Sunday, October 25, 2015

Failing Our Future

"Budget Impasse is Killing Schools"
Pennsylvania is now almost four months into a costly budget impasse, and underfunded school districts are going further into debt, with over $410 million borrowed so far, according to the state’s Attorney General  Eugene DePasquale.

Our poorest school systems are operating without school nurses, counselors, librarians.

And our already inequitable schools become more inequitable by the minute.

The impasse has prompted some school districts to blockpayment to charter schools, calling attention to state law that requires charters to be funded even when districts don’t receive state funds. 

And the impasse offers further fuel to a lawsuit filed last year  by the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, six school districts from across the state, and seven representative parents. The suit asks for redress of a school-funding model that fails to meet the state constitutional requirement of a "thorough and efficient system of public education" for all children, allowing wealthy schools districts to spend 33 percent more per pupil than the poorest.

The suite was dismissed by the PA Commonwealth Court, and has been appealed to the PA Supreme Court (one more reason to think carefully about the three seats open in next Tuesday’s Supreme Court election).

Pennsylvania has some of the best schools in the country.  

And some of the worst.  

Even our best, though, rank poorly compared to the worst among the public schools of Finland.  (An interactive US New site allows comparisons of schools to a mix of national averages).

Our system is based on more and more unfunded legislative mandatesexpensive standardized tests that punish underfunded systems and subvert real learning,  mind-numbingly detailed objectives, endless paperwork that zaps teacher motivation and accomplishes little, constant labeling and competition with ever less support.

Finland’s system, forty  years ago, refuses any standardized tests until just before graduation – from high school.

Funds all schools at the same level, with careful formulas to add extra support to at-risk students with language differences or other special needs.

Provides autonomy and free education to all teachers.

Affirms the value of play, music, art, and physical instruction at every level of early childhood education.
from Programme for International Student Assessment/PISA (2003)

Works in close harmony with other support systems to make sure children are healthy, well-fed, and able to learn.

The revolution in Finnish education wasn’t apparent to the world until 2000, when  the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted a sampling of 15-year-old's academic skills from 57 nations. Finland placed first in reading, fourth in science, fifth in math. The next time the PISA was administered (2003) Finland was first in reading and science, second in math. 

The US was 18th in reading, 22th in math, 28nd in science.   

The test doesn’t assess fluency in other languages, but on that Finland would again be at the top, with the US near the bottom. All Finnish students are expected to be fluent in Finnish, Swedish and English by the age of 16. Accommodations are made for children from other language backgrounds (Sami, Roma, or other immigrant groups), but all are given instruction in at least three, often four languages.

What’s striking about this is that Finland’s per pupil expenditure is almost identical to that of the US, school days are far shorter, students are given frequent 15 minutes breaks for socializing or active play, and equality of education is valued far higher than quality.

There’s also far more emphasis on teaching children to empathize with others, think issues through, and practice logic and problem solving, all activities difficult to measure on a standardized test.

Compare the page after page of detailedCommon Core objectives to the more general, even philosophical Finnish National Curriculum Guidelines.  

Finnish students matriculation exams, taken at graduation, are created by a board composed of university professors, high school teachers, and education policy-makers (not independent for-profit corporations), and graded first by the students’ own teachers, then by members of the board. Questions assess student ability to think, communicate, and weigh complex ideas: 

  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels predicted that a socialist revolution would first happen in countries like Great Britain. What made Marx and Engels claim that and why did a socialist revolution happen in Russia?”  
  • In what sense are happiness, good life and well-being ethical concepts?
  • Choose three world religions and compare the role and use of a holy image within them.
  • Some politicians, athletes and other celebrities have publicly regretted and apologized for what they have said or done. Discuss the meaning of the apology and accepting it as a social and personal act.
Finland’s educational reforms were driven by a vision of the future: the idea that to be economically successful, the country would need to rely on a highly trained workforce. With that goal in mind, a comprehensive program was designed to ensure that all children – at every economic level, from any language background, with any disability or special need – would receive optimum care, at public expense, from before birth to tax-paying adulthood. The program was economically driven: an economy works best when all it’s members are well-prepared to work at optimum capacity. Less crime, less poverty, less expensive to treat chronic illness. 

Key components: 
  • Excellent prenatal care
  • A “Baby Box” for all expectant parents, with clothes, diapers, mattress, other baby supplies, and books for parents and children.  
  • Generous paid parental leave and ongoing “flextime” for parents of young children. 
  • Free early childhood education designed to help all children enter school with the sae basic skills and readiness to learn
  • Free healthcare for all children
  • Free well-designed education from early education through vocational training or university

Tests can’t capture the full impact of such a comprehensive investment in the well-being of children. Consider, instead, the World Economic Forum’s annual Human Capital Index, which quantifies how well countries develop and deploy their human capital, "including information on education levels of the employed, unemployed and the inactive members of the population as well as the specific qualifications of the latest entrants to the workforce."

Finland is consistently in the top five; in 2015, it was number one.

The US? Number 17. Right behind Estonia and Slovenia.

Part of the index ranks countries on their effective investment in children 15 and younger.

On that, again, Finland was first. The US was 40th. 

I’d like to think our investment in our children would be prompted by love of neighbor, by hunger for justice, by compassion for those caught in cycles of poverty.

But even simple economic good sense should make clear that something needs to change, and soon.