November sixth, about 9:00 in the evening.
As I prepared schoolwork for the week, the first text came in. Turn on CNN. Special on education. Then another. Then a phone call, followed quickly by another.
Fareed Zakaria was hosting the special, Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education. I braced myself, prepared for teacher bashing à la John Stossel. Close public schools. Fire the teachers. They don't teach, anyway. Banish teachers' unions. Problem solved. I turned to CNN, my trepidation nearly willing me against it.
The focus of the show revolved around education in three countries, Korea, Finland and the United States, based on their rankings on the Program for International Assessments (PISA), an international exam given every three years that ranks 15 year olds from 65 nations based on exams in reading, math and science. On the most recent exam (2009), Korea ranked second in reading, Finland ranked third and the U.S. ranked seventeenth. In math, Korea ranked fourth, Finland sixth, and the U.S. thirty-second. Finally, in science, Korea ranked sixth, Finland second and the U.S. twenty-third. (Based on information found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/dec/07/world-education-rankings-maths-science-reading.)
First they focused on South Korea. Parents there were referred to as "too involved" in their children's education. There is heavy duty pressure on children to succeed in school. Students are highly motivated to succeed academically, even attending late-late night tutoring sessions. In fact, the government had to put a curfew on tutoring businesses. They have enforcement officials who track down businesses violating the curfew. Stiff fines are imposed. What stuck out for me most of all? Parents feel accountable for their children's academic success. Students are highly driven. Teachers teach.
Moving on to Finland. There was a stark difference between the regimented style in Korea and the more "free" atmosphere in Finland. Yet, obviously, both styles work. While almost half of the teachers in the U.S. graduate in the bottom one-third of their class, in Finland, only one in 10 who apply for elementary teacher preparation programs are accepted. There, teachers are held in the same regard as doctors and lawyers. At first, I found it startling that the teacher turnover rate in the U.S. is seven times higher than the rate in Finland. But then I thought about the current state of affairs. I was no longer shocked.
Another factor said to play a significant role in the academic success of Finnish students is that the curriculum is "autonomous." They do not have a "top-down edict." Teachers are allowed to teach. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I thought about how this compares to our totally top-down edict with mandatory curriculum such as C-Scope.
Finally, the show emphasized that only four percent of children in Finland are "poor" (We now use the term "economically disadvantaged,) but the program used "poor."), compared to over 20 percent of American children.
Zakaria interviewed Bill Gates, whose foundation continues to provide large sums of money for educational initiatives, primarily focused, it seems, on charter schools. Gates made it clear that the best way to change education in America is to hire the best teachers and have them share with each other. I was happy to hear Zakaria point out some recent statistics on charter schools: only one in five is doing better than public schools and two in five are doing worse.
This program was definitely more balanced than Waiting for Superman, John Stossel specials and other Bash Public Schools specials. Nevertheless, I had several questions when the program ended:
1. Why don't these programs compare discipline and respect in students from Korea, Finland and the U.S.? Glimpses of the classrooms in these countries told a piece of this important story.
2. While poverty levels were mentioned, why don't we hear more about the impact it has on academic success and why we still don't seem to bridge the resulting gap?
3. How do these countries deal with students whose native language is other than the dominant language spoken there and with students with special needs?
4. How many school days in those countries are wasted doing things like benchmark testing, bully training, and sexual harassment training?
5. So why do teacher preparation programs allow almost anyone to enter and to graduate? (I would like to ask the same question about administrator prep programs.)
6. At the end of the CNN special, Zakaria said we need to "face the facts" and admit "we have a big problem." I've been saying that for years.
How much longer will we sound like the teacher on Charlie Brown? Same story, different year.
Chris Ardis is in her 28th year of teaching, 27 of those in McAllen ISD. She is also a freelance writer. Chris is involved with a grassroots movement to transform public education called SOAR McAllen, which you can find on Facebook. You can email Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: For more details on the PISA: http://www.pisa.oecd.org/pages/0,2987,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html