Betty Casey has taught high school English, middle school gifted and talented, and Freshman Comp., English Lit. and Humanities at the University of Oklahoma and Tulsa Community College. She is currently managing editor of TulsaKids Magazine, a monthly parenting publication.
In the past few months I’ve had the pleasure of watching three screenings about public education: “Waiting for Superman”, “The Race to Nowhere” and, most recently, “American Teacher.” Of the three, “American Teacher” contributed the most realistic and valuable information to the dialogue about what’s wrong and what’s right in American education.
The documentary follows five public school teachers. While “Waiting for Superman” blames teachers (and teachers’ unions) for everything from low standardized test scores to young people going to prison, “American Teacher” actually lets the teachers tell their story — and it’s a story of heartbreak and courage in the face of low pay, poor working conditions, and lack of respect.
Are there bad teachers? Sure. But does anyone seriously believe that our schools are suddenly filled with bad teachers? My children who went through Tulsa Public Schools were all well prepared for college. Like the dedicated teachers in the film, my children’s teachers were available early in the morning and late into the night. One of their high school math teachers would stay and tutor kids as long as they needed him, sometimes until 9 or 10 pm.
In a single classroom, a teacher has students with a variety of abilities, some non-English speaking students, students who are hungry or in pain, students whose parents may or may not get them to class every day, and, especially in high poverty areas, students who move from school to school several times a year. How is teacher effectiveness measured in this situation?
“American Teacher” points out that Finland has the best schools in the world, as measured by Program for International Assessment (PISA) tests. Thirty-five years ago, Finland’s schools were mediocre. They came up with a plan with input from teachers, the teachers’ union (yes, most of Finland’s teachers belong to a union), business leaders, and policymakers to improve the schools. After the plan was in place, they had the patience to let it work.
Some of these changes could work in the United States. One of the big differences between Finland and the U.S. is that Finland has very little poverty. Finland has socialized medicine, free preschool (formal schooling starts at age 7), and free college. School lunches are free to residents. Children in Finland go to school healthy, fed and ready to learn because of the high quality preschools they have attended.
For this to happen in the U.S., we would have to expand our early learning models, such as Head Start, Early Head Start, and the Educare Centers that we have in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. We would have to make a meaningful effort to make sure that all children had good health care and food. Children living in poverty would need wrap-around services – mental and physical health, nutrition, extra tutoring, care beyond the school day, early learning centers and transportation – in order to match Finland’s high educational outcomes.
Would this be expensive? Absolutely. Would it pay off in having more productive, better-trained workers and better citizens in the United States? Absolutely. Without good schools, the economy suffers on many levels.
Another difference is that Finnish industry leaders have not only promoted the importance of mathematics, science and technology, but also advocated for more attention to creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and cross-curricular projects in schools. A senior Nokia manager who served as chair of a task force on the national science curriculum stated:
If I hire a youngster who doesn’t know all the mathematics or physics that is needed to work here, I have colleagues here who can easily teach those things. But if I get somebody who doesn’t know how to work with other people, how to think differently or how to create original ideas and somebody who is afraid of making a mistake, there is nothing we can do here.
In implementing its reforms, Finland went the opposite way of the U.S., which is currently focusing more on the narrow knowledge required to take standardized tests.
Another difference between the United States and Finland is that people in Finland have high respect for teachers and the teaching profession. Teachers are given much more autonomy in how to achieve educational objectives with their students. Class sizes are small – 19 to 21 students – and there is lower teacher turnover. In the U.S., nearly half of teachers quit the profession before five years.
Can we change public education in America? I believe we can, and I believe that most of us can even agree on how to do it if we take lessons from the strongest performers worldwide. It would take hard work, money, and real leadership. We need to involve parents, educators, policymakers, unions, and administrators to create a strategic plan which addresses the real issues of poverty, school readiness, teacher salaries and training, teachers’ working conditions, and respect for teachers as professionals. This would be a difficult, but not impossible, first step. And I say “step” because if we only look at one issue, we fail.
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