to have a master’s degree and the government pays for teacher education.
Children do not start school until they are seven and are not measured in any way during the first six years.
Homework is discouraged, teachers devise their own testing, and standardized testing does not begin until age sixteen.
Finland has approximately the same number of teachers as New York City but more than half a million fewer students, and Finland spends approximately 30% less per student than the United States.
In Finland, 93% of the students graduate from high school, 66% go to college and most of the others to vocational schools.
The achievement gap between the highest and lowest performing students in Finnish schools is the smallest in the world.
Science classrooms are limited to 16 students, allowing each one to participate in practical experiments.
Teachers spend four hours in the classroom each day and take two hours each week for professional development. Starting salaries for teachers are competitive when compared to other professionals in Finland.
The school system is 100% government funded.
The emphasis is on student cooperation rather than competition.
It is true that Finland is a small country with a small economy, is ethnically homogenous and has very few immigrants. There are, however, lessons we can learn from the Finnish system. I realize that Americans prefer to ignore lessons from abroad because we want to believe that no other country is superior to ours in any way. But I believe it is damaging to the future of our nation and our children to ignore success wherever it occurs.