Friday, August 22, 2014

Part 2 -- The Best Educational System In The World, And How We Can Have It, Too

So now that we have seen what a superb educational system actually looks like, and noted how radically different it is from our own, it's time to ask the question, "How do we get there?"

In order to answer this question we must begin with an essential element of Finland's schools that cannot readily be applied to our educational system. This reality is that child poverty is rare in Finland. I have pointed out on repeated occasions that the only real problem with the American educational system is child poverty. Eliminate that one factor and we immediately rocket up to being rated as among the best schools in the world.

This does not mean that we do not need to pay attention to the system of Finland. It is a vastly better educational system than ours, even allowing the absence of child poverty. However, the fact remains that the biggest educational problem America faces today is that so many of our children come from poor homes.

That is an entirely different subject and one which would require extensive examination. So, as important as it is, I regarded as largely unaddressable within the context of the current discussion.

But there remain many things which we can and should be doing now. At this point I'm tempted to say the key to all of these educational reforms is…but I cannot do so. That is because there is no one key. There is no one magic solution. Well, with the exception of eliminating child poverty, there is no magic solution, there is no one key.

The things we need to do must start with centralizing our educational system in that the federal government should be responsible for education in this nation and it should establish the guidelines and rules by which everyone else operates. At the same time, we must give a much greater autonomy to the teachers and the principals of individual schools. In other words, we must both become much more centralized and much less centralized. This seeming contradiction makes sense when you realize that we centralize in some areas and decentralize in others.

At the same time we must stop the adversarial cancer which is in eating away at our educational system. When I first became a teacher, our district was just beginning to unionize. I was against teacher unions then, and to some extent remain so to this day. I felt that public service employees, such as teachers, policemen, and firemen, should not be unionized. Instead, I believed we should serve the public and in return be treated with the respect due to those professions. 

I was part of the first contract negotiations held in our district. Because it was a new practice to us, a representative of the California Teachers Association was present. At one point in the negotiations, while our group was in caucus, I said that I really felt that we were taking an adversarial position which was unnecessary. I commented that I sincerely believed that if I sat down with the district superintendent, he and I could quickly reach a solution and agreement with which everyone would be satisfied. I suggested that we all should take that attitude which should lead to a win-win situation. 

The CTA representative was shocked and angered. He said I was betraying my fellow teachers. He threatened to report me to the Labor Relations Board for my unacceptable attitude. He declared that we must treat the administration as our adversaries, any suggestion of developing a cooperative relationship he regarded as repulsive.

I responded as those of you who know me well would expect me to respond. A cooler and older head at the table suggested that both of us should calm down and we should continue on. We finally simply ignored the conflict and proceeded.

I tell this story to emphasize what I despised about unions. Why was it necessary for us to be adversarial? What was the need for that? Today I take more nuanced view, I'm not necessarily opposed to unions if those unions have the correct goals. IF.

If the union's goals are to protect its members no matter what... If the union's goals are to create an adversarial relationship with the administration... If the union's goals are not to make education the best it can be...then I oppose unions.

However, if the union's goals are to protect teachers who need to be protected and deserve to be protected while at the same time weeding out teachers who should not be in the classroom... If the union's goals include creating a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with the schools' administrators...if the union's goal is to make education the best it can be for the children's sake...then I strongly support unions.

In Finland a teachers' union works as a cooperative colleague of the administration. We need to create that situation. This requires a fundamental change the attitude of union leaders, not easy to accomplish, but I think my attitude is closer to that of the majority of teachers. So it is possible.

We also must eliminate the adversarial relationships between teachers. Teachers who work together to attain the goal of making their school a fine place for learning will have much greater success than teachers struggling to get the merit or bonus pay available from attaining higher test scores than those of their colleagues' classrooms. Teachers should not be enemies in a zero sum game. They should be professional members of the same team. No merit pay, no bonuses, only a fair wage for a dedicated public servant. 

The competitive model being pushed so hard in American education today, the model created by the Republicans and embraced by the Democrats, is poisonous. There is no competition in Finland, only the accomplishment and the development of the individual child. Our divisive attitude can be changed only if we change the politicians and they can only be changed if we change the opinions of the public. This could be done. However, the likelihood of attaining it in our current environment of political bitterness and hysteria is unlikely. It is not impossible, and it is worth working for, but it will not be an easy task.

Both responsibility and autonomy must be given to individual principals and their staff members. Teachers are professionals. Given the level of respect they deserve (in Finland they are among the most respected of all professionals) and given both the responsibility and the power to control their own schools in cooperation with their principals, teachers will get the job done. I have no doubt of that. They already have my trust and my support. Getting the rest of the country to agree to that won't be easy. Ever since Ronald Reagan first smeared the nation's teachers to shift attention away from his own failures, teachers have been the scapegoat for just about every single thing that's going wrong in our country.

Before Reagan's smears, teachers were highly respected and honored in our country. We can get back there again. I can only repeat that it will not be easy, but it is entirely doable.

Most importantly of all, education in America must return to being child centered. Children are not raw materials. They are not mere objects to be milled, ground, forged, and hammered into the correct shape. They are human beings who should all be encouraged and assisted in reaching their own full potential as an individual. Such an attitude cannot be attained in a test driven environment. If we are to improve our educational system we must ban standardized tests, or at least reduce the number of standardized test a student takes in his school career to one, as the Finns have done.

This is a mere outline. In order to actually obtain the reforms needed, much more planning is required. However, the outline is valid. We must begin the struggle and we must begin it now. We have one great advantage on our side. That is that even the conservatives admit that Finland's educational system is superb. There is the blueprint; we only need to follow it. There is the pattern; we only need to cut and sew it. There is the model; we only need to copy it.

It is said that it is hard to argue with success. Unfortunately, one of our political parties today has largely taken over the media, has dedicated itself to being pro superstition and anti-science, has based its actions not upon facts and reality but on fear and rage, and thus made sensible change difficult. However, these victories need not be eternal. We can turn the tide back to reality-based decision making.

For another view, see the following:

My disagreement with this article is that it assumes it was necessary to go through the extreme educational system which preceded the blossoming in order to reach the blossoming. I completely disagree. The earlier efforts were in fact failures and I do not see that is necessary to reproduce other people's failures before copying their successes. Nevertheless, I offer it to you for the sake of open discussions. It is a thoughtful article which at least approaches the subject without a rigid sense of Ideology.

Frankly, this is quite surprising since the The Thomas B. Fordham Institute tends to be a self-styled conservative organization which usually displays an extremely rigid sense of ideology. I do not recommend their articles in general, only this particular one and it is presented only as an alternative to my views.

I also cannot help but note that while this organization is forced by facts (a remarkable accomplishment for a conservative organization) to admit that the Finnish system, which is so antithetical to their ideology, is in fact highly successful; they manage to conclude that the only way to reach the Finnish system is via all the mindless rigidity of their ideology.

This attitude reminds me of the great Marxist screed. First we must have a dictatorship of the proletariat. This is undesirable, but a necessary stage. Then it will simply fade away. (As if dictatorships ever simply fade away.) However unpleasant this may be, it is a necessary base for finally attaining the real goals of a classless society.

So we must suffer all the bad, awful things before we can finally attain the good things? How sad.

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