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Let Schools and Districts Defend Their Solutions

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Dear Diane,

I agree, Finland is not the answer. That’s my point! There isn’t one. Or even two or three. We can learn from others, but in the end we are responsible for using what we learn in our own setting—place, time, history and, of course, values.

It’s instructive—for me—to realize that the Finns focus on a playful and wonder-filled childhood, and postpone teaching reading until kids are 7 or older. It might be, as one blogger commented, that Finnish phonemes are simpler and thus one can learn to read faster there. Or it may be that they learn to read better because they haven’t been bored and defeated by too early an introduction to a passive learning process.

It may be that the common core curriculum that the Finns use could work anywhere or it may be that it’s a different thing altogether to discuss a common core for a country smaller than NYC (5 million), in which almost everyone is native born—and has been so for generation upon generation—versus a nation of 300-plus million in which the majority cannot trace their history in the USA back more than a hundred or so years.

(NY State has had a common core (with exams) for a century, and Massachusetts has had no state regulation—just elected school boards. Yet Massachusetts test scores compare well with most OED nations!)

It may be that the Finns’ common core of academics is assessed in ways so different from ours, and far less frequently, that to call them both “tests” is to confuse matters.

It may be that in a nation in which 80 percent are members of the same state-established church one can presume a level of “consensus” that a religiously divided nation like ours can’t.

It may be that the fullness of Finland’s welfare system—universal health care, relative income equality, etc.—would make them successful regardless of any of the above.

What we agree about, Diane, is the need to discuss the purposes of schooling. What shared criteria might we “answer to”? There are many ways to get at the latter without developing a detailed curriculum about what should be taught (at what age, in what sequence, and in what detail). Democracy is a form of accountability and maybe we can develop acceptable public bodies that we agree to answer to.

The quoted three paragraphs of Finland’s “mission statement” sound fine to me. Central Park East Secondary School and Mission Hill would be happy to defend our work as a response to such a mission. But supporting “his or her mother tongue” and “cultural identity” is a mission, for example, that some Americans might not support. “Develop a democratic society”—would such a phrase appear in many a U.S. mission statement, rather than the paler “be a good citizen”? The Finnish mission suggests skills like “evaluate critically”, “create new culture”, “revitalize ways of thinking and acting” that some conservatives would argue don’t belong in mandatory K-12 schooling. It’s a radical statement that might not sit comfortably in our culture. (Sol Stern of The Sun might be nervous, for example.) (Editor's note: See this guest column by Sol Stern in eduwonkette.)

I can hear a lot of folks to the right and left of me feeling that Finland’s mission is insufficient/ wrong-headed or even evil. (Humph: “self-esteem!) Let’s put it out there for discussion for starters.

But even if we could unite behind a similar statement, it hardly leads to a single approach to either pedagogy or curriculum! Then, comes the hard part—of course—what subjects and pedagogies best achieve such ends? My solution? Let schools and districts defend how their solutions meet such a broad description of the role of K-12 education. Erin and Diana (two of our readers) raise the importance of “external” reviewers. Both make good points, and perhaps what was important about CPESS and MH’s graduation requirements was the way they included such public reviewers. It’s not a “do your own thing”—it’s the responsibility of any public institution to defend its “own” solution to democratically selected bodies in a publicly agreed upon manner.

Note also, Diane, that when I urge us to include the cultures that surround us, I am not suggesting that we applaud—or condemn them. What I’m arguing is that we won’t influence the minds of the young if we insist they park their ideas outside our schools, to be picked up at 3 p.m.. We don’t want to perpetuate the idea that there is a strictly “academic” way of reading, writing, and thinking. Persistently ignoring the cultural norms they are exposed to leaves them defenseless.

Making room for these realities (which includes the “ideology” of the market place, the political scene, and the arts) is risky. It’s safer to avoid them. But it’s precisely when teachers and students are passionate that their best and worst habits of mind emerge. That’s when I can really “assess” how my colleagues and my students use their minds! Sometimes it scares me, but it’s also what “educating” for democracy needs to tackle. I fear that it won’t happen “somewhere” else if we are afraid to let it happen within our schools.

Best,
Deborah

5 Comments
"Or it may be that they learn to read better because they haven’t been bored and defeated by too early an introduction to a passive learning process."

Where is a passive learning process taking place to teach reading? If you are inferring the US - where? If we used direct instruction (which is not passive, thanks for trying to misrepresent it), then we would have readers. It's the teachers that refuse to use effective methods. It's the teacher schools that refuse to teach effective methods. And it's the parents that are ignorant that don't ask for effective methods.

Yet you never really acknowledge Project Follow Through. Interesting.

Deborah,

“Let schools and districts defend their solutions”

Isn’t that what we have now with NCLB? What happens when the schools/districts can’t defend their solutions? What if the schools/districts do not have any solutions?

Should we have the state (or in the case of NYC, the mayor) take over those schools?

Erin Johnson

Deborah,

You point out that the mission statement could irk both the left and the right; perhaps that's what makes it good! Many of its statements and terms could be problematic in isolation; taken together, they make for a relatively compelling whole, as far as mission statements go.

The sentence about "self-esteem" is a case in point: “Basic education must provide an opportunity for diversified growth, learning, and the development of a healthy sense of self-esteem, so that the pupils can obtain the knowledge and skills they need in life, become capable of further study, and, as involved citizens, develop a democratic society.”

I have no problem with self-esteem that arises from learning, accomplishment, and immersion in something outside oneself. That appears to be the sense of the term here. It gets nauseating when it becomes an end in itself: when teachers dare not correct their students lest they hurt their feelings, where mediocrity must be celebrated willy-nilly; where those with a capacity for self-criticism are diagnosed with "low self-esteem"; and so forth.

I agree that a mission statement in itself is not enough; the implementation raises many questions and brings up controversies. Still, a bold, substantial, humane, and balanced mission statement offers hope and possibility. Blandness (meant to appease all sides) has "affected our content" (with the accent on the first syllable of "content," if we're talking about curriculum; on the second syllable if we're quoting Dickinson and talking about a certain sense of wonder and beauty that comes with the spring light). Perhaps the two kinds of "content" are not far flung.

"...Massachusetts has had no state regulation—just elected school boards. Yet Massachusetts test scores compare well with most OED nations!"

Massachusetts has had a history of elected local school boards running their schools but no longer. Local school committees in the state are now, essentially limited to eunuch status in the operation of our public schools. They've lost their fiscal autonomy as well as their curricular control in the past 27 years. It’s become so ominous that a number of districts have had difficulty attracting candidates to run for these positions because many people have concluded there’s little or no say in the station.

(1) In 1981, Massachusetts passed Proposition 2 and 1/2. This legislation eliminated fiscal autonomy for 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth. It limited local school boards to increasing their budgets by no more than 2 and 1/2 percent over the previous year's budget. They could no longer spend whatever they thought necessary to operate their schools.

(2) Since the mid-1980's (over twenty years now) the Massachusetts Department of Education has been in control of its public schools. Prior to that time approximately 300 local school districts traversed their pell-mell curricula in much the same manner as many other states. In 1993 the state passed the Massachusetts Education Reform Act which promulgated a defined set of standards for each discipline, at each grade. FINALLY there was a plan as to what was to happen, and when, for the state's public schools.

Massachusetts test scores are the best in the country for myriad reasons. Our storied history of trend setting in public education has continued into the twenty-first century and has in no small way contributed to the Bay State's impressive performance. Beyond our history of excellence, employing credentialed teachers of such academic significance as myself, has also contributed to our intellectual superiority. Just kidding folks! That's the mind-numbing humor in the classroom I referred to in a previous entry a couple of days ago. Humor - kids love it.

I've loved your recent posts that address big truthes, and provide a lot of wisdom that doesn't easily translate into specific solutions.

I'm a little dismayed that the debate has been reduced too much into a debate on curriculum and pedaguogy. Education is as complex as all of human nature. Curriculum and other instructional issues are just the tail, and we don't want to follow into the temptation of them wagging the dog.

There is a correlary concern, that people will become too confident in the correctness of their positions. That brings me back to one of your best comments that, "we won’t influence the minds of the young if we insist they park their ideas outside our schools, to be picked up at 3 p.m."

I don't exactly remember Learned Hand's quote about the spirit of democracy not being too sure in its own correctness. The same applies to adults debating education. The same applies to adults interacting with students. If we adults get too all-fired convinced that we have the answers, we won't listen to the kids, and that certainly means they won't listen to us.

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