Education in America / Education in our Communities

In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch presents an informative and historical review of how our national school system has changed and not for the better. Over the past twenty years she had the opportunity to work on both sides of the political fence, and, while in either respective camp; she initially felt that the policies were generally good. With input from other educators the policy makers at the state or federal levels were able to implement school based improvements into curriculum or introduce vouchers or approve charter school development. No Child left behind (NCLB) legislation was one such example. Ravitch and other independent educational researchers now conclude that in very large part these politically formulated initiatives failed.

Thirty to fifty years ago, U.S. students were competing against other U.S. students. This is no longer the case. According to Bill Gates, by 2020, 123 million U.S. jobs will be high skilled and high paying with only 50 million American college students qualified to fill them. Clearly, American high school students are no longer in competition with only their American peers, but are now competing with their international counterparts. The University of Pittsburgh recently stated that they are determined to have their students compete internationally. However, this process cannot begin in our colleges and universities. Finland starts with early education, a universal health plan and all children having the right to an education. In addition, special education opportunities are available for all students not just those with mental health, intellectual or physical disabilities. Prior to the 1970s, American public schools were the best in the world, producing Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Presidents, and CEOs. Unfortunately, this is no longer the path we are on. Of 30 developed countries, the U.S. ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. Similarly, our top 5% of students rank 23/29 when compared to developed countries.

The cost to educate a child in U.S. has doubled since 1970. Student reading and math performance scores, however, have been flat over this same period of time. Nonetheless, over the decades, the one saving grace has been the teacher. Educational experts tell us that with high performing teachers, students progress three times faster than their counterparts. With poor performing teachers the reverse occurs. As told in the powerful documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” it is estimated that if we can eliminate the lower 10% of our poorly performing teachers the average U.S. student could potentially reach the academic level of a Finn student. Finland presently has the best student academic performance rating in the world. Teachers in Finland receive the best education and have the freedom to teach without the burden of onerous standardized testing and ill-defined paperwork. These educators are well paid and evaluated frequently by their academically stellar mentors. In fact, the Finn teaching profession is held in higher regard then that of medicine, law or engineering.

The studies have demonstrated that despite the failures we have experienced in trying to turn our schools around with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), cyber or charter schools, vouchers, etc., researchers have been able to define what does work. Quality teachers, more class time, academic accountability, and high curriculum standards are the mainstay of quality education in many countries with better student performance.

As a nation we have not seen meaningful improvement in the academic performance of our students with the use of vouchers or the development of charter schools. There are exceptions, however. The New York charter school designed by Geoff Canada, an educator, or the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, also developed by educators. With only a few exceptions, we have not benefited from voucher or charter schools. Though the concept for both or either was initially good and well-received the great majority were not advanced by educational leaders but by policy makers and for profit non-educators. Money was pulled from the community public school system budgets and a few market driven school managers, not educators, made some very nice incomes. Though some charter schools may have demonstrated a small, positive blip in student test scores, a great many saw a plateau or a decrease in scores. Vouchers were not used when available. Not all families with children failing academically in their failing schools can afford the time or money to transport their child across town to a carter school. Many charter schools either folded or became academies for the upper middle class or rich of the city or community. As sadly depicted in Waiting for Superman, it is not quite that Norman Rockwell American scene when an auditorium full of our economically challenged minority families are waiting for, and many losing out, in a local charter school lottery. In paraphrasing an educational consultant from Finland, “the poverty in America prevents me from conveying our successes in Finland to the American educational system.”

The NCLB legislation only tests for the achievement of basic knowledge in math and reading and not in science, history, language and geography. NCLB is testing for proficiency, not excellence. The legislation has negatively affected the lives of millions of American children and for years to come. As teachers worked hard on preparing children for the NCLB tests they were taken away from teaching the other important courses. Today, the studies are showing how NCLB is not working in many of our schools and certainly will never raise us to international competiveness. This week it was announced that ten states have opted out of the NCLB mandates because we have not been able to reach high academic standards with NCLB. The same legislation was supported by both democrats and republicans. Sadly, a republican candidate for U.S. presidency now publically states and apologizes for voting for NCLB. “It was against my principles I believed in….sometimes you take one for the team.” At least he apologized. He, however, is now different from ill informed school board members, local politicians and local taxpayers who feel that they now can make a legitimate contribution to my children’s education and future livelihood.

In those communities across America where lawyers, business leaders or policy makers were asked to come in as school superintendents, many of these communities eventually saw less than stellar results, significant money spent, parent anger and an exodus of good teachers. Teachers are not business people. They do not like to be bullied, as many were in California and New York, by a superintendent or chancellor who was not an educator or a school board and city politicians who put money and test results over curriculum. Across America, communities such as mine are being challenged with the fact that our schools are losing their prominence as the foundations to their neighborhoods. Somehow we accept the fact that the politician can create a law that could essentially close a school or at the very least give parents the strange opportunity of sending their children to another school. It is easier said than done for most parents struggling economically but not so for the politician who is receiving that weekly check and guaranteed health insurance. Whether it is due to the disgruntled taxpayer, that latest educational politician, the micromanaging school board or the school union educators are losing their hold on their schools. Some of this is deserves, most not. At the very least if we do not resurrect the credibility and leadership of the educator with the educators leading the way our national educational system will continue the international slide to mediocrity and failure.

So, what is our obligation to our children? To the benefit or demise of our educational process to what degree do teacher unions, school boards, and taxpayers direct the educational process in our communities and in our country? Do we do the right thing to turn this educational process around or the money saving thing? Do we have the fortitude? Bill Gates offers the challenge that “The status quo can change. It will take a lot of outrage and a lot of good example”. But unlike big business you cannot turn things around in a year or two. How do we deliberately change and enhance the initial and ongoing education of our teachers? The educational motto in Finland where the students have the highest performance internationally and spend less money to do so, is “good teachers, good schools.”

According to several nationally recognized educational experts, school boards need to make sure their school has the best superintendant, the best teachers, the best business manager and, most importantly, the best curriculum. They need to do their best to show the community of parents, teachers and taxpayers that they are doing their job, which is to educate our children to be the best in the world. School boards need to prevent politicians and the mob of educator wannabes from taking over the responsibility of educating our children and let their academic leadership do just that, lead. Teachers should be evaluated by excellent mentors and not by test scores. They need to continually research their field of education. A testing process developed by politicians does not work. Massachusetts apparently stands out here in the U.S. as doing it right. We may not have to go to Finland to learn all of what we need to know to get it right in America. Schools, parents, school boards, school districts, communities, counties and states must work with and support the educational leadership in order to fix, enhance and sustain community public schools.

Foundations, hospitals, colleges, universities and businesses need to redefine their mission, charitable giving and grant processes. Do they fund the many popular but ill-defined specialty projects or do they fund education? Teacher research opportunities, teacher mentorship initiatives and teacher incentives to obtain the best education possible would be a great start in the redirection of individual and corporate wealth and foundation grant activity. With this in place, we can then test our students, but let the teachers do the testing, not you, me or the politicians. When Bill Gates was asked what would be the single thing to do to improve the American school system his reply was, “hire great teachers, more than money spent on anything else, more than technology……..”

But unlike big business you cannot turn things around in a year or two. How do we deliberately change and enhance the initial and ongoing education of our teachers? The educational motto in Finland where the students have the highest performance internationally and spend less money to do so, is “good teachers, good schools.”

According to Ravitch, “schools should be the anchor of our communities; and effective education requires enormous effort with collaboration and consensus at many levels.” History tells us that schools will not improve if elected official intrude into the territory of curriculum and make decisions that should be made by professional educators. Though some market driven, educational arm chair experts may consider principals to be middle management personal, historically; this has not been the case. The principal should be that “head teacher” evaluating teachers and helping them to teach well and prompt them on to be the best at what they do – teach. If that teacher or principle is not there yet, we can surely help them get to that point of excellence.

Matt Masiello

Dr. Masiello is a pediatrician and public health professional. Over the past twenty years he has worked extensively in school systems and communities as a pediatrician and health consultant. Dr. Masiello has also written and presented nationally on the rights of children.

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