Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Improving schools

I’ve written about education (e.g., Ethical Musings: Teaching and accountability).

Two recent news items caught my attention.

First, the 87,000 children who attend Department of Defense system schools (DODS) consistently outscore their civilian counterparts on standardized tests. DODS is exempt from both the Bush “No Child Left Behind” law and the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top.” Instead, the schools focus on teaching, using standardized tests for the purpose for which the tests were originally designed, i.e., a diagnostic aid to help a teacher know a child’s level of accomplishment. The schools are good, offering small class size comparable to elite private schools and largely having overcome racial problems. To learn more, read Michael Winerip, “Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students,” New York Times, December 11, 2011. Incidentally, the research is consist with my experience as a military chaplain, watching parents sometimes choose duty stations to enable their children to attend DODS schools rather than public schools.

Second, in Finland 2400 people competed for 120 openings in the master’s program at the University of Helsinki for schoolteachers, competition to get into school that is stiffer than Finns who wish to become lawyers or doctors face. That contrasts starkly with the U.S., where education is rather low on the list of preferred college majors, often chosen by people who have no realistic hope of admission to the more prestigious and highly rewarded fields of law, medicine, dentistry, and top-flight business schools. Why is there such a marked difference?

In Finland, about a quarter of college students want to become schoolteachers. The master’s program is heavily, sometimes completely, subsidized. Although starting teachers earn less than their American peers (about $29,000 in 2008 compared to $36,000 in the U.S.), they spend about four hours per day in the classroom and receive two paid hours per week of professional development time. In other words, teachers are well treated and not overworked, as are most American teachers who spend long days at school and then usually bring work home at night. More importantly, Finns value education: 95% of Finns go on to some form of post-secondary higher education or vocational training.

The Finnish model is not directly applicable to the U.S. Finland has a low poverty rate and a much more homogenous population. (Jenny Anderson, “From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model,” New York Times, December 13, 2011)

However, Finland’s pedagogical success is proof that schools do not have to fail. Rather than institutionalizing unproven solutions, the U.S. would benefit from preserving more local flexibility and promoting experimentation, devising approaches and methods that local schools demonstrate work.


Ted said...

60 Minutes had an excellent segment on Finnish schools. The Finns actually want to teach kids so they can be productive. We just want numbers of passing kids regardless of their potential in the future.
All kids should not aspire to be the college graduate their parents envisioned when they were babies. Many kids attending college never graduate or receive degrees in fields that have few or no job opportunities. All the while they are spending their parents or themselves into debt.
In the past, having a college degree would enhance your earning potential compared to having no degree. In today’s world this is not true unless you are specialized in a field where there are job opportunities.
My best example is hearing two baggers at a local grocery store talk about the colleges they attended, had received a degree but no job.
Our schools need to test for ability and provide schooling or vocational training so kids can continue their education without giving up and dropping out. We also need to determine what is important to teach. I doubt many people can give correct answers to many of the “extremely important” courses they took in high school or college. Many of the non-technical skills people need are basically received on the job.
As long as we feel all kids and people are equal, we will fall further down the list of countries with educated people capable of receiving higher degrees and running today’s factories and other manual skills

George Clifford said...

Thanks for the reference to 60 Minutes. Two of the most important lessons that I sought to communicate to my students in college and grad school were (1)improved thinking patterns/problem solving skills and (2)improved oral and written communication skills. Students can learn both in the classroom and arrive on the job better prepared for success.