Our nation now has over a million high school dropouts annually which is approximately a 25 percent dropout rate, while Finland has only a 2 percent dropout rate. Finland is the number one ranked school system in the world in both math and science, while U.S. students are ranked 24th in math and 17th in science.
The average child in Finland speaks four languages and yet that country spends $3,000 less per student than in America. Finland’s teachers are from the top 10 percent of college graduates while nearly half of America’s teachers come from the bottom third of their college class.
It appears our educational system is losing its competitive edge, but educators and politicians are at odds over what changes would best serve our students. In New York last week, NBC hosted Education Nation, a summit on education, to open a dialogue about how to improve schools.
Both New York City Mayor Bloomberg and New Jersey’s Governor Christie are actively seeking to do away with teacher tenure and promote merit pay as a way to make improvements.
Bloomberg introduced a new get-tough policy for teachers which threatens the loss of tenure if they fail to show student test result progress for two years in a row. Tenure guarantees teachers due process so that they can not simply be dismissed by administrators who don’t like them.
Blaming teachers for the fact that students are performing poorly on high stakes tests doesn’t account for the many factors contributing to student learning such as their poverty level.
A good teacher in a school district with high socio-economic status often gets good test results. Placing that same good teacher in a school district with low socio-economic status has produced lower test scores.
Despite a lack of evidence to support the claim that teachers evaluated by their student test scores will produce better schools, this practice is gaining popularity. Florida’s legislature passed a law saying that 50 percent of teachers’ salaries will be based on test scores.
Michelle Rhee, the Washington D.C. School’s Chancellor, also supports merit pay for teachers. Some believe the new teacher contract she implemented is going to become a national model.
Teacher union representatives are resisting such maneuvers. They site several studies showing that student performance doesn’t necessarily go up when teachers get cash bonuses. Many feel that test scores are not a trustworthy measure for grading principals, teachers, and schools.
The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, travels across the country promoting judging teachers based on test scores, yet he also admits that tests have their limits. Educators complain that this method of evaluation is causing an over-emphasis on basic skills without enough time on thinking skills and the broader curriculum.
Here in Porterville, evaluating teachers is done by the principals who supervise their work which helps them determine if teachers are doing a good job. Like in other professions, human judgment can take into account the complex nature of the contributing factors for a student’s success.
Over the next three years, Bill Gates is spending a half a billion dollars to find out what makes a good teacher in a program called MET, Measure of Effective Teachers. When students were interviewed about qualities of a good teacher, they reported that good teachers use class time well and help clarify confusion.
Studies show that the best teachers know that different kids have different needs. Kids are more productive when they know their teacher cares about them. Teachers that are knowledgeable about their subject and create an exciting learning environment also motivate students. Whether Bill Gates can develop a measuring instrument to determine quality teachers remains to be seen, but education is a factor.
All of Finland’s teachers are required to have a Master’s Degree. They have up to three teachers per classroom. Two provide instruction while the other one works with struggling students.
In our economy where the teacher/student ratio continues to climb, the necessary individualized attention is harder to deliver. Many factors make up the different rankings for Finland’s students’ success compared to those of American kids, but good teaching no matter how it’s measured is a defining factor in student success.
Kristi McCracken, author of two children’s books and a long time teacher in the South Valley, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.