How To Build a Better School System
What The U.S. Should – And Shouldn’t – Learn From Europe
Michael V. McGill
Scarsdale Public Schools, New York
If you sit in a room with a bunch of education experts – as I did this past weekend – and are puzzled, you’re not alone. With all the disagreements about testing and charter schools, arguments over the role of unions, disputes about teacher evaluation and tenure reform, it’s hard to know what’s really going on.
Some reformers look to standardization, metrics and competition to save a failing school system. Others claim these “solutions” are undermining the schools and killing public education. They’re all passionate; they all sound reasonable. What’s the truth?
It may seem counterintuitive to look abroad for answers. After all, the U.S. is large, diverse, and in many ways unique. In fact, one of the weekend’s experts said definitively that we have little to learn from places like Finland. To see what works, he said, we should focus on what more successful states within our own borders can teach the rest.
That may be true for those who think schools should operate more like businesses, the premise that guides federal and state reform policy all across this country. But for those interested in a more searching analysis of our condition, America’s largely uncritical unanimity on that point will set off alarm bells. Precisely because other nations are different, we can use their experience to gain perspectives that will help us better understand ourselves.
Francois Weill is Recteur, l’academie de Paris and chancellor of the universities of Paris – the rough equivalent of a state commissioner of education, if the Paris region were a state.
France has launched a series of ambitious efforts to transform one of the world’s most tightly controlled school systems, according to Weill. Historically, every child in the country was supposed literally to be on the same page every day.
The new reforms aim to address the effects of economic inequality through early childhood education; to change pedagogy so that it’s more responsive to individual students and to improve teacher training radically. At the same time, the French want to preserve the system’s traditional emphasis on authority: the school’s authority over a body of academic content, the teacher’s academic authority over the student. The teacher knows; the student learns.
If these initiatives are successful, presumably, they’ll produce an education that’s more flexible in approach and that more children will find more accessible – especially the roughly 30 percent of youth who are most at risk. At the same time, standards and academic content will remain tightly controlled.
How will the shift affect outcomes? In the past, France’s national curriculum may have dissected history with a sharper scalpel than textbooks in America and enabled some graduates to become adept at critical analysis. Nonetheless, students had little room in school to question, to explore their own perspectives, to exercise creativity, or to innovate.
Furthermore, Weill says, the nation may have a distinguished tradition of critical inquiry, but intellectuals like a Sartre or a Derrida are as apt to have developed in spite of, or in reaction against, traditional French public education as because of it. Meanwhile, the large majority of children – those not in the academic elite – were even less likely to become educated in any broad sense.
The Recteur was struck by the contrast between French and American students when he was on a visit to Chicago schools. He visited one class to find youngsters readily confessing that they hadn’t read a class assignment. What they did have was a wide range of opinions on the topic at hand and a readiness to challenge their teacher. Why was he taking the position he did? How could he defend it? Why was the reading even important?
Better teaching methods and more early childhood education may enable more youngsters to master the French curriculum, in other words, but whether they’ll help the large number develop the (sometimes unsettling) capacities we’ve traditionally thought of as American strengths – questioning, challenging, initiating, inventing, improvising, leading – is another question.
In England, meanwhile, a succession of Tory and Labour governments continues its 40-some year love affair with metrics and privatization. The country’s tropism for tests and measurement, as well as its interest in de-constructing a traditional state school system, anticipated developments in the United States by several years.
To be certain, England still tests children less than an America driven by Race to the Top, and it places an emphasis on using the results formatively, to improve learning. It’s not like New York, where test security concerns prevent teachers from seeing their students’ answers. Still, the system is built on the principle of tight control and audit. The particular approach is different from the one in France, but the impulse is similar.
Sue Hackman, Director of the School Standards Group, U.K. Department of Education, has been responsible for England’s program of metrics and school assessment. If she’s representative, the system has been built and is being administered by true believers. “Accountability does work,” she says. “It’s raising standards and closing gaps.” “Expectations are a whole level higher.”
The plan feels like a modern manifestation of 19th-century British industrialism, a triumph of system and certainty. Constantly rising standards are the backbone of a newly re-introduced “traditional, content-based curriculum.” The curriculum leads to paper and pencil tests of mastery. The scores in turn lead to a purposeful strategy of “naming and shaming” low-performing schools. With metrics as a lever, standards and curriculum as the fulcrum, in other words, the bureaucracy is doing its best to jack performance from one defined level of mastery to the next. It’s all highly rational.
Hackman uses scattergrams to demonstrate how scores are migrating upward and rightward on an x y axis. Unhappily, the gap between wealthy and poor is still too large, but it’s slightly smaller than it was a decade or more ago. So far, evidently, teachers aren’t being rated on their students’ test scores, so the “naming and shaming” hasn’t reached down to the classroom level.
In its own way, as I said, the approach is at least as authoritarian and tightly controlled as its counterpart across the Channel: it’s a top-down plan for achieving quantifiable progress, built on metrics, standards and standardization, compliance and competition. It’s also a closed logical loop. The curriculum defines the learning that matters. The tests measure the learning. Higher scores mean the learning is better. Therefore, more students must be learning what matters. Are the assumptions accurate? Not really a question the system asks.
I also wonder whether Hackman or anyone in the English camp would ever say that the audit and control approach has a point of diminishing return, that they should declare victory and move on to important goals and learning the standardized tests don’t measure well – or can’t measure at all. Or if they think the strategy is good for most schools and children, would its proponents concede that it doesn’t serve all children and places well and try to make some exceptions, where they’re warranted? My guess is that the response to both questions would be “Maybe in the future, but not now.” The system doesn’t seem to consider these kinds of possibilities, either.
The logical end of the English strategy is apparent in the work of GEMS Education Solutions, a subsidiary of a Dubai-based education corporation that’s reaching out across the globe to nations that include the United States. In the U.K. and Europe, the self-described CEO of this entrepreneurial enterprise is Peter Birkett, lately knighted for his services to education and the academy – the secondary charter school – movement in England.
In upbeat corporate language, Birkett describes his company’s determination to “lift school performance and improve the standards and expertise of public (as in American ‘public’) schools.” His small but growing “family” of schools enrolls students for tuition fees paid by the national government. The central organization provides cooperative, support and ancillary services to all the schools in the group, much like a BOCES. It generates added income by minimizing costs and increasing enrollment. “‘Profits’ are plowed back into program improvement.” Students’ scores on the GCSE (the tenth year General Certificate of Secondary Education exam) have improved significantly since the GEM schools took over, according to the CEO.
The world of GEM schools appears to be a world of marketplace values. “When I meet with students in the fall of sixth form,” he says, “I tell them they have three priorities: exams, graduation, and prom.” If a student does well on the first two, the school pays for the third.
The GEM approach prompts questions:
- How much class time goes to questioning, exploring, challenging students’ perceptions and thinking? How much to structured test prep?
- How does the company save money? What are teachers paid, for example? Do the schools screen out children with serious special education needs?
- How much are the CEO and other “executives” paid and what financial arrangements exist between England and Dubai?
All may be rosy in corporate education-land, but one can’t help worrying about what results when children’s welfare and profitability become intertwined.
Pasi Sahlberg and Diane Ravitch reflect a very different sensibility. The former is director of CIMO, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and author of Finnish Lessons, which discusses how that nation has come to produce world-beating performance on international tests. The latter is research professor of education at NYU and former Assistant Secretary of Education in the second Bush administration.
Sahlberg describes how his small country developed a national core curriculum for aspiring teachers, improved their clinical training, reduced the number of teacher education programs, and made admission to them highly competitive. Finland has the shortest academic year of any OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) country; elementary school children do no homework; there are no standardized tests, an exam is required for high school graduation. Healthcare and early childhood education are universal.
Sahlberg also contrasts what he calls “the global education reform movement” with the Finnish approach. One features competition, the other, collaboration (Finland has abandoned letter or number grades for children up through fifth grade, for example). One relies on standardization, the other, customization (viz. Finland’s rigorous teacher preparation programs). In contrast with test-based accountability, Finland trusts teachers to exercise responsibility (hence, little testing). And instead of school choice, it attempts to create social equity (through significant social safety nets and educational supports to offset income disparities).
Ravitch has looked upon the world of corporate-style school reform, first approvingly and now more critically. Having concluded that current federal and state policies are fundamentally flawed, she’s re-fashioned herself as the Sword of Justice where the metrics and competition agenda is concerned. In her newly published book, Reign of Error, she describes the “fraud” of current reform ideology.
Among the frauds: the ideas that public education is a failed enterprise; that standardized test scores are important and that they should be used to evaluate teachers; that unions are the problem and merit pay and abolishing tenure are the answers. Perhaps most of all, that corporate America is a fitting model for education. To the contrary, she argues, the private sector’s involvement in schools is mainly a power grab intended to generate profit.
Today, education policy in the United States reflects a vision of reform that’s far closer to England’s than it is to Finland’s. But as I asked at the beginning, who’s right?
The answer is, it depends on basic values and on your beliefs about what education is for and about how people come to be educated.
Let’s begin to think about the problem by remembering that for many American children, historically, the process of education hasn’t been so different from the one in France, even though the education system here is much less centralized. Young people came to school, where they were to acquire a body of knowledge and certain skills. The process was supposed to render them educated.
In practice, the student’s job was to meet the content head on, wrestle it to the ground and master it. Unsurprisingly, large numbers of children found the process irrelevant and pointless and essentially unrelated to anything that mattered. They endured it, and a significant number did poorly at it. It was, to quote Harvard professor Richard Elmore, “a long, hard, forced march over broken glass.” And that was without the doubling – or tripling – down on standardized exams and scores that’s the goal of today’s high-stakes test policies.
As with the French, more able American students in the era before No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top did succeed in the system’s own terms, did well on tests, and went to university. As adults, however, many of them identified with the composer Paul Simon: When they looked back on all the crap they’d learned in high school, it was a wonder they could think at all. And when they did succeed as thinkers, problem-solvers, creators, innovators, it was as likely to be despite their education as because of it.
Today the dominant school reform strategy in America is a version of the English control-and-audit approach. It may not be the French or the English way, exactly, but an obsession with scores places an increasingly heavy premium on mastering a set curriculum, as well as on strategizing to produce high scores. It leaves less time to pursue goals that standardized tests don’t measure well – learning to solve problems with no evident answers, for instance, or for teachers to pursue their passions, or for students to initiate their own learning.
The distinction between the two approaches is important. As a former Scarsdale department head once observed, history can be taught as if it’s a September-to-June speedboat race down a river or as if it’s a canoe trip, where you paddle backwaters, explore eddies and currents, enter into the mystery of the journey. The essential question is which kind of experience is more apt to produce the intelligent workers and citizens our society needs.
It’d be oversimplifying – and unfair – to suggest that the Anglo/American strategy is so reductive, it prevents students from ever savoring the journey. Even the most rigidly controlled system admits some light and life. If nothing else, great teachers can be remarkably adept at subverting systems and engaging their pupils deeply with the complex stuff of history or English or science. Still, that’s far from an ideal way of doing business if the goal in the first place is to excel at fostering innovative, independent thinkers.
The merits of Finnish-style strategy aren’t just theoretical. Both experience and a body of research tell us that vibrant, well-educated and well-trained teachers cause all kinds of students to become engaged, motivated learners. Early childhood education and early reading intervention improve learning. Health and nutrition programs make a difference in children’s school readiness and are clearly associated with school success.
Certainly, there’s a place for tests that monitor student progress as well as for assessments that help educators understand how to do a better job with their pupils. But there are much smarter, less invasive ways to gather information than through the regimes of unrelenting standardized exams that have become the norm in the United States. And there are more intelligent ways to improve instruction than bludgeoning teachers, most of whom want to succeed, into doing their jobs. What they need isn’t shaming, but better tools, opportunity and trust.
So you may think education is about mastering certain material and believe that process will prepare graduates for what comes after. You may also believe that standardized tests do a good – or at least a good enough – job of measuring what matters. If you do, you’re likely to reach one conclusion about the shape education reform should take.
If you think an education is something else, you’re apt to come out in a different place. This other view holds that standardized tests aren’t very good at measuring many of the capacities that matter. It also proposes that in systems that are test-driven, where everyone spends lots of time trying to get high scores, inevitably, they can’t do other things.
And those things can make all the difference between graduating people who’ve gone to school and people who are truly educated.