I could not agree more with the following author’s article. I am working on a posting related to this that is in the hopper. I’m overloaded with student teaching and end of quarter term papers so it might be a bit until I finish it. But do read this article. Very true, indeed.
Let us recall that seminal document in the U.S. school reform movement, “A Nation At Risk.” Released in 1983, it reflected the Cold War paranoia of the time with breathless rhetoric: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Scary talk. This created a mindset for some of the public, but most of the pundits, that America’s schools were broken.
In 1990 the federal Department of Education assigned scientists at Sandia Labs in New Mexico the task of using their huge computers to crunch the available test data to justify the conclusions of “A Nation At Risk.” The scientists found that test scores had actually gone up for every subgroup. A statistical anomaly had caused the average scores to go down because a larger proportion of students with low but improving scores were participating in the tests. This “Sandia Report” was eventually leaked but received scant coverage in the popular press.
The U.S. economy was in a mild recession when “A Nation At Risk” was released and Japan was seen as a competitive threat. The document attributed Japan’s success to superior international test scores — as if 17-year-olds bubbling in answer sheets had somereal-time impacts on the economy. By the mid-1990s, the U.S. economy rebounded and Japan’s tanked. Japan maintained high test scores.
Though contrary to the historical record, let’s assume that international test scores do indicate a competitive threat and that recent statements like Arne Duncan’s insisting that that countries like Finland and Singapore are “outperforming us” have merit. This, in spite of the fact that the World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. economy 4th in the world in economic competitiveness. This is down from the number one position that America held for over a decade. Neither education nor international test scores are mentioned as reasons for the drop, though instability in the banking industry and lack of transparency in auditing are. We know about that.
International test scores do show Singapore and Finland doing very well, with the United States in the middle of the pack, and that should not be dismissed lightly. What are the differences in educational and social policies that result in such different outcomes?
One proposed reason is a difference in the quality of the teachers in the three countries. However, a comprehensive study done by the Educational Testing Service called “How Teachers Compare” asserts U.S. teachers, academically, compare favorably with any other profession.
Singapore has a new school reform effort called “Blue Sky.” According to the Ministry of Education’s web site, the reforms involve “More quality in terms of classroom interaction, opportunities for expression, the learning of life-long skills,” and “Less quantity in terms of rote-learning, repetitive tests, and following prescribed answers…”.
Right off it doesn’t appear Singapore is following the U.S. pattern of “A Nation At Risk”- and No Child Left Behind-driven reforms, which are all about increased dependence on repetitive tests and prescribed curriculum. According to Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee: “We need to pay more attention to PE, to arts, and music…” What, no science and math?
Finland has its own school success story to tell us. Children begin formal education, but with an emphasis on play and interaction, at age seven. Teachers are highly paid, highly autonomous, and highly unionized. National standards are concise. Finland’s math standards run to around 11 pages, whereas the new Common Core math standards exceed 90 pages. There are no national standardized tests and no “accountability measures” as we know them. Teaching is a very prestigious profession in Finland and there is no indication they have an interest in data-driven inquisitions to ferret out “bad teachers.”
The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture insists school performance is linked to a close attention to social equity issues. The Finnish childhood poverty rate is one of the lowest in the industrialized world. Universal health and dental care, paid parental leave, and seamless social services are a given. Notably, the United States has a childhood poverty rate that exceeds all industrialized nations except Mexico.
Will the influential school reformers and policy makers in the United States (like Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, et al.) give up the obsession with standardized tests, as has Singapore? Will the United States implement the kind of social safety net found in Finland, or will there be a continued demand for Finland’s test scores but without all the pesky socialism? How badly does the U.S. want those impressive international test scores?
These are critical questions.
Gary Ravani taught middle school for more than 30 years in Petaluma. He served for 19 years as president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers’ Early Childhood/K-12 Council, and is a vice president ofthe CFT. He chairs the CFT’s Education Issues Committee.