Monday, November 7, 2011

Finding the Right Tool For Fixing American Education

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I've always appreciated Fareed Zakaria's approach to issues.  His GPS show on CNN and his articles in Time are marked by intelligence, balance, an openness to new ideas, and a willingness to go beyond the conventional wisdom of the day.

Having said all that, I don't know why I was surprised last night by his CNN special on American education.  For some reason, I had expected him to take the side of the educational 'reformers', whose program these days seems to consist of more and more standardized tests, tougher evaluation and merit pay measures for teachers (to weed out the 'bad' ones'), and support for charter schools.  This was the basic scenario for both Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' and Obama's 'Race to the Top'.  And I see its 'fruit'--such as it is--in the life of my wife, who is a third-grade teacher in a North Carolina public school.

But that's not at all what Fareed presented.  Rather, the conclusions I drew from the show were as follows. 

First, the best educational systems around the world (he chose to examine South Korea's and Finland's) vary widely in terms of structure, number of school days, and hours that students spend studying, with South Korea's system being highly structured and Finland's system having a very loose structure.  There seems to be no one way of doing this, but many ways.

Second, standardized tests did not play a measurable part in Finland's success, whereas they did in South Korea (and the latter was trying to ease up some of that pressure, in fact).  Finnish teachers were encouraged to teach whatever they felt was important and given tremendous autonomy in their classroom.

Third, it seems that both South Korea and Finland gave a great deal of respect and honor to their teachers as professionals and important forces within society.  (Compare this with the situation in the United States, where it's almost as if teachers are being blamed for the problems within our educational system.)

Fourth, in neither South Korea or Finland does there seem to be anything like the American version of charter schools.  Furthermore, as Zakaria pointed out, American charter schools have a very mixed record of achievement, so that it is not at all clear that they are the answer to our American school dilemma.

Fifth, American levels of poverty among children is substantially higher than in either Finland or South Korea.  Zakaria interviewed the well-known historian of education Diane Ravitch, whose critique of American education focuses on exactly that, that when you have such high levels of poverty, it is going to handicap the educational system in profound ways.

And sixth, the program that seemed to resonate the most with Zakaria was an online, personalized education system called the Kahn Academy, which allows children to proceed with learning on their computers at their own pace.  On his program, he showed it being used in a classroom, with students helping each other with problems, and the teacher keeping track of each student's progress through computerized evaluation measures.

The one trend in American schooling that, interestingly, Zakaria doesn't mention is that of homeschooling.  I'm a little surprised by that, given its popularity in many parts of the country.

My take on his interesting program is that Zakaria seems to be somewhat skeptical of all the hyped reforms being tried at the Federal level and in the private sector (particularly by the Gates Foundation).  He knows that our situation as a huge country and a very pluralistic society is different from many others around the globe, and that what works for them may not work for us.  He seems to want to encourage innovation and continued searching for solutions to this problem, without necessarily thinking that 'one size fits all' or that there is a 'silver bullet' that will solve every problem.

I think Zakaria is on target here.  Thanks, Fareed!

1 comment:

  1. In addition to the large number of children living in poverty, the US has built up an educational system that also includes mainstreaming mentally handicapped students (for which many teachers are not prepared), including the children of immigrants who have limited English language skills in classrooms (setting them up for failure), giving teachers little recourse to discipline students (and I don't mean beating them), and our system of tenure does not allow for weeding out ineffective educators. Our school buildings are falling apart (in LA, CA many of the schools bathrooms were non-functional all year long), we as a society don't value education enough to give incentives to students to excel or at least not to drop out of high school. My grandmother was a teacher all her life and taught me in first grade. My brother and my sister-in-law are teachers too. I was a substitute teacher for a year. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in education from east coast to west coast. Throwing money at the problems we face won't fix the basic dysfunction in our educational infrastructure. Not all systems are bad, but having interviewed many applicants for employment and having read their resumes, I can tell you that I'm not impressed with the caliber of students our schools allow to graduate. The glass is half-full for me and the water in it is muddy. We know the problems but are we willing to find and fund solutions?

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