NY Times doesn’t get it

While I generally concur with the Times‘ editors on most matters, I am confounded and bemused by their stance on education. Today’s editorial can serve as Exhibit 1.

The editors begin with a blanket condemnation of teachers’ unions. Why? Because the editors believe that the unions are frustrating the corporate reform movement, though there is no mention of Mr. Gates et al, who the editors must know lurks behind every education reform bush (pun intended). Contrary to the editors’ assertion, teachers do not as a rule equate academic improvement with the cessation of standardized testing. But teachers recognize that the focus on testing impedes genuine progress by narrowing the curriculum and squelching student’s desire to learn.

Nor have the editors bothered to familiarize themselves with what works elsewhere, aping the myopic predisposition so prevalent in what passes for American opinion. Take this sentence by the editors:

In reality, getting rid of the testing requirement in the early grades would make it impossible for the country to know what if anything children were learning from year to year.

There is so much profoundly wrong in this statement, that one could spend weeks exploring its assumptions.

I’ll begin with a nitpick. Countries do not “know.” Nor do countries think, form opinions, or otherwise behave. They exist. Yet, the use of this semantically troubled expression speaks volumes about the editors’ wrongheaded collective judgment. Why should an entire nation of people, let’s say, want to know what or how all children are learning? Parents, we can justifiably assume, care about their own children’s academic achievement, and at some point in their educational journey, children themselves may care how they’re doing in school.

The wrong turn in education, if the problem didn’t already exist in its infancy, is the presumption that learning is a national concern. It leads to impositions from the top to the bottom; and let’s be clear, students are the bottom-feeders in this paradigm.

Rather, learning is interest-driven. That means that it begins with the child, one who is naturally curious upon entering his or her first classroom.

Back to the offensive sentence, the editors should try to understand that good teachers know very precisely the deficiencies and competencies of their pupils. They do not need a standardized test to provide this information.

Further into the editorial we encounter a familiar theme of the educational reform movement, led principally by Mr. Gates and his foundation. The editors:

With results like that [higher high school graduation rates yet lower college preparedness], it’s no wonder some South Carolina business leaders are worried that the state is producing high school graduates who are not qualified to compete for higher-skilled jobs at companies like Boeing, Volvo and BMW.

This is a national problem.

These are the same businesses that replace workers with machines and ship jobs oversees to maximize profits. And, truth be told, the perfect worker would be a wage-less automaton, one that doesn’t call in sick or have babies or grumble when conditions turn nasty. More important, should the goal of learning be the satisfaction of corporate bottom lines?

Entirely absent in the Times‘ editorial is mention of income inequality and the transformation of the Finnish education system. American children of affluent parents do as well on international tests (e.g., PISA) as children from other countries, including Finland and Japan. But inequality in the U.S. is the highest of OECD states, with just a few exceptions (e.g., Mexico). The chart below, based on OECD data, shows the income ratio of the top ten percent to the bottom ten percent. Note the contrast between the U.S. and Finland.

top to bottom 2012

I have written extensively on the Finnish education system (here, here, and here). It focuses on developing quality teachers, in-school collaboration among educators, and a Dewey-like approach to student learning. It does not rely on standardized tests. Yet, Finland’s students score among the highest on the PISA exams.

Perhaps the most serious weakness in the critique of American schools is the assumption that we are, indeed, one nation. Yes, in a geopolitical sense the U.S. is a state. But the country is so sharply divided by politics and economics as to be rightly judged a multi-country within its geographical and political borders. That division begs for a different approach, one that is far more local and less global. Debating educational policy as a national issue undermines more practical and successful strategies that can only be applied in much smaller contexts. I suggest that we start with the schools, classrooms, teachers, and children.

Also, like Finland, Iceland, Denmark, and other northern European nations, resources must be expended to sharply reduce inequality. Unless we Americans resolve to do so, educational reform efforts, whether from the political right or left, will have little effect.

Finally, I should think that we would want our schools to enhance and sustain children’s natural curiosity about the world around them. We cannot predict what jobs will be available in the future. But we can prepare students to use their inquisitiveness and imagination to meet an array of challenges, including how to live well and cooperatively.