Pamela Powers Hannley, a progressive voice for Arizona
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?)
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.]
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?