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.
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!