Education Reform

school_childrenWashington is great at coming up with names for new educational initiatives, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top. What they are not good at is creating sensible plans for educational reform. As is typical for the federal government, no matter who is in charge, they think money fixes everything. We are the wealthiest nation on earth but compared to our first world competitors, we are middle of the pack in terms of education.

A friend posted a link on her FB page to a three year old article in the Atlantic Monthly describing the educational system in Finland. For those that don’t know, Finland consistently ranks in the top three for students with the highest achievements. How do they do it? It’s certainly not by testing their students year in and year out. Teachers are given autonomy in evaluating their students and their written evaluation serves as the primary grading mechanism. Nationally, their focus is on equity not excellence. The thought being that focusing on quality education across the board means everyone does well. Our reforms seem to be more centered around satisfying unions or corporations and not thinking about the student.

If you read the linked article, you’ll see that some say that Finland’s model cannot work here because our society is not nearly as homogeneous as theirs. I’m on my local school board and in my view, my city is a microcosm of the United States. I’ve heard this same argument from administrators that there are socio-economic issues beyond the school district’s control that impact their ability to delivery quality education. I don’t buy that. Where there’s a will there’s a way. But there in lies the problem.

Remember the great space race of the 60s? As a nation, we came together to support the mission to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, before the Soviet Union. We had a collective will to achieve that goal. That will does not exist for public education. My guess is that our “cultural heritage” of rugged individualism cannot be overcome. How this comes into play is in how public schools are financed.

Funding for schools come from three sources, local, state, and federal governments . As of 2010, the percentage split was 44% local, 44% state, and 12% federal. With the local support coming from property taxes, areas with high valued properties get to spend more on their schools, then areas with low valued property. Would those in the high property tax areas be happy to see their money go out of their district to support another? Somehow the argument has to be made that it is each person’s self interest to make sure everyone has access to quality education. And the only way to achieve equity across the board is to distribute funds where needed.

So now I’ve come a 180 degrees from where I started. Federal government has been unsuccessful in its approach to education yet I support a distribution of funds (which can only be done at the state and federal level). The difference is this, I support it with no strings attached. Allow the local districts to receive their funds from the state and federal government without the demands of testing and data gathering that they presently insist. That also means that the federal or state government should not support teachers’ unions either financially or by law. That’s not to say I want to see them abolished, just that they should stand on their own two feet and exist where they provide value for students, not teachers.

Jeffrey Hastie