One of the early warning signs that there are basic flaws in the Obama administration was his Race to the Top program, the kind of thing that is called education reform. Basic because setting up education reform as a race begins with the idea that there are going to be LOSERS and winners. I emphasize LOSERS because in a race there are far more losers than winners, though its the winners that a competitive system concentrates on. But it is the creation of losers that is the big problems with education in the United States. The entire concept is inherently structured to produce failure, the competition among the states for federal money, with a limited number of “winners” guarantees “losers”. That is a guarantee of inequality, it is a guarantee that he public schools will be segregated by some ordering into winners and losers, and so their students will be.
I don't think that Barack Obama or his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, should be expected to understand the problems with their program for two reason. Neither of them graduated from public schools. Indeed, I believe neither of them ever attended a public school in the United States in any part of their education. Another reason is that both of them are jocks, who have a blind spot for the defects in a competitive system which produces many more losers for the relative handful of winners. The model of athletics is an especially bad one for the public schools because of that. The purpose of the public schools must be to encourage everyone to learn to the best of their abilities. It must teach its students the values of democracy, equality, the respect of other people and the pursuit of the common good highest among those. I think the increasing focus on athletics in education has been a major component of the decline of, not only education, but the American culture in general. An educational system that isn't founded in those moral values is bound to lose its direction and lose focus on the results of such education, democracy and a sense of civic decency, and a belief in the good of learning.
If using the shame and humiliation of losing was going to produce better education, it would have by now. Our schools have been set up to produce losers for the past thirty or so years. It simply hasn't worked, it produces discouragement and failure, something which those who have been the winners in the present system apparently don't notice as they bask in the glory of their achievement.
The problems in public education in the United States are many and almost infinitely varied. That variety comes begins with the fact that there is no such thing as an American Public Education system. There are a myriad of local and state entities that administer public schools, very often badly and almost always unequally funded by some of the more regressive forms of taxation. They are governed by school boards, which are more often than not a public joke, filled with ignorant egomaniacs who don't understand the issues of their schools and in many if not most cases can't even understand the budgets they vote on. I doubt that most school board members even do their required reading. Most of them are rubber stamps to the superintendents – many of whom are elevated on the basis of their athletic coaching, far more than their academic background - except in the rare exceptions when local taxpayers revolt.
There was an op-ed in the Boston Globe a few days back which advised the United States to look at how Finland turned around a lagging educational system. It looks like we are headed in exactly the wrong direction if that's the case. Here are the most interesting parts of the piece:
Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers.
Educational leadership is also different in Finland. School principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community....
... What could the United States learn from the Finns? First, reconsider those policies that advocate choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement. None of the best-performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation — not choice and competition — can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.
Second, provide teachers with government-paid university education and more professional support in their work, and make teaching a respected profession. As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent in the United States is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.
It looks like this might be good advice to me. Of course, given the insularity and ignorance produced by much of our educational system, a lot of the administrators and school board members in the United States might have to look in an encyclopedia to find out where Finland is. That is if they can overcome the idiocy of American exceptionalism enough to believe that they might learn something from its example. If Finland has found a way to distinguish between real life and the structure of competitive sports, it could be exactly the lesson we need.
Update: Echidne has graciously provided a link to a site which has more information about the Finnish education reform.