Guest Post: Proposed education reforms misguided

To the Editor:

More and more we hear assertions that our schools are failing. There are also increasing comparisons between education systems in the US and Finland, with specific attention to the 2009 results of PISA where Finland scored first or second in math, reading and science. Consequently, there are some who believe we should be competing with them and that we can learn from the Finnish model.

Others think that through changes with charter schools, teacher evaluation, school funding, common standards, student assessment and school choice that we can improve our international test scores and student achievement. Many are advocating for the implementation of elements of the Finnish model and these reforms.

However, these beliefs are quite contradictory and two key points are problematic. First, the reforms fly in the face of the foundations of Finland’s education system. Second, the reforms and increased accountability measures do not address the larger national issue of poverty and its impact on student achievement.

A central focus of the Finnish system is the priority on local innovation and absence of standardized testing. Actual teaching time in Finland is among the lowest in the world and teachers spend more time planning and collaborating than many school systems. Their school days are shorter and students study less at home. Becoming a teacher in Finland is a privilege; in fact, less than 10% of applicants become teachers.

Conversely, the U.S. is stuck in conflict between an impetus for 21st century instruction and a spotlight on standardized testing and common curriculum. By definition, “standardization” and “common” actually inhibit innovation and creativity. In many parts of the U.S. the trend is towards extended school days, increased teaching time and significant amounts of homework. And while teacher quality is an enduring issue with calls for improved performance and preparation, we are in the midst of layoffs and waning resources for teacher training and development. We are making teaching less attractive and more difficult to foster success.

A second problem with the direction of educational reform is that it appears less attention is paid to the negative effects on student performance of family poverty and concentrations of poverty in schools. Iris Rothberg of George Washington University claims the assumption that accountability, school choice, and common standards will solve our education problems is off-base.

Our schools are not failing. In the U.S., socioeconomic status of students accounted for almost 80% of the difference in reading performance between schools on the PISA. When examined separately, affluent schools in the U.S. scored among the best in the world.

I agree with Rothberg that current policy deliberations touch the periphery of these realities and that tougher accountability and test score comparisons will not address the problems of poverty and our country’s divide. Historically, accountability measures have not resulted in meaningful improvements in student learning.

Despite this, we illogically continue developing new policies not employed and often discouraged by countries such as Finland whose results we seek to emulate. While there is nothing wrong with holding professionals accountable for performance standards, what we really need is to reposition conversations and focus actions on the real targets; implementing known, proven practices and addressing issues of poverty.