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What Will it Take to Avoid the Paradox of Plenty? Teachers, Parents, and Students Working Together.

The Paradox of Plenty suggests that countries which are rich in natural resources cultivate their land instead of their people while countries poor in natural resources cultivate their people instead of their land. America has always been an exception. Cultivating both our natural and human resources, we dominated the world in the 20th century. Those days, however, appear to be fading, and our future success will depend more on developing our human resources than our natural ones.  

Throughout our history, education has been the means by which we’ve improved our human resources, but that task has proven to be exceptionally difficult over the last 40 years. A 1983 report entitled A Nation At Risk sounded the alarm, and after many small and unsuccessful reforms, the 2001 bipartisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act mandated that 100% of American students be proficient or above in reading and math by 2014. In 2011 Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress that only 18% of American students were likely to reach that goal. The Obama administration then proposed a new reform, Race to the Top, which promised waivers from NCLB if states agreed to improve their education standards. 

boy playing pretendThe reality is that the American education system is floundering. Our high school graduation rates fluctuate between 75% and 80% which corresponds to a ranking of 21st in the world. Our SAT scores have decreased since the 1960’s, enough that they were recentered in 1995 to avoid continuing international embarrassment. With poor preparation in elementary and secondary schools, it is not surprising that we now rank anywhere between 12th and 19th in college graduation rates, even though we led the world in that category for fifty years after World War II. We rank 28th in the world in the percentage of our four year olds in preschools which is troubling because good preschools develop the non-cognitive, lifetime skills of perseverance, conscientiousness , and self-discipline that are so important for future success.

Some argue it’s time for government to get out of education and turn it over to private enterprise. They want public schools to be run like businesses and let a free market pick winners and losers. They talk about school choice and advocate for charter schools and vouchers. Charter schools, so they say, would allow for more creativity and innovation as schools are freed from government bureaucracy, rid of teacher unions, and forced to compete for students. Vouchers would provide even more freedom by giving parents the means to purchase education from whatever type of school they feel best fits the needs of their child. 

Under this market oriented approach to school reform, results on achievement testing would be for schools what bottom lines are for businesses. Poorly performing schools would be shuttered and made available to other entrepreneurs with new ideas of how best to teach children. Underperforming teachers would be fired, and excellence in the classroom would be rewarded with bonuses. Focus groups of kids, parents, and other stakeholders would be created to guide future education decisions just as they do for new products or political candidates. Teacher proof curricula designed by the best and the brightest scholars would tailor learning for all children, and technology would be a disruptive innovation to allow kids to learn whatever they wanted, whenever they were ready, wherever was most convenient, and however they learned best. 

Taken together, school choice and disruptive innovation through charters, vouchers, and technology offer a panacea for improved education by getting every school to compete, every teacher to perform, and every student to learn while maximizing individual freedom and reducing costs. 

I know many people truly believe in this market driven model of school reform, but there isn’t much research to suggest it offers a cure for America’s troubled system of education. The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, for example, reported in 2009 on the largest national longitudinal study ever undertaken to compare academic gains in charter and traditional public schools. The hit documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” referenced this study when the “Superman” narrator told the audience that “one in five charter schools is excellent.” But as Kevin Welner, Director of the non-profit National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado, observed, “The actual finding from the study is that of the charters researched, 17% (which is really one in six) had better results than the comparison student results attributed to conventional public schools, while 37% did worse.”  For the other 46% of schools studied, there was no significant difference. 

So in reality, is it fair to say that traditional public schools are actually twice as effective as charter schools? Of course not. 

What the CREDO Study and others like it really show is that it is not the configuration, type, or facilities of schools that make the difference. It’s what goes on within the school that really matters. 

After all, education is about people, not structures or machines. 

That goes to the heart of the problem of using business models to run schools. Schools are not businesses. Successful schools are communities where people come together to pursue a common purpose.They are collaborative, not competitive. They are collegial, not hierarchical. They are supportive, not adversarial. 

Since a traditional business approach is not likely to fix what ails our schools, maybe we should look at how other countries have significantly improved their education outcomes over the last two decades.  Amanda Ripley spoke to educators and policy makers in Oklahoma City in September, and her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, focuses on some of these educationally high performing countries.  She believes that reform could work in America.  So what would it require?

The first step of successful education reform is to clarify the purpose of education. It seems like that should be pretty simple, but in reality it’s not. Is the purpose of education to transmit our culture, values, and ideals to the next generation? Is it to cultivate a skilled workforce  Is it to develop the talents of individual students in pursuit of their passions? Is it to prepare young people for citizenship in a democratic society?Is it to develop the next generation of professional athletes? Is it to help students become critical thinkers? Is it to insure children grow into confident, secure, and collaborative adults? Is it to prepare students to compete in a global marketplace? Is it to provide a safe environment where all children are nurtured and loved? 

Most of us probably think most of these things are important, and schools have been asked to do all of them and even more. From Americanizing immigrants to desegregating our society, from beating the Russians to the moon to parenting unparented children, schools have been asked to solve America’s problems for over a century. While many Americans lament that our schools can’t seem to be able to do anything well, the reality is that they simply can’t do everything. If we want to improve public education, we need to know what its purpose really is.

In addition to clarifying the purpose of America’s public schools, we need to develop a teaching force of intelligent, well educated professionals, teachers who know their subject matter, think deeply and well, understand kids, and have the ability and desire to collaborate and create a challenging and engaging curriculum. It seems obvious that teachers who don’t truly understand math can’t really teach math and teachers who don’t think well can’t teach their students to, and yet those who enter college to become teachers have the lowest high school GPA’s and SAT/ACT scores of any group. 

If we are going to develop this country’s human resources through education, this has to change. It should be as difficult to be accepted to a six year teacher certification program as it is to gain admission to a selective university. Once accepted, the first three years of the certification program should focus on traditional academic studies—mathematics, science, English, history, economics, foreign language. The next three years should be spent learning about children and how to teach them. When students graduate after six years, they will have spent hundreds of hours observing master teachers, collaborating with other novice teachers, teaching under the tutelage of teacher mentors, and writing a piece of original research focused on practice as well as theory. 

All of this preparation and interaction will produce a new professionalism among American teachers. 

Instead of retreating to their classrooms and closing their doors, they will be used to being observed, they will be used to working together, and they will be used to reflecting on how to improve their work. Because that’s how they were taught, that’s how they will teach their students. If you think these changes in teacher education are unrealistic, that talented people won’t do it, just remember that for the last decade it has been about as difficult to gain admission to Teach for America as Harvard.

As necessary as good teachers are, we need to remember that parents also play an important role in teaching their children, and how they interact with their children at home will have a significant impact on the success of education reform. With young children, parents should be warm, responsive, and close at hand and do things like read with their children every night when they go to bed. As their kids get older, parents should be more removed, give their kids more privacy, allow them to make more of their own decisions, and even let them fail. They should also begin talking with them about what’s happening in the world….movies, books, ideas….things outside themselves. 

What they generally should not do is to try to build their children’s self-esteem. Don’t get me wrong. Self-esteem is important, and it’s fine to praise kids as long as it is specific, authentic, and rare, but too often it’s generic, trivial, and constant. That’s a problem because mundane praise may lead children to cheat or lie or even to give up rather than try their best. Why would kids do that? Because they fear failure…and disappointing you. 

Teachers and parents are certainly essential to education reform, but perhaps most important are the students. We need to have higher expectations for our children. 

To start with, kids need to be in school, and what teachers ask them to do in class each day needs to be both relevant and meaningful. While 75% of elementary children say they are engaged in school, only 46% of high school students are. In fact, two out of three high school students say they are bored in at least one class every day and one in six is bored in every class every day. 

I suspect older students would be more engaged in class if they felt they were more prepared for class, and that means they need to do more reading, writing, and thinking outside class. Two-thirds of high school students report spending an hour or less on homework each school night, and over the last fifty years, the average number of hours per week that college students study has dropped almost in half—from 24 hours to 13.  Those numbers need to go up. 

But what kids are asked to do at home, like what they are asked to do at school, needs to be relevant, meaningful, and most of all helpful to achieving our country’s overall educational purpose.

But neither the amount of time students go to school nor the amount of homework they do will necessarily result in accomplishing what certainly has to be a top priority for American schools—to get kids to think for themselves. That requires something else, a partnership of trust between adults and students. Teachers and parents have to ask kids what they think….and really listen to and care about what they tell them. And kids have to be willing to share their ideas. The goal is not to indoctrinate but to engage, to get kids to begin to think for themselves, to decide what they believe, and to express and defend why they believe it. 

So how have we been doing in this country at teaching kids to think? PISA is the best test to measure that and is given every three years to fifteen year olds all over the world. In 2012 the United States ranked 24th in reading, 36th in math, and 28th in science. 

Amanda Ripley is right. We can improve American education. To do so, however, we need to reverse our current vicious cycle of uninspired teaching, unmotivated students, and uninvolved parents and replace it with a virtuous cycle promulgated on the simple idea that school matters.This virtuous cycle begins when we accept that schools are not smorgasbords offering many wonderful things to everyone but instead are specialty shops offering the opportunity for children to become knowledgeable, conscientious, and reflective adults. In this virtuous cycle, teachers will be presumed to be talented and hard working because they had to be to gain a teaching credential. Because they have earned a demanding degree, teachers will be more trusted by their supervisors and given more autonomy and opportunity to create. Being treated more professionally will inspire more talented people to enter teaching and reduce teacher turnover. More talented and experienced teachers will be more effective at engaging kids resulting in higher student achievement. Higher student achievement will increase the trust and respect parents have for teachers and eliminate the excessive standardized testing that disrupts and trivializes learning. As students experience this new trust and respect for their teachers and themselves, they will work even harder because they are more engaged and successful.

Most Americans don’t believe this kind of education reform is possible. They see it as naïve and utopian and perhaps it is, but a variation of it has been successfully implemented in Finland. The Finns have agreed that their national education purpose is to develop the critical thinking skills of all Finnish children, and they’ve reformed their program of teacher preparation to achieve it. Parents, teachers, and students have all bought into the idea that education is important and that school really does matter. So how does Finland do on the PISA test?  Finland ranks 5th in the world.

Finland’s success only causes Americans to rationalize our failure. Some point out that Finland is a more homogeneous and egalitarian country than are we, and that is true. School is free, school lunches are free, medical care is free. Finnish kids come to school better nourished and more ready to learn. There is far less poverty which means fewer poor and disadvantaged kids to bring down their overall test scores. But Finland is not as wealthy or as advanced a country as are we, and surely we can figure out how to insure that our youngest children are healthy and well nourished when they start school, too.   

Our education system, however, is not just failing our least advantaged kids. The test scores for our brightest and most advantaged students lag similarly below the scores of the top achievers in other countries. Only 8.8% of U.S. students perform at the top two levels in math, far below Finland’s 15.3%. Overall Finland’s top kids rank 15th in the world in math. Our top kids rank an embarrassing 35th.

Just as some rationalize that Finland’s success is due to its egalitarian culture, others argue that Finnish kids do better because Finland spends more money per child on education and pays its teachers, all of whom have master’s degrees, more than we do. That’s also not true. Finland spends less per child and devotes a lower percentage of their GDP to education than we do, and teacher salaries are roughly the same. 

So how do the finances work? How can Finland afford these excellent teachers who spend fewer hours teaching and more hours planning each day? For one thing, Finnish class sizes are larger than those in American schools. For another, even though Finland is a technology leader (think Nokia), Finnish schools spend very little money on technology and its use in the classroom is limited. Lastly, Finland’s schools have no athletic teams. This saves money on equipment and facilities, but it also shortens the academic day for Finnish students and gives their teachers more time to plan and collaborate. 

If America’s educational purpose, for example, was to develop knowledgeable, conscientious thinkers, then clearly sacred parts of American schools would have to be sacrificed. Fewer individualized classes. Minimal technology. No athletic teams. We may not want this type of education, but Finland shows that if we choose it, it can be done.

When I look at Finland, I see an education system based on purpose, expectation, and commitment. America’s education system lacks all three. The purpose of education in Finland is to teach all Finnish children critical thinking skills. In America, we want happy kids who get to do it all. In Finland there is an expectation that teachers are well educated professionals worthy of trust, that all kids can learn, and that parents have a vital role to play in the success of their children. In America, the expectation is that schools are failing, teachers are inept, and parents hover like helicopters or let their kids run wild. In Finland there is a commitment that school is important and everyone involved has a part to play to see that it is successful. In America, our expectation is that school doesn’t really matter and that kids will have many chances to build success after school ends. 

As I’ve thought about education reform over the last few months, I can understand why the kids in China and Korea who dominate the world’s math PISA scores are more motivated toward school. It’s their ticket to success. But what I can’t understand is why our kids are less motivated than the kids in Finland? After all, our kids who do well in school will reap so many more rewards than the top kids in more egalitarian Finland.  Why aren’t our kids willing to work for it? Why aren’t we willing to see that they do? Can we agree as a nation to better develop our country’s human resources and make the 21st century another American century….or are we going to succumb like so many others to the Paradox of Plenty?