“schools aren’t businesses”: two must-read education articles

There are two must read education-related magazine articles this September, one in Harper’s and one in Smithsonian. These are must-reads for educators, but the real beneficiary of them would be those who are not in public education (and, especially those who also continue to complain against it and rail against teachers) and politicians who spend most of their time extolling the benefits of standardized tests and competition based education. As a bonus, I’ll also link to an old and excellent interview by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo with then presidential candidate Wes Clark, who is spot on about education.

Getting schooled: The re-education of an American teacher [full pdf so you don’t need subscription],” By Garret Keizer in the September 2011 issue of Harper’s

Choice passage (mostly because of the use of the word “nincompoop”):

Except for a few precious hours on Friday nights, I had little of what is generally called a life. My wife and I seldom went out. My normally robust correspondence dwindled to nothing. I was unable to file our income taxes until July. Though I took pains not to appear so to my students, I was often despondent. One morning, when my wife remonstrated with me for picking up a drunk hitchhiker by myself on a lonely road late the night before—“What if he’d pulled a gun?”—I responded, half joking, that if I could just get myself shot I might not have to correct any more papers.

My point here is that even under ideal circumstances, public-school teaching is one of the hardest jobs a person can do. Most sensible people know that. Anyone who claims not to know that is either a scoundrel or a nincompoop; or, to put it another way, a typical expert on everything that’s wrong with American public education and the often damaged children that it serves.

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” by LynNell Hancock in the September 2011 issue of Smithsonian

Choice passage:

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

Wes Clark on competition in education from a 2003 interview with Josh Marshall (.pdf) of Talking Points Memo:

For example, take the idea of competition in schools. OK now, what is competition in schools? What does it really mean? Well, competition in business means you have somebody who’s in a business that has a profit motive in it. It’s measured every quarter. If the business doesn’t keep up, the business is going to lose revenue, therefore it has an incentive to restructure, reorganize, re-plan, re-compete and stay in business.

Schools aren’t businesses. Schools are institutions of public service. Their job–their product–is not measured in terms of revenues gained. It’s measured in terms of young lives whose potential can be realized. And you don’t measure that either in terms of popularity of the school, or in terms of the standardized test scores in the school. You measure it child-bychild, in the interaction of the child with the teacher, the parent with the teacher, and the child in a larger environment later on in life.

So when people say that competition is-this is sort of sloganeering, “Hey, you know, schools need this competition.” No. I’ve challenged people: Tell me why it is that competition would improve a school. Most of them can’t explain it. It’s just like, “Well, competition improves everything so therefore it must improve schools.” If you want to improve schools, you’ve got to go inside the processes that make a school great. You’ve got to look at the teachers, their qualifications, their motivation, what it is that gives a teacher satisfaction, what it is a teacher wants to do in a classroom. We’ve got to empower teachers. Give them an opportunity to lead in the classroom. Teachers are the most important leaders in America. All that is lost in the sloganeering of this party. And the American people know it’s lost. So you asked me to give you one thing about this party that’s in power — it’s the sort of doctrinaire ideology that doesn’t really understand the country that we’re living in.

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