Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Nation at Risk or I think I’m Turning Japanese


Don't get me wrong.  America's schools are in need of help and there are many good ideas out there.  Like it or not, we need to invest in our schools and change them.  Too many think that a test will solve this problem and it won't.  It is time to move the structure of schools beyond what they once served.  This will cost money.  It will involve time and it should involve teachers who actually do know what is needed.  The other thing that will not solve the problem is the constant barrage of bad mouthing schools by comparing them to systems that do not do what we do and by gathering together so called "experts" who have no clue what it is actually like to stand in a classroom.

The first major attack – and I don’t use the word lightly – on schools that I recall was Rudolf Flesch’s book Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do about It which was written in 1955. While Flesch is a famous reading expert, having come up with one of the major scales used to determine reading level of books, the work, which is often thought as a book or article written in the 70’s, was really the first time an expert discussed the failings of the American education system. What was interesting about the book was that Flesch had never taught elementary, middle, or high school. He had in fact based his view on using what was then called the “look-say” method and was an advocate of the teaching of phonics. The “look-say” method has been largely dismissed, but because of some publication in major magazines such as Time the book was used to condemn education, particularly in the 1970’s. He was the first of a long list of “experts” who had never been in the regular classroom. Some of these have approached education or more exactly students as if they were some sort of factory product that could be fixed and improved or to steal a quote, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability…”

Actually, no, we cannot rebuild him but we can try to give him the tools he needs to become better. The real turn towards “how awful” education in a America has become and although it would not reach its peak until decades later was governmental report “A Nation at Risk” in 1983. While this study, which compares the USA to Japan and Germany, looks at placement and testing date, it too was comprised largely of experts. While the list of people on the document appears to be somewhat expert, there is only one person who is actually listed as a public school teacher. The rest belong to colleges, business and think tanks most of which are politically driven groups.

So…let’s talk about the schools which we are compared to. When a “Nation” came out, I was working on my masters. There had been studies before, but for some reason the press really zoned in on this particular study pointing to what the study had found. What everyone failed to mention was that while the folks studying Japan were off looking at a system that isn’t even close to our public system, they were here studying us. I know this because one of my master’s instructors was also a superintendent of a large school district who had been interviewed by the Japanese delegation. You see, they were fascinated by something we do, our attempt to teach every student from gifted to special needs. In Japan, they teach solely to the middle. They also pointed out that the USA produce more Nobel Prize winners than anywhere else. Another slight omission in comparing us to Japan and most European schools, education is not a right but a privilege based on a series of tests which hold students accountable in other countries. Still further is the missing information that during this testing time, Japan has the highest teen suicide rate in the world. And on a more recent note, there is an up swelling of concern by Japanese parents because of this. The movement actually wants Japanese education to move closer to what they perceive as western educational philosophy.

The reports also neglect to mention by the time we have these comparative results, other countries have long since syphoned off the poor learners, the discipline problems, the special needs students and the gifted that do not “fit in.” While the average high school senior equivalent in other countries do test higher than the USA’s average senior by the end of the sophomore year of college on these tests there is no difference according to one study. Bet you hadn’t heard that before. You see in these countries, college is often free and placement in theses colleges will make the student’s career. Students who test well enough to get into Tokyo University will become doctors and lawyers and MBA’s while those going to lesser colleges will end up in lesser jobs and those who do not pass will not go to college for free if at all. The testing at every level funnels kids into programs, apprenticeships or manual labor.

More recently, I saw an advertisement that glibly announces that the USA would rank 25th in the world’s industrial nations. No look at who is tested in these countries is ever made in any television “investigative” report I've seen, and it most certainly not done in the thirty second blurb announcing the poor shape of American education. What is more the pundits get on TV and announce that education in once leading states such as California has dwindled and that we cannot produce enough computer science and engineers to meet the needs of silicon valley. They blame education’s problem on some mythological “them” usually referring to teachers. Not one refers to the loss of funding and those hideous laws that have made schools as well as other government services poorly funded. Not one of them has looked at the tests to see if we are really comparing apples to apples and not apples to oranges. Not one looks at how poorly we pay American educators.  All pay lip service to the fact that great teachers make great learning environments, but not one mentions we pay these great teachers on average 38% less than other professions of similar training. Really a great way to attract the best to a profession, isn't it.

No one has explained to me why it is that so many from foreign lands that can afford to do so still come here for college. Are we willing to funnel kids into manual labor, move special needs kids out of the mainstream as we once did, and expel the not only the trouble makers but the under-achievers? As long as we don’t use fair and accurate comparisons, as long as the media continues to use education as a ratings getter, as long as we let pundits act like they know something, as long as we tie teachers hands with a series of tests designed to make money for publishers and sooth politicians’ public persona, and as long as we continue to blame the only group who is actually in the trenches trying to make a difference, this nation will continue to appear poorly on the test and sadly our scores will continue to drop as the good teachers leave the classroom for better paying and less stressful pastures. I know such reports are good press, and I seriously doubt that we really want to build our model on Japan or China or any other place where the right to learn is a tested privilege and not the right of every person.