Education: Cost or Quality?

Like most searching for an answer, I started by looking at PISA results and commonalities between high performing nations.

My first search: National Curriculums.

It seemed to work well for Japan and New Zealand but not for the UK and Portugal. Time to look for another explanation.

PISA tries to avoid supporting rote memorization by measuring “How well can students nearing the end of compulsory schooling apply their knowledge to real-life situations?”  So, maybe countries with strong links to high stakes/standardized testing will reveal poor scores.

No dice. Finland and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are at opposing ends of the testing spectrum. Finland has very little standardizing testing and ROK works towards solely standardized testing. PISA shows both countries in the highest echelon on national education. Next.

Maybe countries with the highest spending on education skyrocket the PISA rankings? Nope…another dead end. The USA ranked the fourth highest in public expenditure on primary, secondary and tertiary education per student by the OECD.  Much higher than ALL front runners.

How could this be?

“Currently only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom. Fewer than half of Washington’s 101,700 public school employees are classroom teachers. Spokane Public Schools employs 3,087 people, one for every nine students, but only 41 percent of them are classroom teachers.”

–Washington Policy Center

So, maybe it’s cultural or political?

“Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.

“All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.”

“ All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.”

-Washington Post

Now we’re getting somewhere!

One of the most emphasized points in the Finnish system is the social status of teachers and its impact on education.

The OECD states Finnish teachers hold an extremely high social status and one of the most sought after professions.  Teachers are taken from the top 10% of gradates to earn a masters in education before being able to teach in public schools.

Conversely, consider the U.S. stigma of teaching: “Those you can’t do, teach.” “Easy job, short hours with major vacation time” isn’t the reality. Again in OECD comparisons:

-Finnish teachers are paid substantially lower than their American counterparts.

-U.S. teachers put in 1051 hours of direct teaching with Finland, a mere 550.

In Hidden Markets (2007), Patricia Burch shows the further decline of the status of American teachers showing a cultural shift towards online learning. Public state funds are already being used as an alternative to public schools. In some states it is even possible for virtual schools to hire non-certified and non-full time staff.

To me it needs to be a ‘one problem at a time’ approach. The initial focus needs to be on providing an education as opposed to the cost cutting measures limiting it. The Federal and State governments haven’t mastered the application before attempting to sell it off as a commodity and stripping it of the biggest strengths. Teachers.

U.S. teachers are paid a low salary comparative to other college graduates, are readily being replaced by computers and online classrooms, work longer than teachers in other countries, are forced to submit to standardized testing in a very non standardized environment and with society assuming ‘they have it easy.’

Maybe a consultant will suggest we ‘stop trying and fail for free?!?’

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Children are More than Test Scores!

Last week I was at my son’s elementary school for a meeting with his teacher.  She began to talk about how important it was for him to be ready for the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests). I told her that not only did I find this type of assessment irrelevant to his education, but also inaccurate.  I even suggested I’d rather he didn’t participate in taking them. A look of confusion came across her face, like she hadn’t even thought about having a choice in this matter.

Standardized testing has been a crucial aspect of the No Child Left Behind act that has been introduced by the George W. Bush administration in 2002. Each state is required to create assessment tests and yearly progress reports in order to receive federal funding. This has been a top down policy that was decided in Washington with little to no involvement of students, teachers, and parents that have been affected by it.  Supposedly, such standardized tests were expected to not only provide accurate assessments of student achievement but also measure the effectiveness of teachers as well.  But a decade after the policy’s implementation, there has been no proof of its effectiveness.  Rather, standardized testing has reduced education to acquiring skills that merely prep for the test.

Comparing U.S. students to those from such high-achieving countries as Finland, Korea, UK, and Singapore, Linda Darling-Hammond argues that American students are “the most tested” in the world. She finds that not only are students in these countries minimally tested but they also rarely take multiple-choice exams.  She further claims that spending so much time on improving test taking skills takes away time from effective teaching and critical thinking skills that cannot be measured by such tests.

Yet, public protests against standardized testing are rare. Many teachers find themselves in a difficult position if they seriously contest the system that promotes “teaching to the test.” Should they refuse to participate in the standardized tests imposed by the state, they risk poor evaluations, charges of insubordination, possible suspension, and even loss of their jobs. To a certain extent, then, many teachers—perhaps even a majority—are forced to implement standardized tests and teaching practices that they not only despise but know are against common sense and the real educational needs of their students.

While many teachers may be discouraged from actively protesting the standardized testing movement, the teachers of Garfield High School in Seattle are just doing that…by not participating in the mandated standardized tests called MAPS (Measures of Academic Progress) and they are not the only ones. Over 130 professors and researchers from various universities, including Harvard, Tuft, and Brandeis, have spoken out publicly against standardized testing. From New York City to Texas and Florida, parents, teachers, and elementary and middle school students are beginning to express their frustration with slogans like “KIDS ARE NOT A TEST SCORE.” Garfield High’s defiance of this policy clearly shows the rest of us that we do have a voice in education policy as stakeholders especially in a nation that we call a democracy.