Sunday, October 10, 2010

Corporate America and Education.

Education is definitely a hot topic these days in the United-States as it is in France. Recently for instance, NBC devoted an entire week of programs to what it called "Education Nation", and there has been lots of talk about "Waiting for 'Superman' ", a documentary critical of the school system.

Yet I am dumbfounded by the shallowness of the talks and the lack of actual debate and how the so-called 'discussion' has become what seems to be an idealogical war waged by corporation America.

In fact, the 'debate' seems to be run by CEOs such as Bill Gates (here), Rupert Murdoch (in his own newspaper) or Mark Zuckerberg (on The Oprah Show) who are given tons of interviews and are treated by journalists and anchorpeople as if they were experts in education.
Why? Simply because they have succeeded in making their own business and subsequently in becoming super wealthy, as if that made you an expert in education. It makes you wonder....
And guess what, they all have in common one thing: they all push business-based school reforms, such as performance pay for teachers.

The Gates initiative for instance has a program called Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching means to evaluate teachers in all grades and subjects based on student test gains:
"Every profession has to have some form of measurement," Bill Gates said in a late June interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. "Tuning that, making sure it's fair, getting the teachers so they're enthused about it" are the keys. (MSNBC)
As for Rupert Murdoch the solution to fix the problem is very simple: give parents more choice, and for that you just need to make the labels clear as for products in the supermarket:
For choices to mean anything, however, parents also need transparency so they can make real comparisons.
The Los Angeles Times just gave us an excellent example of this kind of transparency when it published a database of about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers ranked by their effectiveness in raising student test scores. If you are a mom with a son or daughter in one of these classrooms, you know this information is vital. Unfortunately, it's the kind of information that seldom sees the light of day.
We all know that good schools begin with good teachers. We also know there are many heroic teachers. Unfortunately, our system is set up to protect bad teachers rather than reward good teachers.(WSJ)
Whenever you read "there are heroic teachers" you can be sure the next sentence will bash them.

And now, you have all the hype about "Waiting for Superman" (with a very dramatic trailer) which made the opening of NBC Education Week and has become one of the most successful documentaries:
"Can One Little Movie Save America's Schools?" asked the cover of New York magazine. On September 20 The Oprah Winfrey Show featured the film's director, Davis Guggenheim, of An Inconvenient Truth. Tom Friedman of the New York Times devoted a column to praising the film. Time published an education issue coinciding with the documentary's release and is planning a conference built in part around the school reform strategies the film endorses. NBC, too, will host an education reform conference in late September; Waiting for Superman will be screened and debated there, and many of the reformers involved in its production will be there. Katie Couric of CBS Evening News has promised a series of segments based on the movie.
(The Nation)
From what I have read, the movie is not only critical of the US school system, it also promotes charter schools (here and here) while blaming teachers unions and so it is no surprise that Bill Gates, who appears in it should promote the movie.

For our European readers who might not know charter schools are special schools which have been given a charter with increased autonomy as well as greater accountability in return. In principle, if they don't achieve educational outcomes within a certain period (usually three to five years) they may have their charters revoked by the local school board, the state education agency, or the university which sponsors them. One last important note, whenever there are too many students to enroll, admission is then usually allocated by a lottery system - a lottery that appears in "Waiting for Superman".

But the results of charter schools are mixed at best: nearly half of charter schools nationwide get no better results than local public schools, and 37 percent get worse results. (read 2009 report here). The problem with the movie - as in many others - is that it follows the fate of five kids and universalizes their experience.

Yes there are problems in the American school system
- for one, it is very costly: the United-states spends 7.% of its GDP (while the OECD countries as a whole spend 6.1% on average (France spends 5.9%) (OECD)
- and second, the results may be very disappointing, especially in maths and science: :
On the mathematics literacy scale, U.S. students scored lower than the OECD average. 31 countries (23 OECD and 8 non-OECD) scored higher on average than USA in mathematics literacy in 2006. Only 4 countries had average lower scores than USA.(source here)
But the question may not about how much is spent but rather how it is spent, and in this respect, the teachers are not what drive up spending:
According to the OECD:
In the United States, salary cost as a percentage of GDP per capita is well below the OECD average [the United States ranks 20th for primary, 24th for lower secondary, and 25th for upper secondary], despite the high overall spending.
The salary cost per student is 6.5% in the U.S., way below the OECD average of 11.4% (it is 11.8% in France).
While other factors can influence these differences (such as salary level, teaching time, and class size), in the United-States, this is mainly because the nation spends an above-average share of its educational spending in primary and secondary education on capital investments as well as compensation of non-teaching staff. (OECD)
Besides, the United-States has expectations of its schools that many countries do not, such as sports program or modern technology that drive up costs.

So as Mr Gates or Mr Murdoch claim, yes, teachers are what makes the difference, but maybe things would be different if teachers were better paid in the first place. The funny thing is that they all look up to Finland which has the best results but they never look at the system there, either because of ignorance or because it does not match their ideological/political agenda.

In Finland:
The system is built on a sense of trust and confidence in teachers. Essentially, Finnish children learn well because they’re taught well. All teachers are required to have a masters degree; most will spend a minimum of five-and-a-half years acquiring expert knowledge and learning how to teach it.
Securing a place in teacher training is much coveted even though salaries are at average levels across the OECD. Less than 10 per cent of those who apply will be successful. Finnish academics routinely refer to their teaching force as the crème de la crème (Irish Times).
It must be also noticed that Finland does not evaluate teachers at all even if Finland's students come out right at the top of international student assessments. (here)

One of the problems of the education in the United-States is a problem of American society at large - the lack of trust and respect for teachers and the academic world in general. This is a problem that is never addressed and that has gotten much worse in the last 10 years.
Unfortunately, the free-market anti-government view has made teachers the scapegoat for everything going wrong in American schools. The teaching profession is despised, and it makes it really hard to have the best and brightest to want to teach. Not only do teachers have to face the problems of unruly students, not only do they have to compete with video-games and the Internet, but they are also looked down upon by the rest of society, especially by the business world (This is no surprise since corporate America tends to value a profession by how much money is made in it).
And so now teachers have to suffer another ordeal and be shamed in public because their students don't pass a test, and soon enough their own living conditions may very well depend on the success of their students.

Not only has corporate America nothing to teach us about schools but it poisons the minds of millions of Americans by giving a false quick fix that is based on ignorance and ideology. It is one thing for philanthropists to help or found private schools, it is another for them to mingle with public schools and government decisions.

Learning is complex and so is teacher evaluation, and it is about time to have a real debate based on facts and experience, not on ideology.

1 comment:

DEOIO said...

I'm afraid we're swimming against the current in the US. The common refrain is "those who can't do, teach." There is very little respect for teachers here.