For over twenty years I have fought against those who see the schools as failed institutions which need to be “fixed” because of that failure. By nearly any measure the schools we have today are better than the schools of the past that the critics hold up as paragons of excellence. The issue of how we are doing against the past is a phony issue. For example, in the 1950s only about half of the students completed school. Today around 75-80% finish on time and another 10-15% finish before the age of 25. So the actual completion rate is nearly 90%. The problem with comparisons with the past is that they are empty and meaningless. Schools have gotten better over time. That is the good news. The bad news is that they aren’t as good as they need to be. That is the real issue that we must address. I have described this as making incremental progress in an exponential environment. Gradual improvements will not get us where we need to go as the escalating demands of the workplace and the deteriorating conditions of families and neighborhoods make it more and more difficult for our children to succeed. So we have work to do-just not the kind of work the critics would foist on us.
The other bogus comparison that gets in the way is the one made of how we are doing against other countries. Certainly on a gross basis America falls in the middle of the pack when test scores are considered. However, making that kind of comparison overly simplifies a complex story. It has been noted that the last finisher in the hundred-meter dash at the Olympics is rarely called “slowpoke.” Comparisons are only useful when they have context. I have had the opportunity to visit schools in over fifty other countries and have not been terrible impressed with what I saw. Oh, for sure the students in Singapore are wonderful at math and science. But the country of Singapore is essentially middle class and about the size of one of our large county school systems. Trying to draw comparisons to American schools is misleading and wrong-headed. I remember a study done a few years ago by the late Jerry Bracy who disaggregated American test scores in comparison to the rest of the world. Our high-end students do as well as anyone and schools in wealthy suburbs tend to outperform students from other countries. One funny result was that the highest scoring math students in the world were American Asian students attending public schools across America. Our Asians outperformed their Asians!
More recently we have been enamored with the results being produced by Finland. And by all accounts they are remarkable. The more interesting thing about Finnish education (beyond the fact that the student population of Finland tends to look more like our well-to-do suburbs) is that how they approach education and teachers is the polar opposite of how we are doing it. The education is more open-ended and they eschew test scores as a basis of judgment about how well they are dong. The children start school later and their school day is more relaxed than ours. And while their teachers come from the top graduates of the university, they are able to get that quality by paying them more. And for all those who hate teacher unions and decry their power over the quality of education (yes, I am talking about you Michelle Rhee and your gang of education “reformers”) it should be noted that Finland has the most unionized teachers in the world.
So for years I have had to listen to the so-called reformers call out those of us who have tried to point out that when you lean your ladder against the wrong wall, you paint the wrong house. Education reform built upon the wrong assumptions leads to the wrong outcomes. In fact these reformers have pretty much had their way over the last few decades. They have insisted upon and gotten more testing, more competition, more trashing of teachers. And what has it produced? Not so much. It is pretty clear that the defenders of the status quo are not those of us who have tried to slow this crazy bandwagon of misguided mechanics.
They won twenty years ago and they have had the opportunity to try to prove their theories. What is needed now is not school reforming but an effort to transform schools that will allow children to use their imaginations, their natural instinct towards collaboration and cooperation, and an education that is built upon meaningful and engaging curriculum. And this needs to be delivered by teachers who are supported and honored for what they do and what they stand for. So it is time for the defenders of the status quo, the “reformers”-those politicians, foundations, and educational “capitalists”-to stand aside and let those who truly care about education and children to have a whack at it. It seems only fair.