Saving Our Schools

Amidst post-election cabinet reshuffling, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan indicated last week that he is likely to stay on for Obama’s second term. Duncan has a fairly long list of achievements: the $4 billion “race to the top”, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver programs, and the Common Core standards, amongst others. And unlike some fellow cabinet members (think Steven Chu and Kathleen Sibelius), Duncan has enjoyed broad support and praise for his perceived reform-mindedness.

Reforms are certainly needed. In the recent OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted for 470,000 eighth graders in thirty-four countries, the US ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math. In an interview with the Associated Press, Duncan called the results “an absolute wake-up call for America.”

Despite such rhetoric, there hasn’t been coalescence around any particular type of reform. Furthermore, Obama and Duncan’s education agenda for the next four years is likely to be focused on improving access to college-level education, whether by increasing student grants or reining in skyrocketing tuition fees. This focus, unfortunately, seems short-sighted. Increasing the number of college graduates is certainly a politically popular position, but truly increasing educational quality cannot be achieved without improving K-12 education.

That is where the real fight to improve education is taking place. On the right, there are calls to de-unionize and implement voucher systems in order to increase competitiveness. Michelle Rhee, the maverick former schools chancellor of Washington D.C, echoes this view: “The problem that we face in public education today is that essentially tenure for teachers means that you have a job for life regardless of performance. And that is an adults first policy, not a students first policy.” On the left, there are calls for more investments in education - hiring more and better teachers, increasing funding for academic programs, and providing more wraparound services like student lunches. Who’s right?

Some of the top ranked countries/cities in the OECD survey – Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai may provide the answer. Each provides compelling yet vastly different solutions.

Finland’s education system has recently become the poster child for school improvement. Despite minimal standardized testing (none before the age of sixteen) and tracking, Finnish students managed to top a well-respected international student assessment in 2001. This is a remarkable improvement as, Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, writes that “thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.”

To change this, in the 1970s, the Finnish government required all teachers to have masters degrees – funded at the state’s expense. This has not translated into higher salaries for teachers – the starting salary of teachers in Finland in 2008 was about $29,000, compared to $36,000 in the US - yet this has made teaching a highly esteemed occupation in Finland. In Finland, 100 percent of teachers come from the top third of their cohort, compared to twenty-three percent in the US.

It’s a similar story in Singapore, where 100 percent of teachers graduate in the top-third of their cohort. Promising college students in Singapore are given monthly stipends while still in school in exchange for commitments to teaching for three or more years. Teacher salaries are competitive with other occupations and every teacher is given, on average, 100 hours of professional development every year. However, unlike Finland, Singapore relies on comprehensive student assessment and teacher appraisals.

The best-performer in the PISA test was Shanghai. A common explanation for Shanghainese students’ sterling test results is the cultural emphasis on education in Asian societies. Other explanations include the emphasis that parents place on their children’s education - enforcing long study hours and extra tutoring sessions outside of school hours on their children. However, several studies performed have shown that Shanghai’s success can be traced back to an important national policy shift in 1982 removing “key schools” which had previously been afforded more resources.

Apart from more equitable distribution of funding, Shanghai went a step further by reassigning top performing teachers to reform failing schools. Funding did not necessarily increase, but instead it was reallocated to reduce disparity and inequality. Of Shanghai’s reforms, Dr. Andreas Schleicher, program director of the PISA, says ‘Students of privilege will do well wherever they are, and more resources directed at them won’t improve them that much,’ Schleicher explained. ‘But more attention and investment will greatly improve disadvantaged students.’

Students in Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai all enjoy universal access to high quality public education that rivals, and in many cases surpasses, private education. There is a homogeneity in education quality across the socioeconomic spectrum in all three systems. Unfortunately, emphasis on equal access to education runs counter to the prevailing efforts in the US to reform education by increasing competition.

New York City provides a prime example of the direction that education reform appears to be heading in this country. Just like Arne Duncan during his tenure as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Bloomberg has made school choice a foundation of his education agenda since taking office in 2002. Unfortunately, many schools remain socioeconomically segregated. A New York Times report found that “650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the system have populations that are 70 percent a single race; more than half the city’s schools are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic.” Despite efforts over the years, schools are even more segregated than they were in the 1960s, according to Gary Orfield, an education professor at UCLA.

According to Arne Duncan, increasing universal access to quality education “is the civil rights issue of our generation.” Failing to do so would threaten economic competitiveness and even national security. Though many years, perhaps even a generation, may pass before the results of education reform can be seen, let’s hope that Mr. Duncan and his team can address equality in K-12 education, and quick.