(Pictured are members of the General Education Board)
I’ve had several conversations with my friends lately about America’s schools; one a public school teacher, one a public school counselor, one a recent PhD recipient. These have been very enlightening discussions. I have three children in school and deciding what schools to send them to have been some of the toughest decisions that I’ve ever made (along with their mothers). Here are some relevant facts:
- More than half the young black men who graduated high school in 2010 earned their diploma in four years, an improved graduation rate that still lagged behind that of their white counterparts
- The Schott Foundation for Public Education, which has tracked graduation rates of black males from public schools since 2004, said 52 percent of black males who entered ninth grade in the 2006-07 school year graduated in four years. That compared with 78 percent of white, non-Latino males and 58 percent of Latino males.
- In 2008, the black male graduation rate was 47 percent.
- In a recent comparison of academic performance in 57 countries, students in Finland came out on top overall. Finnish 15-year-olds did the best in science and came in second in math. Other top-performing countries were: Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, Estonia, Japan and Korea.
- Students in the United States performed near the middle of the pack. On average 16 other industrialized countries scored above the United States in science, and 23 scored above us in math. The reading scores for the United States had to be tossed due to a printing error.
- The United States has one of the biggest gaps between high- and low-performing students in any industrialized nation
The United States public school system is not working extremely well for the majority of its students. It is especially not working well for Black students. However, “working well” depends on your perspective. Some historical perspective…The current American school system was shaped around the turn of the 20th century. In 1903, John D. Rockefeller founded the General Education Board, which provided major funding for schools across the country and was especially in promoting the public (state controlled) school movement. For most of America’s history up to that point, schools were privately owned and home schooling was very popular. Americans were well educated and literacy rates were high.
There is an influential tradition in democratic theory which assumes that there is an intrinsic relationship between democracy and education. Professor Walter Carlsnaes of Oxford University has said that democracy requires:
“an enlightened and critically reflective public, a corps of politicians sufficiently well-informed not to be the pawns of experts and professional bureaucrats, and a dynamic area of public debate not beholden to any particular — private or public — interest.”
In this view, democracy presupposes rational and informed citizens, whose influence on the political decision-making process is not restricted to elections, but who are rational participators in the public debate about political issues. Unless citizens are educated to be critical, they lack the prerequisites for taking part in critical discussion and therefore in the rational guidance of society, since the values fostered by education as well as those applied to social and political life have to be established in the context of critical discussion.
In 1913, Frederick T. Gates, Director of Charity for the Rockefeller Foundation wrote in The Country School of Tomorrow: Occasional Papers Volume 1: “In our dreams, we have limitless resources and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions fade from their minds, and unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning, or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, editors, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have an ample supply…The task we set before ourselves is very simple as well as a very beautiful one, to train these people as we find them to a perfectly ideal life just where they are. So we will organize our children and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way, in the homes, in the shops and on the farm.”
That is the original goal of the United States public school system. Everything about America’s schools was set up toward that objective. This is why America’s educational output is so mediocre in comparison to other industrialized nations, even though this country has more resources with which to educate its children than any other nation. If America’s children are ever to be educated in a way that makes them good critical thinkers and makes them qualified to handle the civic demands of a democracy, a radical shift in values needs to take place in America’s education community.
Finland’s stellar performance has drawn the attention of education and government officials around the world. These experts have uncovered many attributes of the Finnish educational system that are distinctive and contribute to the success of Finnish students. Some of these features are:
- The Finnish school system uses the same curriculum for all students (which may be one reason why Finnish scores varied so little from school to school).
- Students have light homework loads.
- Finnish schools do not have classes for gifted students.
- Finland uses very little standardized testing.
- Children do not start school until age 7.
- Finland has a comprehensive preschool program that emphasizes “self-reflection” and socializing, not academics.
- Grades are not given until high school, and even then, class rankings are not compiled.
- Teachers must have master’s degrees.
- Becoming a teacher in Finland is highly competitive. Just 10% of Finnish college graduates are accepted into the teacher training program; as a result, teaching is a high-status profession. (Teacher salaries are similar to teacher salaries in the U.S., however.)
- Students are separated into academic and vocational tracks during the last three years of high school. About 50% go into each track.
- Diagnostic testing of students is used early and frequently. If a student is in need of extra help, intensive intervention is provided.
- Groups of teachers visit each other’s classes to observe their colleagues at work. Teachers also get one afternoon per week for professional development.
- School funding is higher for the middle school years, the years when children are most in danger of dropping out.
- College is free in Finland.
Says Professor Jouni Välijärvi of the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä, and Project Manager of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) for Finland: “In light of the PISA data, Finnish schools manage to activate learning among the whole age cohort more effectively than any other country. Students are not sorted into different groups or schools but different types of learners are learning together. In this kind of setting high achieving students seem to serve as positive models for their less advanced classmates. The pedagogy differs from that applied in systems characterized by tracking and streaming. Efforts are made to provide instruction to cater to the needs of different learners in terms of their skills and interests.”
Finnish educational practices may provide clues to improvement for the United States, but taken together they do not constitute a magical pill that will cure our educational blues. For one thing, Finland has a vastly more homogeneous population than the United States. Very few students in Finland speak a language at home other than Finnish. In the U.S., on the other hand, 8% of children are English language learners, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
This information points to the fact that different learning styles work for different children, depending on the culture practiced within their homes. In the still untitled book that I’m currently writing, I will demonstrate the similarities between European and Asian cultures which explain why those students both perform well in similar systems of education. I will also show the similarities in culture between Africans and Native American, which explains why children descended from those societies do not perform so well in educational systems that work well for Europeans and Asians. If the educational gap in America between Caucasian and Asian students on one hand, and Black and Latino students on the other hand, is ever to be closed, then different styles of learning and teaching will have to be embraced.
There are other things that need to be considered also. Another area where Finland is homogeneous is in school funding. All of Finland’s schools receive the same per-pupil funding, in contrast to the United States where school funding is based upon a complex formula that uses a local-funding component and creates inequities between affluent and poor communities. It is not difficult to see how that might lead to different educational outcomes for students from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Many people point to the existence of standardized tests as a major flaw in America’s schools. Välijärvi believes that some educational choices can produce results regardless of the demographics of a country. “During the last 20 to 30 years most of the industrialized countries have invested huge amounts of money and intelligence on external evaluations and standardized tests. Finland has not. Finland has invested in teacher education,” he says. “I dare to say that the profit of the Finnish investments has been greater.”
I could go on and on and on about this subject, but I won’t. In conclusion, the stakes in this issue are very high for America in general, but extremely high for African Americans. We make up approximately 12% of America’s population but approximately 50% of the prison population. We’ll save a discussion about the prison industrial complex for another day but for now consider this…In a 2011 Education Week article; the magazine highlighted a report by sociology professor Donald Hernandez who compared reading scores and graduation rates of almost 4,000 students. “A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer,” read the report.
Couple that article with a study comparing dropout rates and incarceration rates in The New York Times, and one could draw a strong connection. The study by researchers at Northeastern University used a range of census data to find that “about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.” If Black people are going to prison more than anyone else, then it behooves us to declare a state of emergency on the 50% graduation rate for Black males. It is time for us to take a long and hard look at who is educating our children, how they are being educated, how they’re being miseducated, and what role every member of our community can play in fixing this problem. It is difficult to think of anything that is more important at this time.