by David Safier
Recent international tests of students have put Finland's schools at or near the top of the rankings. Finnish education has a few traits that should make conservative "education reformers" sit up and take notice. It doesn't give standardized tests to students until high school, and very few even then. Instead of punishing or closing "low performing schools," it puts money and resources into improving student achievement (The usual result is, student achievement improves). And its teachers are drawn from the top 10% of the country's college students unlike the U.S., where teachers tend to come from the middle of the college pack.
A Finnish expert on education, Pasi Sahlberg, has an article debunking the idea that "Great Teachers" are the answer to improving U.S. education. He acknowledges the importance of strong teachers, of course, but the promoters of the "Great Teachers" solution are ignoring more important aspects of our country's education problems.
Sahlberg puts poverty at the top of the list of the concerns the U.S. needs to address to improve its children's education. He cites studies concluding that at most a third of the variation in student achievement is the result of teacher quality, school climate and leadership. The other two-thirds is attributable to factors outside the school. And it's almost universally acknowledged, poverty is the number one factor in low student achievement. Sahlberg compares the U.S. and Finland.
In the United States today, 23 percent of children live in poor homes. In Finland, the same way to calculate child poverty would show that figure to be almost five times smaller. The United States ranked in the bottom four in the recent United Nations review on child well-being. Among 29 wealthy countries, the United States landed second from the last in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in “child life satisfaction.” Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.
There's more to the article, but for me, that's the most important takeaway. Bill Gates can push the "Great Teacher" solution to our education problems and his new high tech teacher evaluation methodology all he wants. But if he and other corporate "education reformers" would look at their own bank accounts compared to the bottom 50% of the country and put their energies towards lowering our shameful poverty rate, that effort would go a lot further toward improving our students' achievement than all their bashing of teachers and traditional public schools.