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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Problem With Not Being Finland

Over the last twelve years, I've taught in a college preparatory alternative school run by the county office of education, a charter arts and business school which I helped to plan and found, and a second charter arts and business school before landing at my current post. My career trajectory has been an intentional downward arc which has finally settled me into a place where I am working with the students who could not, or would not, be successful in other schools.

I like it here.

The job is not without its difficulties and it isn't a place where many teachers would want to be because much of our time and energy is spent on matters that are not directly related to the inculcation of knowledge, skills and ideas. Instead, the balance of our days are spent on management, discipline, coaching, cheerleading, comforting, counseling, and herding and if you've been following this blog for a while, you've probably noticed that these "non-teaching" roles are the ones to which I am the most attached. Whether it be with Marvin, Donald, Serena, Sally, Roberto, Jorge, Laura, Walter or Jerry, the things that catch my attention are not curricular, but social because so much of what is wrong with our educational system is unrelated to the curriculum (though the curriculum blows, too). Our educational system suffers from a social disease.

This was highlighted recently in a
Recent Wall Street Journal Article on Finnish Education which explored why Finnish schools are the best in the world even though:

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don't start school until age 7.

How, the article asks, can a system that discourages competition, offers no gifted classes, and puts few limits on student behavior be so amazingly successful?

They don't pay their teachers more and they don't spend much more per capita on education than we do.

It must be because they're homogeneous. The article tells us that:

Despite the apparent simplicity of Finnish education, it would be tough to replicate in the U.S. With a largely homogeneous population, teachers have few students who don't speak Finnish. In the U.S., about 8% of students are learning English, according to the Education Department. There are fewer disparities in education and income levels among Finns. Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% -- or 10% at vocational schools -- compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.

This is almost always the answer I hear when people start talking about why another country's schools are better than ours: If we were all the same like they are, we would be able to be just as good. It's the fact that we aren't all white or asian (yes, that's what they are saying, don't deny it) that is holding us back.


What's holding us back is the fact that large parts of our country really do believe that competition, stratification, and limitations on freedom are a prescription for helping foster a learning environment.

What's holding us back is a dedicated and powerful minority in this country that believes that universal public education is a mistake.

What's holding us back is a nationwide shared delusion that tells us that education is merely a product of schools and teachers, absenting the rest of our society from any responsibility for what happens to other people's children.

What's holding us back is a belief that even our most provincial municipalities should wield near complete control over their schools' curriculum.

But mainly what is holding us back is the fact that our country is divided not just by race,religion and culture, but by class.

Finland, being stupidly socialist, has little to offer in the way of income disparity and so also has little to offer in the way of bad neighborhoods, chronic social unrest, childhood malnutrition and obesity, obscenely high crime rates, or high concentrations of desperate people.

Finland also never refused to educate entire portions of its population because they were different and lesser.

Finland also never believed that separate could be equal.

Finland also never allowed it's cities and townships to control its most vital natural resource, thereby preventing provincial prejudice from derailing national interests.

Finland also decided to not let its people starve in the streets.

We have done it to ourselves and, at least here in California, we are going to make it worse with deep cuts in the very social programs that allow kids to come to school even marginally able to learn. And then we're going to cut education even further.

And yet each day, 300,000 teachers go to work in this country. We go to try and mitigate the damage, to try and scrape out another few success stories, to try and inspire kids to look beyond their cirucmstances, to try to make things a little more less-worse.

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