Inside Finland: Why the Best are Still Pretty Bad

The short answer to the puzzle of why the world’s best school systems are still pretty bad is that in every developed country, at least, the what, how, where and for whom of instruction for children is political. The political process yields nearly identical debilitating heroic assumptions everywhere.

The latest telling case in point is Finland, a fading widely-alleged poster child for enlightened, teacher-friendly, centrally-planned instruction for schoolchildren. The political process in Finland, and elsewhere, insists on comprehensively uniform assigned schools; dealing with student diversity with large campuses and lots of electives, and with “differentiated instruction” within highly diverse classrooms. Differentiated instruction, while sounding impossible — and it seems so, except among a highly gifted elite set of teachers — is politically correct (everyone gets the same opportunities/treatment) and “plenty popular among educators, too, thanks to its obvious allure on grounds of both fairness and individualization,” and rare. As the authors of the study that included an assessment of Finland note, “Everywhere we went, we encountered some version of this assertion: We don’t need to provide special programs [or schools], because we expect every school and teacher to adapt their instruction to meet the unique educational needs of all children. But such solemn, wishful affirmations don’t necessarily accord with reality on the ground.”

So, we have politically-governed instruction everywhere driven by hope triumphing over experience and common sense; by an assumption that a political need/convenience — effective differentiated instruction — is more than a cruel pipe dream; the ultimate devastating heroic assumption.


The Jeb Bush K-12 Plan

Appropriately on the MLK holiday, Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush announced his vision for Federal Education Policy. If he does not become President (looking unlikely), hopefully he will be our next Secretary of Education. I, personally, have not settled on a candidate, but Jeb would likely be a better “Education President” than either Bush 41 or Bush 43; despite considerable activity on the K-12 Education front by both Bush Administrations.

Here is the bottom-line from wannabe Bush 45:

My plan requires a complete overhaul of a system from one that serves bureaucracies to one that serves the needs of families and students and is based on four conservative principles: 1) education decisions should be made as close to the student as possible; 2) choice of all kinds should be expanded; 3) transparency is essential to accountability; and 4) innovation requires flexibility.

Jeb Bush properly takes account of the limited federal role in education, does not increase federal spending on K-12 and supports school choice expansion as much as the limited federal role allows.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn stops half a cheer short of a three cheers endorsement, noting, especially, failure to rein in the aggressive, bizarre Office of Civil Rights actions. My sole complaint would be failure to severely curb spending below the levels achieved by the huge Obama Administration increases. Candidate Bush wisely backs away from his support for the Common Core.

NSCW 2016! Dallas ISD Charter School Fight

A routine zoning change led to a showdown in South Dallas yesterday with city officials split on approving a charter school in the area. Those against the charter school called it “siphoning” students from the public schools, even comparing it to “rape”.

However, many local residents are in favor of the charter school. Also, charter schools offer an alternative for many students who find that the one-size-fits-all design of the public school system does not work for them. The 7-6 vote in favor of the charter school, unfortunately shows how even during National School Choice Week, there is still plenty of unnecessary opposition to school choice.

National School Choice Week: Cause for Celebration

National School Choice Week has been kicked off with more than 16,000 events planned across the nation. This week the Friedman Foundation also released its 2016 edition of The ABCs of School Choice with details about every school choice program in the U.S.

Since the first private school voucher program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1991, there have dramatic gains throughout the nation in education choice. Today there are more than 56 private school programs in 28 states and Washington, D.C. More than 350,000 students are enrolled in private school choice programs, an increase of 257,282 from 2004-2014.

Tax Credit Funded Education Savings Accounts

After decades of massive spending to improve public education, the results are discouraging as shown by student achievement data ― and already known by parents who see what their children are learning or perhaps not learning. The average reading level of a public high school graduate is the seventh grade. Across the nation, parents are demanding school choice that is not centrally planned.

Five states have adopted the latest school choice model, education savings accounts (ESA), with Nevada passing the first universal ESA in the nation. However, recently, the Nevada program was placed on hold pending a legal challenge filed by the lieutenant governor. Two other lawsuits have been filed, one by the ACLU and the other by a group of parents.

The Berenstain Bears Avoid One-Dimensional Thinking: Why Can’t Educators and Policymakers?

The Berenstain Bears are the cartoon characters in a popular series of readers and DVDs for children. I was reading one with my boys. I was stunned to see this line:

Like most cubs, Brother and Sister Bear had their strengths and weaknesses. Brother was good at math and science, but sometimes he had trouble with language arts; Sister vice versa.

Really, there shouldn’t be anything remarkable about it. We constantly recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the people around us. So, it is remarkable that it is remarkable.

What I call one-dimensional thinking about student and teacher ability is pervasive and frustrating because it prevents consideration of useful policy reforms. We see widespread resistance to sorting children, by ability, because we abhor the stigma, and that such tracking seems to close opportunities to some. But if we recognize that abilities probably differ widely, by subject, and certainly differ in interest and thus level of engagement, we need to recognize, further that we better NOT track as if ability and talent is monolithic. Imagine putting a math whizz in a school where all of the course offerings are geared towards the extraordinarily talented; possibly a disaster in the English and history (etc.) classes. But, we had better sort by ability, by subject or risk losing our society’s future world-beaters in the subject area where their talent and engagement level is high.

The Consequences of High-Regulation in School Choice

As the public demand for school choice shifts into high gear, so does the focus shift from school choice to school quality. Those same school choice backers who are fleeing government schools because of heavy regulations now do not trust the free market approach to bring quality. Already they are calling for a rather heavy measure of regulations to ensure quality.

Those regulations are designed to prevent bad schools from being choice options or to be sued as determinants for removing from the list of choices those “schools that become bad.” A “regulator” must oversee ― is this the nose of the camel in the choice tent that will create a new system of centrally controlled schools?

SOTU: President Obama’s Failed Education Record

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama claimed some educational policy victories and promises to act on other education initiatives:

We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job. The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, and boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all, offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one, and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.

And we have to make college affordable for every American. Because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red. We’ve already reduced student loan payments to ten percent of a borrower’s income. Now, we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year.

However, all the federal efforts in education have more or less failed in their goals and failed our students.

The Dance Continues: Changing the Locus of Political Control Mostly Misses the Point

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has just replaced the No Child Left Behind (NCLB ― 2002) Act, which replaced the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994. ESSA aims to reduce the level of federal involvement in the central planning of formal instruction for U.S. primary and secondary education. That’s a positive step, but from my “@bigpicturedoc” perspective, I see ESSA mostly as the latest failure to grasp (“denial” really ― definitely not just a river in Africa) how we created the “Nation at Risk” mess that is our K-12 system, and why the roots of chronic low performance persist.

Here’s what I mean by the dance continues. ESSA and NCLB amount to changing which political forum sets certain school system policies. First, some policymaking moved to the state level because of widespread dis-satisfaction with the outcome of local political control. Then, dis-satisfaction with outcomes of state intervention (mixed state-local control yielded the “Nation at Risk” condition) led to increased federal intervention. Now there is widespread dis-satisfaction with the outcomes of federal-level politics. In cynical moments, I was thinking, “what next, international political control; the UN”. Thankfully that didn’t happen. However, the failure by each political forum hopefully, at least, will cause recognition of the common denominator of failure; political control of what will be taught, how, where, and to whom. ESSA shifts power back to state and local political forums; a better situation, probably, but not good; been there, done that. Failure at the state and local level was why there was political support for futile/failed federal intervention. We need a different kind of decentralization than the dance between different degrees of local, state and federal control.

There is no process involving humans that is close to perfect. But genuine market control of what will be taught, how, where, and to whom will produce much better academic outcomes than any central planning alternative. In that alternate, largely market-driven K-12 universe, a dynamic price system orchestrates free enterprise provision of schooling options and parental choice. Non-profits, philanthropy, and the government would provide information and subsidies for low income families.

Arne Duncan: Common Core Now Letter of the Law and Can Be Implemented!

In December 2015, Every Student Success Act (ESSA) was signed into law by President Obama. Since then there has been much controversy over whether Common Core is embedded into the law.

Judging from the comments of those closest to the legislation, Common Core indeed is now the “letter of the law.”

During the House proceedings prior to the vote, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, made the stunning statement that Common Core is being redefined as social-emotional learning, which must come first in the learning hierarchy ― with academics ranking second! He said, “I believe this bill helps us get back to redefining what the Common Core is….Teaching these key fundamental characteristics: mental discipline, physical discipline, focus, concentration, self-regulation ― key components before you even get to the academic side.”