Some of the Solutions:
So here are some overarching thoughts about how to approach solving these interconnected challenges wisely, holistically, and collaboratively:
1. Look to successful educational approaches in other countries and then emulate them. The best model is Finland, which has been ranked number 1 or 2 in global educational achievement for years, having turned around its previously mediocre educational system. While we will need to develop our own approaches that fit U.S. diversity, state systems, and political challenges, Finland provides a model worth considering carefully. Here are some facts about Finnish education that should make us pause and rethink our own strategies:
Teachers: Teaching in Finland is extremely prestigious. All Finnish teachers receive a master’s degree that is content-based (rather than theory-based), and the acceptance rate into teacher training programs is less than 10%. Finnish teachers work collaboratively as well as autonomously. They choose their own teaching methods and materials and assess their students accordingly.
Contrary to the popular belief that Finland pays its teachers more than we do, teachers’ salaries in Finland are actually comparable to the U.S. (though because Finnish teachers work on average about half as many hours as U.S. teachers, they are actually paid twice as much for their time).
Testing, homework, and instruction time: There are no standardized tests in Finland until a single matriculation exam at 15 years old (to determine the higher education options available to students). Education is not competitive. There are no valedictorians, rankings, or tracking. Most schools do not grade students until 6th grade. There are fewer school days in Finland than in the U.S., with shorter school days and more outdoor/recess time.
While all pre-schools (nursery and kindergarten) are fully funded and most children attend, academic education does not begin until children are 7 years old. Students are required to complete very little homework, averaging 30 minutes per day.
Equity: The variation in Finnish schools’ successes is minimal. Whether rural or urban, in wealthy or poor regions, in schools with 50% of the student body learning Finnish as a second language or those with only native Finnish speakers, Finnish children do well no matter what school they attend.
Cost: Less money is spent per pupil in Finland than in the U.S.
It certainly seems we have much to learn from Finland’s successes.
2. Avoid side-taking. We can be supportive of teachers’ unions while constructively critiquing outdated and unsuccessful approaches these unions have taken and abetted. We can believe in traditional public education and also support charter schools, where some of the most innovative educational initiatives and approaches occur, providing ideas and models for traditional public schools.
Instead of falling on one side or the other of the concept of vouchers (which generally provide a small stipend for a student to attend another school, rather than a full ride), we can have meaningful conversations about equity in school resources and consider what it would mean if vouchers were synonymous with the full cost of education for every child from age 3 through high school (and perhaps beyond), “redeemable” anywhere.
There are many more issues that have polarized good people who all want children to have a good education, but I think the point is made: Until we stop our knee-jerk side-taking and focus on creative problem-solving, our kids will be the losers.
3. Embrace the 21st Century. While the world has changed dramatically, schooling has changed little in the past century. A couple of years ago, a rising high school senior I knew was furiously memorizing the names and dates of American presidents the week before school began. When I asked why, she told me this was a summer requirement in preparation for her AP American History class. I was stunned. In her pocket was a tiny computer (her phone) that could provide this information in seconds, whenever she might need it. Was this rote memorization really worthy of what is supposed to be a college level course? Ironically, her teacher was considered the best in the school.
Meanwhile, that same year the kindergartners (kindergartners!) in the Auburn, Maine, schools were being provided with iPads, at a cost of $200,000, for 285 5-year-olds. Embracing the 21st century is going to mean thinking wisely, creatively, and intelligently about the skills and resources our kids will need for a rapidly changing world. Certainly, there is a better use of an AP American History student’s time than memorizing names and dates of presidents and a better use of a 5-year-old’s time (and taxpayer’s money) than spending school hours on a government subsidized tablet.
Online learning is a powerful and important way for our older kids to gain knowledge and skills. When I first learned about Khan Academy I was thrilled by it. People of all ages, anywhere in the world, could now easily learn math, science, and other subjects at their own pace and level, free of charge. But when I wrote an enthusiastic blog for a teachers’ website about Khan Academy, and it happened to be published on April 1, a reader thought it was an April Fool’s joke because Khan Academy had been summarily dismissed by some educators who rejected the idea of such online learning. In the 21st century, we can and must utilize technologies wisely to augment classroom learning and critical thinking, and we must bring in educators who are equipped to lead this effort.
4. Equipping our students to be solutionaries
As our children graduate from high school, they will face profoundly complex global challenges and potentially catastrophic problems. Our planet is warming faster than most climate scientists’ best predictions; we may lose half of all species on Earth by the end of this century; there are over 7 billion people on our planet, each of whom needs adequate food, clean water, a home, and economic opportunity (and 1 billion of whom don’t even have access to clean water and adequate food).
Yet along with these challenges come tremendous opportunities. We have a greater capacity to solve our problems than ever before in human history. We can communicate and collaborate with people across the globe instantaneously. Our children can be connected with their peers all over the world, learning and creating friendships that can lead to peace, partnerships, and ultimately global prosperity and sustainability.
It’s time to be like the emergency room doctor responding to the victim of a car crash. The doctor doesn’t just stabilize the patient, but rather calls in the range of specialists to ensure that she is treated comprehensively, successfully, and with her future health and well-being in mind.
The growing failure of our educational system to meet our broad spectrum of goals is one of the greatest emergencies of our time, and we need to treat it as such. If we do not graduate a generation of solutionaries who have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to think critically and creatively about the problems we face, we may not be able to avert massive global calamities.
Education is the greatest hope we have for achieving a just, healthy, and peaceful world. Let’s treat it as such.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
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