Published in the Delaware County Daily Times, September 24, 2013
By JOSEPH P. BATORY, Times Guest Columnist
Politicians and media talking heads now have become the “self-anointed” experts on public education improvement. However, conclusions are often over-simplified and filled with half-truths and inaccuracies. And in most cases teachers and school administrators — those closest to reality — have been allowed little or no input into this discussion. With 50 million students attending more than 98,000 public schools in our diverse American society, analysis is not simple.
Below are three commonly heard but questionable statements about public education. Each statement is followed by some commentary which is not usually heard.
1. United States test scores rank near the bottom in the world: Many critics of public education cite the mediocre performance of American students on international tests as the prime evidence of our failing schools. However, what these “experts” fail to report is that test scores for our nation’s students are very uneven. Test results for many middle and middle and upper class area public schools which are well-funded rank among the best in the world. Simultaneously, many schools serving our poorest pupil populations struggle with academic achievement. That leads to a conclusion that improving universal educational achievement in the United States in large part lies outside the schools. The USA’s 23 percent poverty rate for children is much higher that almost all other economically advanced nations. Hundreds of thousands of students from public schools in economically depressed areas are impacted by poor health care quality and access, inadequate nutrition, limited family income and child-rearing assets, questionable role models, and problems with neighborhood quality in terms of community resources and safety issues. Improving the world for the USA’s students who live in poverty and squalor would have a direct impact on their school success.
2. All students have equal abilities: Many critics of public education argue that all children have equal potential to learn. If only this was true. As just one example, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley spent years cataloging the number of words spoken to young children in dozens of families from different socioeconomic groups. What they found was not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also astonishing differences in the number of spoken words. Professional parents on average spoke more than 2,000 words per hour to their children whereas poverty/low income parents on average spoke only about 600 words per hour to their children. This resulted in a gap of more than 32 million words between rich and poor children by the time the youngsters reached the age of 4. To address this wide socioeconomic gap between America’s “haves” and “have-nots,” a new emphasis is needed. Most school district K-12 programs these days are well-structured educationally. A better idea for improvement is to focus on Pre-kindergarten education. More than 85 percent of the foundation for effective communication, problem solving and critical thinking is developed before entering school. Yet, millions of American children never receive the advantages of a quality pre-school experience at ages 3 and 4, i.e., those educational, health and social supports that build future success. Tragically, the United States lags far behind most of our international competitor nations in providing pre-school and childhood care services. Among industrialized countries, the United States invests the least in early childhood care and education services — 0.5 percent of GDP compared to anywhere between 2 percent and 6 percent in European countries. Improved access to pre-kindergarten for the underprivileged of America would dramatically improve the their educational bottom lines down the road.
3. Just do what Finland does: Finland’s students are annually among the world’s top scorers on international tests. Ironically, what the Fins do in education is what USA politicians and media voices are not advocating. The heads of Finland’s nationalized educational system are educators, not business people or career politicians. Finland provides free pre-kindergarten education opportunities for all families. It also has a powerful national teachers union. Finland’s teachers are highly respected despite spending only four hours a day in their classrooms. Teachers use the time out of class to cooperatively build curricula and plan and assess students. Teachers and schools are not judged by test scores. Finland’s teachers and principals develop the curriculum in Finland, and design their own tests. There are no national tests, except one at the end of high school. It is also worth noting that the poverty rate in Finland is very low (less than 5 percent).
If America wants to emulate the educational success of the Fins, it has to do more of what the Fins do! In summary, the USA’s public schools certainly need to keep improving and getting better. However, the bottom line here is that educational improvement needs to be better focused on what really matters. ______________________________________________________________________________
Joseph P. Batory of Philadelphia is a former Upper Darby School District superintendent.