Education in Europe Meeting – October

 

Education in Europe

Highlights of a Meeting of the National Superintendents Roundtable

Washington, DC

October 4-6, 2013

Superintendent Michael McGill's Summary
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Substance aside, the National Superintendents Roundtable’s Fall meeting got off to a powerful and emotional start on Friday evening. Steering Committee Member Luvern Cunningham, a member of the “greatest generation” who won numerous battle ribbons during the campaign in the Pacific during World War II before beginning 60 years of service to American education, was honored by the Roundtable. The plaque and citation he received from Nelda Cambron-McCabe and Bob Koff (r) hailed Cunningham for a “lifetime dedicated to the ideals of the United States” and for the “contributions you have made to American education and to American life.” All the evidence one needed of the affection and respect Vern enjoys within the Roundtable was on display as members spontaneously rose to provide him with loud and sustained standing ovation.

And, for those interested in data and national differences in educational approaches, the Roundtable’s Fall 2013 meeting was a feast for the eyes and the mind. Held at New York University’s John Brademas Center, it was a tale, in many ways, of two competing narratives. One argued that large data systems, including international assessments, are inherently flawed and need to take context into account in examining school outcomes. The other tended to take assessment results across and within nations at face value and argued for dramatic reshaping of traditional systems of public schooling, although not always in the same way. In the end, Roundtable superintendents imposed their own meaning on the discussion by combining insights garnered at this meeting with lessons from an 11-day 2012 study mission to Finland, France, and England. Member superintendents left the feast with their appetites both satisfied and whetted for more.

International Assessments: A Cautionary Tale

Average scores on national and state tests need to be interpreted with great caution, reported Martin Carnoy, Vida Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University. Such averages can be misleading, he said, a reality that is true for ALL international and state assessments. Among the issues:

  • Different tests measure different types of cognitive knowledge; TIMSS, for example, purports to be curriculum based, while PISA purports to assess the application of skills.
  • Average tests scores on TIMSS and PISA differ from year to year, behaving differently across time in the same country.
  • TIMSS and NAEP math scores for the US rise similarly from 2000 to 2011, but PISA demonstrated a decline across the same period, with dramatic declines between 2000 and 2007.
  • In every country in the world, children from families disadvantaged in terms of family and community cultural, social, and human capital resources score, on average, much lower than their advantaged counterparts.
  • With regard to PISA results, U.S. students do much better than commonly reported or understood when average PISA results are adjusted across nations to account for mother’s education, parents higher education, and PISA social class index (a measure Carnoy refers to as Family Academic Resources – FAR).
  • This adjustment reduces the differences between the U.S. and the top scoring countries by one-third (although nations like Finland and Korea continue to outpace the U.S. national average).
  • In the United States, reported Carnoy, large variation exists in how well similar FAR students perform in schools in different states.

Where to turn?  Carnoy believed that strong accountability systems as in Massachusetts seemed to have effects. And alignment of curriculum with standards is essential, he concluded.

Cautions.  Carnoy (l) warned that although PISA seemed to accurately reflect the proportion of disadvantaged children in the U.S., it oversampled disadvantage concentrated in urban areas, while under-sampling dispersed poverty in rural communities.  The result: PISA probably understates the true average American score by a point or more. Moreover, he argued, American educators could learn a great deal by examining how similar students in some states in the United States make big gains on 8th-grade NAEP Math while their counterparts in other states did not. That would be more profitable than visiting schools overseas hoping to find a magic elixir to bring home for domestic consumption. Finally, he cautioned against taking international comparisons of per-pupil costs too seriously. “In the United States,” he said, “benefits, including health insurance and pensions, are loaded into education budgets. They can increase per-pupil costs by 20-25%.” In Finland and much of Europe these outlays are off budget for schools, he reported—accounted for in municipal and civil service accounts. Nor, he added, are private expenditures to promote learning figured into these calculations. “In Korea,” he said, “typical parents may spend $10,000 annually on tutoring. This money doesn’t show up in the per-pupil expenditure comparisons.”

Martin Carnoy’s PowerPoint available at: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/45362102/Carnoy.pptx

 

Education in France: A Centralized System

By tradition, the Rector of the Paris Academy is the senior academic civil servant in France. Like his colleagues in some 30 other academies in France, including Bordeaux and Lyons, François Weil, Paris Academy Rector, is appointed to his position by the President of France and serves at the president’s pleasure. Weil (r) reported that he is responsible for overseeing 300,000 primary and secondary students, nearly 400,000 university students, and 40,000 teachers, administrators and staff.  Paris, he observed is not the largest academy or the one with the greatest challenges. Versailles to the immediate west of Paris is the largest academy and Créteil to the immediate east faces the greatest challenges, conceivable a function of demographics: unlike American central cities, French cities are often gentrified, pushing lower income families into ring suburbs in search of cheaper housing.

Broad Outlines of the System. Weil described a highly centralized system of education in France, a tradition stretching back to the time of Napoleon. He described centralization as a “deep seated political and administrative tradition.” Education has been considered “a public service since the 1870s, a service committed to republican ideals stressing that education is free, secular and compulsory.” Although “secondary education was the preserve of the elites until the 1950s, at that time the concept of free, secular, and mandatory education began to be expanded to include secondary education.”

In a system then, that is “public, centralized, and democratized,” school attendance is mandatory until age 16, at which time students pursue the secondary baccalaureate diploma. About 85% of French students attend public schools, with 15% in private schools, principally Catholic schools that are financed by the government in return for agreeing to contracts supporting the national curriculum. Just about all 3-5-year-olds attend nursery schools; attendance at a nursery school (école maternelle) is compulsory at age 6, at which point students are introduced to reading.

Age

School

Compulsory?

0-2

Crèche

No

3-5

Nursery

No

6

Nursery

Yes

6-11

Primary School

Yes

11-16

Junior High (Collège)

Yes

16-18

High School (Lycée)

No

 

Challenges. French education today, said Weil, faces several challenges that have encouraged the new president of France, François Hollande, to call for reinventing French education. Among the challenges the French ministry of education seeks to address are the following:

  • Disparity in educational outcomes for students, due in part to social, economic and social factors
  • The need to adapt pedagogy to the needs of the 21st Century
  • Training future teachers to help them function happily and effectively in today’s classrooms.
  • Reversing decisions made by earlier governments that cut budgets, reduced teacher training, and shortened the primary school year to 144 days.

 

To respond to these challenges, the new government has put significant new funding behind education with “an impressive budgetary effort grounded in a firm belief that investment in education is the best investment we can make.” The funds are directed at three goals: reduce educational inequalities; adapt pedagogy to the needs of the 21st century; and train teachers in equity.

These are by no means easy fixes, stressed Weil. The inequality effort focuses on kindergarten and primary schools first and is aimed at putting several thousand new teachers into classrooms, with an emphases on enrolling two-year-olds in nursery school programs and shoring up teaching in classrooms in disadvantaged communities. “We are working to convince parents that early enrollment will benefit their children.” One aspect of the system is a program known as “more teachers than classrooms,” a revolutionary concept in France that aims to put two teachers into every classroom with high concentrations of low-income children. “Paris,” he said, “remains a ‘tale of two cities,’ “ in which highly advantaged children take advantage of the capital’s rich cultural heritage while many low income children have barely traveled beyond their own street or the blocks surrounding their home and their school.”

New pedagogies are required to move from the traditional French emphasis that “knowing teachers transmit knowledge to students who learn it” to new efforts to personalize and individualize education so that it is “grounded in the individual needs of the learner.” And reinventing teacher training requires dealing with inherited notions of sequential approaches emphasizing the need to acquire knowledge in a discipline, followed by professional training, a challenge requiring university faculties to rethink their roles.

Despite these challenges, “Most French citizens consider education to be a contract between France and its citizens and that the state should provide public education to all its citizens.”

Video of François Weil’s presentation is available at: www.facebook.com/ntsupsrt

 

 

Education in England: A System Increasingly Decentralized

In the Department for Education, “I was one of only two people in senior positions who came from a ‘state school.’ Policy for education in England is largely set by ‘public school’ types,” said Sue Hackman (r) recently retired as Chief Adviser on School Standards at the English Department for Education. (An English public is a residential school for the children of the elite. Harrow, the public school the Roundtable visited in 2012 charges about $60,000 annually for tuition, board, room and fees.)

The new coalition government in England (a forced marriage of the Conservative Party and the free-market oriented Liberal Party that in 2010 ousted the socialist Labour government presided over since 1997 by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) agreed on about 5-6 issues at the outset, said Hackman. “It was fabulous. And it lasted about three days. The coalition government therefore made a virtue out of having no money by devolving authority to the local level and granting more independence by establishing academies and free schools.”

The Way We Were. When Blair formed the Labour government in 1997 he announced three priorities: “Education. Education. Education!” Standards, reported Hackman were low. Professional development around teaching was practically non-existent. A national curriculum existed with few means of assessing its effectiveness. The Labour government created “accountability heaven,” said Hackman. “If it moved, we tested it.” How, she asked could educators justify schools with the “same intake” (similar students) producing different outcomes? “We set targets for everyone.”

The announcement of PISA results produces two days of a “perfect storm” in English politics and the British press. As students spent more time on social media, reading results in England declined, she reported. We decided it was fair to “adjust PISA results for poverty, but then we stopped that. Schools got complacent. We don’t want lower standards for the less-well-off.”

Hackman described a process of setting targets that were aspirational, a process in which schools that set demanding standards actually made more progress, even if they didn’t reach the standard, than schools that satisfied themselves with lower standards. “But the press killed us for not meeting the targets,” she said ruefully.

The 1% solution. “I’m a big believer in the 1%-a-year improvement approach,” declared Hackman. “Politicians want 5%, but policymakers can maintain a 1% gain” while larger and more spectacular gains are often illusory. Schools in England demonstrated huge gaps, depending on poverty levels and class differences among students. Hackman became an advocate for standards and progress data and in “naming and shaming” about 400 schools that were told they would be shut down if they didn’t improve and “opened under new management.” Most of these schools improved. The performance of poor students improved under this regimen, she said, but she remains distressed that the gaps still exist.

A New Government.  The new coalition government took office with achievement rising, the gap closing and no money. It pursued a “permissive ideology, with aggressive deregulation, a theology of school autonomy, and a belief in a small (but powerful) state.” The targets set by the prior Labour government went into the “bonfire”—fewer standards, but higher (“on the theory that less is more, but less is also less expensive”), a lot of consultants, and weeding out of the middle tier of school administrators (people like school superintendents). Initially, reported Hackman, a lot of large companies were interested in being part of this agenda, but she sees increasing signs of their backing away from schools because they don’t think involvement can add to the bottom line.

Today, she reported, 51% of secondary schools are academies or free schools—receiving direct funding and allowed to choose their own curriculum and freed up from control by local authorities. But, she noted, “These schools still have to meet accountability standards. The academies seem to be doing very well, but they started very low and had a lot of room for improvement.” (Subsequently Hackman reported that the coalition’s agreements around education had imploded, with the Liberal Democrats condemning the Free School policy.)

What Works? Hackman concluded her presentation with a laundry list of policy lessons from England:

  • Standards are always in fashion.
  • The public and parents are satisfied if students are happy, doing well, and the school is a safe and sound environment.
  • The hardware approach to technology doesn’t work: technology has to relate to people and pedagogy.
  • Structural solutions (charters, academies, free schools) are not enough—but they do provide the impetus for change.
  • A “hero” principal is not enough. “Batman needs Robin.” A head teacher is precious and “we can’t recruit enough of them.” A head teacher with four like-minded staff members can work wonders.
  • Sharp governance at the local level is the key to success.
  • Data is the driver of change—but we need to get beyond the “gosh” moment to understand the data and what it is telling us.
  • Progression data over time tells the real story.
  • Different students need different things. Students one level behind feel ignored and need mentors. Students two levels behind, are quite unconcerned about it and have written themselves off. They need a great teacher.

 

Sue Hackman’s PowerPoint presentation is available at: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/45362102/Hackman.ppt

Video of her presentation can be found at: www.facebook.com/ntsupsrt

 

An International Vision of Public and Private Collaboration: GEMS Education

“I believe private and state schools should come together to provide the best education for all,” said Sir Peter Birkett, who had just left the Barnfield Federation in Luton, (London) to become CEO for the United Kingdom and Europe of GEMS Education, an international educa-

tion company that describes itself as the largest provider of private education in the world, one serving hundreds of thousands of children globally.

Birkett reported that the Barnfield Federation made history by sponsoring two failing schools in Luton (ages 11-16), setting up the first studio school (skills academy for 14-18-year olds) and converting a private fee-paying school into a Free School. The Federation grew, he said, from the initial two schools to nine schools, serving ages 4 through 18, enrolling 26,000 students, with a staff of 1,700 and an annual operating budget of about $65 million.

Assessment results were proof of the pudding, said Birkett. General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) results jumped dramatically over six years, while savings and growth enabled investments of £78 million (perhaps $125 million depending on exchange rates) in new buildings and refurbishments. “We take a business-like approach,” he said, “loving our students and our staff,” including rewards schemes for students providing exciting opportunities for the annual prom and bonuses for staff.

Birkett (l) pointed to six key challenges: maintain corporate vision and practices, being consistent and fair, growing in a measured way, managing risk, retaining the best staff, and rebuffing cynics. Taking these lessons to GEMS, he described a GEMS vision of “Learn. Aspire. Be.” The vision is to be “the world’s leading provider of quality education, enriching the lives of millions of children and the communities in which they live.” It’s mission is to “put quality education within the reach of every child,” with an ambitious goal of educating 5 million children by 2024 and positively impacting the lives of 500 million more.”

GEMS, founded in Dubai by Sunny Varkey,is a global network of schools, with 130,000 students from 151 nationalities across four continents.  Working initially in developing nations, GEMS has now established equally ambitious goals of providing educational services throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. It currently operates five schools in the United States.

Birkett noted that GEMS will launch an international teachers’ conference in London (October 11) attended by former U.S. President Bill Clinton (Varkey Foundation honorary chair) as well as a global education and skills conference in March 2014 in Dubai. Meanwhile, GEMS World Academy will open in Chicago in September 2014, offering an international baccalaureate as part of GEMS global network.

Sir Peter Birkett’s PowerPoint presentation is available at: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/45362102/Birkett.pptx

Video of his presentation is available at: www.facebook.com/ntsupsrt

 

Education in Finland: Attacking Inequity Inside and Outside Schools

Finland, a system with some 3,000 schools, “insists that all students attend the same basic school through Grade 9,” reported Pasi Sahlberg, international ambassador for Finnish education. The state provides universal childcare on a voluntary basis. National legislation provides a right to preschool programs and also insists that students have a right to learn.

Schools in Finland are inclusive, he reported. Upper secondary education (after Grade 9) is voluntary, noted Sahlberg (with Lebanon, Pa’s Marianne Bartley, l), although the state hopes that all students will enroll. In fact, about 95% of students do. One side effect of inclusiveness is that the incidence of special needs declines as students progress through the grades in Finland, unlike just about everywhere else in Europe where the incidence of special needs increases. Elsewhere, the older students get, the more disabilities are identified. In Finland, however, school personnel identify students’ special needs very early and meet them. As a result, the older students get, the less their need for special services.

Finland, argued Sahlberg, has an equitable public school system. To advance equity, it spends about 30% of school spending on early childhood education, almost three times the proportion allocated in the United States. It is also a highly equitable society. On a scale linking income inequality and achievement as measured by PISA, Finland demonstrates high achievement and low inequality—with the United States and Britain at the opposite end of the spectrum, each demonstrating high levels of income inequality and relatively low student achievement.

GERM. How are school systems being improved around the world? asked Sahlberg. By the GERM approach: the Global Educational Reform Movement, an effort emphasizing competition, standardization, test-based accountability and school choice. The GERM approach stands in marked contrast to the approach in Finland where competition is frowned on and students do not take a national assessment until they are 16.

GERM Approach

Finnish Approach

Competition

Collaboration

Standardization

Customization

Test-based accountability

Trust-Based Accountability

School Choice

Equity

 

In Finnish schools, he emphasized, there are no student grades before Grade 5, so there are no numbers to encourage students to compete with each other. “In Finland, we believe standardization is the enemy of creativity and that accountability is what is left after responsibility has been taken way.” The lessons from Finland, he noted, are that we need to place less emphasis on standardized tests and more trust in teachers. “Excellence comes from equity, not from tests”

Sahlberg pointed to three key drivers underpinning Finland’s educational success: A systematic focus on equity. A commitment to the idea that less is more. And enhanced professionalism for teachers. In the 1970s, he noted, childhood poverty in Finland stood at 20%. Today it is about 3.4%. Less is more—the system committed to less homework, no test preparation, and no private tuition. A junior high school teacher in Finland teaches for about 700 hours annually, compared to 1,100 hours for a teacher in the United States. Whereas a Finnish student will spend about 5,500 hours in compulsory instruction between the ages of 7 and 14, an American student will spend more than 7,000. Finally, the Finns acknowledged that teachers can’t do everything. Still, the system wanted the best people in the classroom. ‘In a typical year, Finland has 8,500 candidates for about 750 positions in teacher preparation programs. And the program is a 5-year program (ideally) and a 6-year program in practice for most. The result is that all Finnish teachers have a research-based master’s degree—and we rely on them for planning, assessing students, and devising solutions to students unique educational challenges.”

Sahlberg poured cold water on the idea that Finland’s teachers could come to the United States and turn student achievement around. “When people in the U.S. say that if only we had teachers like Finland’s everything would be fine, I don’t believe that’s true. You have to take out-of-school factors like poverty into account. Everyone in this room understands that about two-thirds of the things that explain student performance are related to out-of-school factors and at best only about half of the remaining one-third is related to teachers…. We cannot simply argue that we can solve the problems in the United States simply by having better teachers.”

Pasi Sahlberg’s PowerPoint presentation is available at: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/45362102/Sahlberg.pdf

Video of his presentation is available at: www.facebook.com/ntsupsrt

 

The United States: A Reign of Error

New York University’s Diane Ravitch, author of the best-selling Reign of Error, launched her presentation by acknowledging that she knew how difficult it was to be a school superintendent. “Have you heard the one,” she asked, “about the new superintendent whose predecessor offers him some advice? ‘Here are three envelopes,’ says the predecessor. ‘They are to be used only in crisis—you have one in order for each major crisis you’ll encounter.’ Sure enough trouble develops in the district. The new superintendent opens Envelope 1. ‘Blame everything on your predecessor,’ advises the note. When Crisis 2 develops, he opens Envelope 2: ‘Announce bold and dramatic new goals,’ is the advice he receives. When Crisis 3 arrives, he turns to Envelope 3 confident he’ll find a way out of this predicament. When he opens the envelope, the advice he gets is ‘Prepare three envelopes!’ ”

“I believe in Einstein’s advice,” said Ravitch (l, awaiting introduction): we should standardize automobiles, not people.” In that context, she set out to describe what she saw as hoaxes being imposed on the American people in the name of school reform.

  • Hoax 1: Appropriate and misuse language. What passes for “reform” these days amounts to the destruction of schools, said Ravitch. No Child Left Behind was a hoax, as children are still being left behind and teachers are being fired based on goals no one believed in the day they were written into law. Race to the Top? What kind of race is it that leaves teachers demoralized and schools closed? We’re actually racing to privatize American public schools.
  • Hoax 2: The narrative of failure. NAEP scores have been improving for every ethnic group in the United States since 1970, reported Ravitch. High school graduation rates are the highest they have ever been, while dropout rates are the lowest in history. The narrative is an effort to demoralize people and demonize teachers.
  • Hoax 3: We are losing our international competitiveness. Our performance on international tests is better today than it was in 1964 when the first of these international assessments appeared in 1964, when we were 11th out of 12 in one test and 12 out of 12 in another. Once an advanced economy reaches a certain level on these assessments, rank order means nothing.
  • Hoax 4: The private sector can do it better. One of the biggest hoaxes of all. On-line charters use tax dollars to recruit students and finance political campaigns. They employ minimum wage teachers and generate huge profits for owners, while producing astounding dropout rates of their own (students who often return to local public schools after the on-line school has cashed the per-pupil payment it received from the state).
  • Hoax 5: We can identify excellent teachers via value-added assessment. What performance-based accountability measures is who is in the classroom, said Ravitch, not how well a teacher is teaching.
  • Hoax 6: Tenure is the problem and should be abolished. Whereas Finland relies on responsibility and trust, American reformers rage against teachers. Tenure in K-12 schools is not the same things as tenure in higher education (where it guarantees a lifetime job). Tenure in K-12 simply promises due process in disciplinary proceedings.
  • Hoax 7: Smart college graduates with 5 weeks of teaching can do the job. Would that it were so easy. But this hoax has the terrible effect of eliminating professionalism in the field.
  • Hoax 8: Merit pay is the answer. Merit pay has been tried for decades and has never worked. The latest research from Vanderbilt indicates that even bonuses of $15,000 cannot motivate improved teaching. “It’s not as though teachers say, ‘It’s time I took out that excellent lesson plan I’ve been hiding in the drawer!’ “
  • Hoax 9: Competition will help public schools. If that were true, suggested Ravitch, Milwaukee, which has had charters and vouchers for 20 years, would have the best school system in the country. But in fact, Milwaukee demonstrates that charters and vouchers simply take money out of public education, leaving schools and the community in the lurch.
  • Hoax 10: Testing is the solution. The United States, she pointed out, is the only country in the world that tests students in every grade. Testing, she claimed, is an accurate measure only of family income.

 

But the biggest hoax of them all is the claim that education is the great civil rights issue of our time and that poverty is just an excuse for failure. We need to understand, said Ravitch (r, with back to camera signing books), that choice turns parents into consumers, not citizens, and that public education is not a consumption item.

Solutions. When Finland is providing the very best students in the country with five-year, research-based degrees, it is hard to take seriously the claim that American schools can be turned around if a handful of exceptional students are put into challenging classrooms based only on five weeks of training. We need a much more serious effort, declared Ravitch. “Start with the reality that children begin life and school with different advantages and disadvantages and go from there.” Society should guarantee all mothers with good pre-natal care. “We are 131 out of 134 countries in low-birth-weight babies. We’re tied with Somalia.” Without prenatal care, infants run the risk of developmental disabilities.

Next, we should provide preschool education on a voluntary basis to all. Follow that up by reducing class size, especially in the early grades and in communities with the greatest challenges. All students need a full and rich curriculum, including the arts and physical education every day.

Then provide wrap-around services, including health care, in the schools. Many parents have challenges—health care needs, unemployment, emotional problems—and schools can serve a role in helping communities deal with them.

Finally, follow Finland’s example and set out to minimize inequality. The tax code should be used to eliminate poverty.

Ravitch ended with a plea: “The purpose of education is not to raise test scores but to produce good citizens. It should be organized to produce graduates who treat others with respect, consider the consequences of their actions, engage in civic action, and, hopefully, create liberty and justice for all.”

Lessons from Europe: Roundtable Superintendents Speak

Early Sunday morning, a panel of three superintendents who had been part of the study mission to Europe in 2012 added their thoughts to what the Roundtable had heard at this meeting: Don Beaudette, former superintendent in Norwell, Massachusetts, now on the faculty of Boston University; Marianne Bartley, superintendent, Lebanon, Pennsylvania; and Rob Slaby, superintendent, Storey, Nevada.

Beaudette though Carnoy had been a powerful counterpoint to what the Roundtable heard during a briefing on PISA at the Organization for Economic Collaboration and Development (OECD) last year. Greeted in a large, darkened theater, in which the audience was literally forced to look up to the speaker on stage, Beaudette sensed a whiff of arrogance in the OECD attitude, combined with a sense that these European managers believed their data to be infallible.

Generally, he had sensed a lot of tension in France around immigration. In Finland, by contrast, it came across clearly that the Finns had been working their equity agenda very hard for 40 years and they had been consistent and constant in that work. Finland stood out for several reasons: it had married the market state to the equity agenda; it applied U.S. research to its schools; it displayed great respect for teachers; and it mounted a comprehensive agenda not just for education, but for children. England had presented a different picture. Young MBA’s without any sense of education were driving finance reforms that seemed likely to take funds out of inner-city schools, heavily impacted by poverty, and reroute them to more rural schools. Bonner Primary in Tower Hamlets (the poorest community in England) demonstrated what was possible with committed leadership: 50% of these low-income, Bangladeshi students were meeting Level 5 criteria by age 11, a level not normally reached until age 14.

Bartley commented on how she had been struck by the population diversity in France and England—a reality she had not anticipated. Her impression was that schools in France were characterized by fragmentation. The entire system seemed to be in “corrective action”—trying to fit a modern conception of education into an old paradigm. The presentation from Chancellor Weil the day before confirmed the impression she had reached in 2012.  Although not necessarily true of France and Finland, it did seem important to acknowledge that the challenges American educators are facing—increased diversity, efforts to privatize schools, and test-based accountability—were mirrored in England.

Slaby stated directly that in Finland “the whole emphasis is on children and the future.” In the United States, by contrast, he thought people tended to worry about support for retirement security through Social Security, and Medicare. “We address human needs much later.”

In Storey, Nevada, he said, 20% of his students suffer from severe dental problems. “I’m not talking about gingivitis or decay, I’m talking about teeth not properly connected to jaw bones.” Uncorrected, severe problems such as these powerfully hinder a child’s ability to learn. “We also need to recognize a truism in our part of the world. Every night, when many of our students go home, they go back metaphorically to Mexico City. The family speaks Spanish. The neighbors speak Spanish. Television, if they have one, is tuned to Telemundo. The whole frame of reference is the community from which these students’ parents emigrated.

“We have these students for about one-sixth of their days. But we never think that through. It’s as though we went on a diet one day a week and gorged ourselves on ice cream and steak the rest of the time. Then we don’t lose weight, we blame the diet!”

 

What Have We Learned?

Then it was time for Roundtable members to offer their comments on what had been learned. Several ideas stood out. At the 50,000-foot level was a sense that economic and political forces draw attention away from students and their needs toward deficits and school shortcomings. The national concern is about competitiveness and security for the elderly, when it should be about students and the nation’s future. At the ground level, what stands out is the need for early childhood education, school wrap-around services to support students and families, and professional development for faculty and administrators aimed at developing an individualized learning plan for every student.

Reflecting on the presentations also provided an opportunity to compare and contrast the distinct approaches of each of these nations to problems commonly defined:

Nation

Problem Definition

Response

Results

England

Childhood poverty at 16%, inequitable school funding, achievement gap

Set target (then abandon it) of reducing poverty; equalize funding; accountability; & competition

Middling results on PISA 15-year-old tests. Achievement gap reduced but remains.

Finland

Childhood poverty at 20%, inequitable school funding, low achievement

40-year effort to eliminate poverty; entry standards for teachers; trust in teachers. No tests till age 16.

Routinely ranks first in world in PISA assessments of 15-year-olds

France

Achievement gap; special needs of immigrants; teacher attitudes

Additional funds; reinvent teacher training; concentrate on low-income schools

Remains to be seen

United States

Childhood poverty at 23%, inequitable school funding, achievement gap

Ignore poverty; some efforts to equalize funding; heavy emphasis on accountability, assessment, and choice

Middling results on PISA 15-year-old tests. Achievement gap reduced but remains.

 

The policy issue, suggested David Bickford, superintendent in Orange-Windsor, Vermont, seems to be the dilemma of how immediate we have to be and how long-term we can afford to be.

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