Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

How to reform education: The answer song

This week thousands of Arizona high school seniors will don caps and gowns and receive their high school diplomas, while others who successfully completed 12 years of schooling but failed the state’s infamous AIMS test will be left feeling dejected and betrayed by our failing public education system. How can students pass all 12 grades and not pass the high-stakes test? What happens to these students now? These are but a few symptoms of Arizona’s broken educational system.

Perhaps also reflecting on graduation day and the state’s failing school system, the Arizona Republic recently published an editorial on education reform: 5 vital ways to reform K-12 education.

The five suggestions read like a right-wing wish list: 1) competition; 2) high expectations; 3) quality teachers; 4) intelligent use of technology; and 5) private sector involvement. Not surprisingly, the editorial was written by Craig R. Barrett, former CEO of Intel and current president and chairman of BASIS, a system of charter high schools.

So, Barrett’s solution to education? Treat it like a business– build in market competition, push for excellence, use technology wisely, and hire quality employees (ie, teachers). In my opinion, there are multiple problems with applying a business model to education– unless of course you are in the business of education, like Barrett and the hundreds of other businessmen who are financially and ideologically invested charter schools.

What has been left off of Barrett’s list is just as interesting as what is on his list: parental involvement, the importance of early childhood education, teacher salaries, class sizes, teaching methods, tutoring for struggling students, English language assistance for students who grew up speaking other languages, poverty and unemployment, and– the big kicker– the crushing influence of Arizona’s right wing Legislature, who offers devastating, bold-faced cuts to public education while incentivizing privatization and profiteering in education. Heavy sigh.

Barrett’s first three paragraphs solicited a loud “duh” from me.

To carry out any discussion of K-12 education reform, you have to focus on both the numbers and the history. The numbers are pretty simple – and pretty devastating. About 30 percent of Arizona kids do not graduate from high school, and of the 70 percent who do graduate, about half do not have an education of sufficient quality to succeed in college.

Of the 35 percent of the total who are so-called college-ready, about a third require some remediation to be able to take college-level math, science and English; and, eventually, only about 25 percent of all kids earn a college degree.

This places Arizona in the bottom half of the United States, which has fallen from No. 1 among countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), insofar as college completion rates, to its current position of No. 13…

The common-sense solutions outlined in all these documents parallel what we find in today’s high-performing education systems around the world. The simplified interpretation is that you need high expectations, great teachers who know their subject material, and some tension or feedback loops in the system to help struggling students, teachers and administrators.

The last paragraph above is capitalist’s spin on education. The biggest problem with education in the US is that we are allowing weak-willed politicians and hard-nosed businessmen to devalue the public education system, while glorifying the for-profit charter school system.

From Democracy Now… interview with two educators…

Karen Lewis [president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union]: The problem is the system is obviously broken. I don’t think anybody will argue with that, that the system is broken. It is—it has not basically changed since the 1900s—1800s, for that matter. And as a result, it has never been able to absorb real innovation. And the problem is it’s just a lot easier to test, test, test children. Our curriculum has narrowed in Chicago. If you look at the average day for an elementary school kid, it’s reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, math, math, math, reading, reading, reading, reading, math. I mean, kids are bored to tears. They’re hating school at an early age. There’s no joy. There’s no passion. And the results show that. They’re very indicative of that.

Well, the problem is that the whole idea of the business model doesn’t work in education. In the business model, you can select how you want to do something. You have an opportunity to innovate in a way that discriminates. It’s very easy to do. Whereas in a public school system, where we do not select our children—we take whoever comes to the door—what we need is actually more resources and more support for the people that are there and the work that’s being done. However, again, Arne Duncan [US Secretary of Education], Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein—I don’t know about Joel Klein—none of these people are superintendents. You have to have, again, credentials for that. These are business folks. Look, the business model took this country to the brink of Armageddon in 2008. And yet, we want to follow a failed business model and imprint that on top of public education? No. And these things are not innovative. What they are is they’re terrorism. They’re “my way or the highway.” And they’re still not producing, quote-unquote, “results.”

Nobody disagrees with accountability. That’s not the issue. The issue is, what do you use? We still know that high-stakes testing basically tell us more about a student’s socioeconomic status than it does anything else. And until we’re honest about that and want to deal with the fact that we have neighborhoods in our cities and across the nation that have been under-resourced, have been devalued for decades, and for some reason or other, the schools are supposed to fix all that and change that. [Emphasis added.]

In their efforts to reform education, people like Barrett and Duncan ignore a little country called Finland. For years, Finland’s students and its public education system has been ranked #1 worldwide.

Somehow, Finland succeeded in having the world’s best education system– without the help of CEOs, business models, charter schools, privatization, or meddling politicians. How is Finland’s educational system different from Arizona’s? (How much time do you have?)

From the Toronto Globe and Mail…

Finnish children do not begin primary school until they are seven years old. But from the age of eight months, all children have access to free, full-day daycare and kindergarten. Finland has had universal access to daycare in place since 1990, and of all preschool since 1996.

Primary-school teachers all have master’s degrees, and the profession is one of the most revered in Finnish society.

“We see it as the right of the child to have daycare and preschool,” explained Eeva Penttila, head of international relations for Helsinki’s education department. “It’s not a place where you dump your child when you’re working. It’s a place for your child to play and learn and make friends. Good parents put their children in daycare. It’s not related to socio-economic class.”

Yesterday, former Ontario deputy education minister Charles Pascal released a long-awaited report that called for an overhaul of the province’s early-childhood education, which he described as a “fragmented patchwork of supports,” and the introduction of full-day kindergarten for four- and five-year-olds. Elementary schools would be converted into learning hubs with after-school programs and include classes for parents on nutrition and health. The goal is to provide students with a mixed program that would increase literacy, graduate rates and postsecondary participation. [Emphasis added.]

From the BBC World News…

The Finnish philosophy with education is that everyone has something to contribute and those who struggle in certain subjects should not be left behind.

A tactic used in virtually every lesson is the provision of an additional teacher who helps those who struggle in a particular subject.

[tnivideo caption=”Finland’s Education Success” credit=”BBC World News”]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlYHWpRR4yc[/tnivideo]

This video from the BBC offers a great overview of the Finnish system. According to the reporter, Finnish students spend the least number of hours in the classroom of any students in the developed world but receive the highest scores? How does that happen? Besides the fact that the Fins have “a culture that values education”, their classrooms have multiple well-trained teachers. While one teacher is working with most of the students, one or two other teachers are working one-on-one with struggling students.

The BBC reporter ends his story by saying that Finland has “relaxed schools– free from politicians– in which no one is left behind.”

This last sentence is particularly biting– not only because it takes a jab at the United States’ wrong-headed No Child Left Behind program initiated by President George W. Bush, but because our system does leave children behind and then punishes them by not granting diplomas when they don’t pass a test at the end of 12 years.

I was talking with a Tucson second grade teacher at a party on Saturday night. She said that she had a little girl who– at the end of second grade– was having trouble recognizing letters. She said her heart breaks for that little girl because she needs individual attention, but with 30+ seven-year-olds in her class, she can’t give it to her. Reading proficiency by the end of third grade is a benchmark for success in the US. Sadly, without intense individualized help, this little girl will be written off by Arizona’s schools at age 8. We Arizonans have failed this little girl and thousands more like her.

This is a travesty. How can one of the world’s richest countries treat its children with such disregard? How can our country– and particularly our state– continue to devalue education and work to de-professionalize the teaching profession and hope to succeed? Our politicians are slaves to the capitalist ideology that values market forces– even when highly inappropriate– and are too weak-willed to fight for increased funding for public education. How can we compete in a global economy when our heads are stuck firmly in the sand?

7 comments on “How to reform education: The answer song

  1. Jim Hannley
    May 23, 2011

    Look, the business model took this country to the brink of Armageddon in 2008. And yet, we want to follow a failed business model and imprint that on top of public education? -Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Federation of Teachers. Too often when we are faced with the assertion of these businessmen we forget what Karen Lewis points out. Your article is very helpful in answering the Republican education answer offered by the CEO of Basis (whose owners reap some $400,000 in profits annually) and whose charter schools get to cherry pick the students who enroll there. I am an advocate of the Core Knowledge education model offered by E.D. Hirsch. This model is not that expensive but it requires rigorous discipline by a school district
    Thanks for the article.


  2. Pingback: Education » Blog Archive » How to reform education: The answer song

  3. cruz
    May 23, 2011

    It all starts in the home, get involved in children’s education – show an interest out only in quarterly report card but in their daily work. The more interest you show the interest they show and always see bright side even when they fail to understand a subject have patients with them, give them a hug and kiss and help them through it so they don’t feel like their on an inland.  I could go on and on – love, understanding and compassion goes a long way with a child.


  4. Chaz
    May 23, 2011

    The writer seems to think that testing the kids is a bad idea (he says it evaluates socioeconomic status more than anything else).  I wonder how we should evaluate thier skills?  What our schools need is less people yelling for more money (that has NEVER increased the positive outcomes)  and more accountability.  Accountability for the students as well as the teachers.  Do away with the teachers unions and make teachers work with thier students and teach them and hold those students accountable with homework and TESTS.  (kids also need to be accountable for thier actions while in school).  If a kid hollers at a teacher they get sent to the office and then back to class.(what does that do?)  Send them home 3 times in 1 year kick them out.  If they start failing tests then involve parents and give extra tutoring.  Why do Asian kids do better in most every school in America?  Parents holding them accountable.  Why do most parochial schools have better test scores and more coolege grads?  Accountability.


  5. Ernie McCray
    May 23, 2011

    Well, at the center of Finland’s approach is “human respect.” They respect children enough to provide learning experiences for them at an early age without a lot of unnecessary pressure. Hey, most kids who do well in school in our country had pre-school experiences, not necessarily literally, in a school, but through parents who read to them and converse with them and count with them and expose them to the wonders of the world in which they live.
    The role of education is to create informed and decent citizens. But forget it if you’re going to take courses that do this – close your ears, everybody – like ethnic studies which help people understand who they are and what they should be all about and then allow them to be banned by a handful of hateful powerful people.
    Learning, I’ve found, and I’ve been involved very actively in schools since I started kindergarten in 1943 to this very day, begats learning. You just need to get students excited in just one course or one activity then through those sources tie in other learning experiences. Academic learning is a human experience in the raw.
    Excuses won’t do it. Talking about how you’ve got thirty or more students in a class so therefore can’t give individual attention, won’t do it. Talking about how the parents aren’t helping won’t do it. Addressing those problems will do it. The parent situation, in particular, isn’t as hard to deal with as we make it out to be. Parents, generally speaking, no matter who they are, will take part if you can demonstrate to them that their child is benefiting from what you’re doing and has something to offer. EXAMPLE: schools often only involve parents on Open House and these are always big events and sometimes some parents are not very comfortable with the very largeness of it all. But how about when a class has done a pretty good job with a poetry lesson or an art lesson or the kids have done well in math or science, in a moment in time – why wait until Open House? Why not buy some cookies and some juice and invite the parents to school and have a simple, not too long, evening of showing off the kids work and tell the parents about other exciting lessons and projects coming up.
    Note: I’m not talking about anything I haven’t done or haven’t seen done. I believe in keeping it simple and I believe in educators being so excited about what they’re doing that it shows. Learning can be quite contagious – especially if everyone concerned is an active learner.


  6. shane
    May 23, 2011

    @Chaz. Traditional testing is not the only or best way to see if kids learned something. It’s possible to set up practical situations in which students see for themselves if they’ve learned the skills to make something work or not.  This is obvious is in science class. If you are given the task of making something work or getting a positive result in a laboratory experiment you have to have the skills to make it work, and you get feedback pretty quickly.  You don’t have to explain. Ask the kids. Why didn’t your experiment work?  Why didn’t you get the results you wanted? What skill(s) did you miss that screwed up your experience. But it’s not just science.                   I have a lot of experience teaching English as a Second Language. Students can do well (or not) on a traditional test. But the real “test” is if they can actually communicate in a foreign language (English in this case) when they really need to.  Examples.  If you need to find a toilet fast, you definitely are  going to learn how to say “where’s the toilet?” and the “accountability” comes in when you get to use that toilet (or not).   I’ve also been told that teenage boys or girls  will become dramatically better at learning a foreign language (any foreign language) if they are given a chance to chat with a beautiful teenage girl/boy from that country where the target language is spoken.         The point of all this is that kids don’t care so much about passing tests. They do care about making things work and being able to communicate.  That’s real “accountability.”


  7. steve9453
    May 23, 2011

    This is all a bunch of blabber, the likes of which has been circulating for years.  No one EVER mentions discipline in the schools as a solution.   I have been teaching Jr High for 25 years.  Let us be real…many schools are like overgrown day-care centers.  The kids come and it’s bedlam.  Between classes, bedlam.  No one realy has to be anywhere, do anything, or care.  When they are 15 or 16, off they go to high school no matter what they have not done.   Technlology is NOT the answer.
    Ragging on teachers is NOT the answer.  Money is NOT the answer.  I would teach kids who WANT to learn for half the money, which is not much.  We do more and more each year, with more and more “stuff” to do.  And it seems the students are less and less capable.  Without discipline, the schools will fail, even with all the money in the world.


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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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