Thursday, October 14, 2010

Finland, Big Schools, and The College Dream

As our nation today struggles though divisive debates about education reform, Linda Darling Hammond would have us look at the recent accomplishments of Finland, the world's number 1 school system based on the PISA scores, "an international test for 15-year-olds in language, math, and science literacy" (Rethinking Schools, Vol 24.4). In discussing the high performance of students in Finland, Hammond argues that Finland's "teaching and learning system" achieves results because of decentralized curriculum design and assessment, emphasis on qualified teachers, and thoughtfully supportive school environments. 

Hammond's account makes important claims about what a good educational system needs. Placing this in context of another recent development, we get an interesting picture of what makes good education and where it is happening. A September 27th NYT article called "4,100 Students Prove ‘Small Is Better’ Rule Wrong” discusses the turn-around of large Massachusetts high school that now outperforms 90% of the schools in the state. The reason was almost simple: according to Mr. Driscoll, who since 2007 has headed the National Assessment Governing Board, “In schools, no matter the size — and Brockton is one of the biggest — what matters is uniting people behind a common purpose, setting high expectations, and sticking with it.”

Yet not all the reforms in this school, particularly cultural ones, correspond with the finding in another recent piece of scholarship, this one called “College for All? Exaggerated Claims and Overlooked Options Prevent Some Students From Finding Their Way” (Rosenbaum et al. American Educator Vol 34.3). This lengthy treatment of the misperceptions and realities of the college experience and outcomes demonstrates how the one-size-fits-all mentality that we often recognize as problematic in pedagogy is also flawed when it comes to counseling for higher education. The statistics are staggering. While 89% of high school students in 2004 planned to earn a BA, the reality is that most of these students never will, and probably shouldn’t. High school students and Americans at large are misinformed about the benefits of other forms of post-high school education besides the BA, such as certificate programs and Associates degrees, credentials that are cheaper, attained more quickly, and often yield satisfying and lucrative career opportunities. In fact, students in the bottom quartile in their high school class who go on to earn an BA earn less than their top quartile high school peers who never earn a post-secondary degree (Baum, et al. Education Pays 2010, NY: College Board, 2010). The critiques from Rosenbaum, Stephan, and Rosenbaum provide a clear picture of how our educational system and expectations are flawed in their narrowness. All too often we prescribe BAs to students without giving them the information and preparation to earn them, or to consider alternatives that are both rewarding and utilitarian.

Just to look at these three articles in the same posting, especially with such a brief treatment, may seem transitory or shallow, but the purpose of this discussion is to reveal a pattern of efficacy even in these articles’ contradictions.  Teachers, schools and school systems that are successful hold students to high expectations, but more importantly differentiate their instruction and support to help students achieve ownership of their education. They leverage all available resources, emphasize the provision of accurate information to students, and use assessments strategically, whether they are locally produced or standardized. 

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