Legislating Performance

Watching the BBC’s video report on Finnish schools, I was struck by two things outside the schoolhouse. One was that the family serving as a focal point of the report ate meals together, including breakfast, conversing with one another over their dishes. Dad asked the kids about their day at school. The other was the head teacher (principal) interviewed. He appreciated that Finnish governmental officials trusted him and his teachers to go about their business.

To put this in perspective, you must try and imagine an interview by CNN of the principal of a school in California or Florida, in which the principal thanks his home state’s politicians for the trust they repose in him and his teachers. You must also imagine breakfast tables across California with school children eating while having a friendly give-and-take with Mom and Dad before heading off to school. And you must imagine young Californians and Floridians beaming over their scores on graduation tests that have not been cooked so that students can pass them with random answers, as can happen with tests for promotion in New York.

Wanting to do its part in making this imaginative indulgence a reality, the Florida State Legislature recently passed a bill basing teachers’ pay partly on the scores their students get on standardized tests. The Governor vetoed the bill as I was writing this piece. I doubt the bill would have done any good. To see why, let’s imagine a new, improved formula based on the same old, ineffective premises.

Since the legislature has decided to manage details of educational policy, the new bill would have to include legislators’ pay in its performance-based scheme. When it sets policies that result in higher scores, its members get a raise. Otherwise, they would get a pay cut.

Since parents’ formation of their children’s home life has such a great effect on how they do in school, parents would need to have their performance evaluated and either rewarded or penalized too. Florida tax forms could have a section in which parents report their children’s test scores. If they exceed a certain amount, the parents would receive an augmented refund or be forgiven a part of their tax bill. Otherwise, they would be subject to a surcharge.

You can see what dump this thought-experiment belongs in, so you should draw the needed conclusion about any test-based rewards and penalties assessed by legislation directed at classes of people. No, not New York-style promotion tests either. The solutions lie elsewhere.


Beanbags and Bedsheets

A blessedly former colleague of mine once trooped her class out to the Upper Field, where they filled water balloons and then threw them at each other in two teams. One team was the Redcoats; the other, the Colonists. The objective of the lesson was to get the students to understand the American Revolution.

In this lesson students did not learn about the American Revolution; they learned about water balloon fights. It is misguided to think that substituting one activity (such as war) by another (such as throwing water balloons) allows the first activity to be understood. A teacher’s intellectual default settings with respect to this kind of substitution should be “care” and “caution.” Many of us have been a part of classes in which we learned that ancient Greeks wore sheets and played games with beanbags. Some of us may remember from our school days that a “settler” is someone who bobs for apples and shoots Indians. (The lesson used to be confined to bobbing for apples.)

If we look at Henry Adams’s “The United States in 1800” for our sense of reality, we find out that the children of the Westward Expansion were more likely to drink whiskey than to bob for apples. The young Athenian citizens in Jacob Burckhardt despised work and locked their women indoors. No need to feature them in History Day Outdoors, but why as an alternative should we go to any fictitious play world for lessons in fictitious history? Care and caution could eliminate confusion and the resulting debasement of history: no longer would anyone be able to write of Lincoln that “he went to the movies and got shot.”

Maybe the former colleague recognized this kind of mistake but went ahead with the lesson in water balloons anyway. Here we must carefully examine motives and the curriculum. A history teacher may want to have a cutup day of fun at team sports, but they properly belong in physical education or on one of the days of recreation that many schools have from time to time.

The third possibility is that the teacher was knowingly offering nonsense as a rationale. Students are very good at baloney detection, and many will happily become complicit in its use, particularly if it gets them off a hook or helps them justify “free” time and an escape from rigor disguised as “creativity.” But the time is not free. It is bought at the expense of fruitful instruction, and it teaches the students that baloney works, a thing many of them have already learned too well.


More on Finnish Schools

Not just The New York Times but also BBC has had a look at Finnish schools, and its report is worth examining both for what it says and for what it leaves unexamined.

Two things the report notes should be seen as in tandem: that a Finnish classroom has students of different abilities, and that it has not one but three teachers present in order to help them with what they need to learn. Edspeak refers to “differentiated instruction,” which means “attending to students’ particular needs”—an excellent goal when approached realistically.If students have widely different needs, more than one teacher will more effectively meet them. By contrast, looking at a poor non-Finnish teacher confronted alone by a roomful of variety, I think of those statues of four-armed gods dancing in a circle of flames. All that work, and none of the worship!

No, I don’t require worship. Respect will do. A Finnish head teacher (principal) interviewed by BBC stresses the element of trust in the schools there: trust of teachers by principals, and trust of schools by politicians. To the objection that trust and respect must be earned I would counter that they are part of the working capital of a functional system, not one of its dividends.

The interview with the teacher Marjaana Arovaara-Heikkinen confirmed something from my own experience: keeping the same students for a number of years is extra­ordinarily beneficial for both student and teacher. When on the first day of class I look at a roomful of known students, I recognize that from the first minute I can teach to each student’s needs because I already know what they are. No days or weeks of singing “Getting to Know You,” though that is a good tune in its time and place.

The Nokia executive interviewed for this report expresses satisfaction with the quality of scientific and technical education that Finnish schools provide to Nokia’s future employees. This kind of praise from this kind of source is not often heard about, say, California’s public schools, but it is not the only kind of praise I would like to hear. How about an interview with a professor of history at the University of Finland commenting on that country’s budding historians?

And to get back to the main point of my last posting: in her interview the Education Minister says of Finnish schools’ success that “the key behind it is our good teachers.” In Finland teaching is popular, and getting a place as a teacher is competitive. Desire and competence are marvelous guarantors of trustworthiness.

As for what it leaves unexamined: that will be for another posting.


What Is Important in Teaching?

The New York Times recently printed an article discussing the single most important contributing factor in students’ success at learning. After years of fruitless research, some advanced centers of teacher education have discovered that it depends on which teachers they have.

The shock of this report is that there could have been any doubt about the finding or delay in recognizing it. People outside the Ed Biz will wonder what other influence could possibly be so important. I should say the American Ed Biz: another article The Times published some years ago was on to the secret. Finnish schools, the world’s best, started their students at seven years old, spent $5,000 per pupil, had classes of thirty, and did without “gifted” programs. Asked how they do it, a teacher replied, “The teacher is no. 1.”

So the teacher is. We know it when we look into the past, admiring the teaching of Socrates rather than regretting the lost secrets of Platonic curriculum mapping. And how could we have forgotten it in our own school days? We remember that exquisite geometry class with Mrs. Lee or speech with Mr. Barlow. We remember our time in college, when we told each other not that “I’m taking ‘modern poetry,’” “I’m taking ‘Jane Austen,’” “I’m taking ‘recent European history,’” or “I’m taking ‘American history,’” but that “I’m taking Koch,” “I’m taking Trilling,” “I’m taking Stern,” or “I’m taking Hofstadter,” How could educationists have come to forget those people and the influence they had on us?

Part of the explanation may lie in a view of teaching that Richard Hofstadter found prevalent in the U. S. till fairly recently. He said that teachers were widely viewed as “drifters and misfits.” This belief created its own widespread reality, particularly as teachers tended to be so poorly paid that often only the extremely dedicated or those under perpetual vows of poverty—and drifters and misfits—would take the jobs.

The pay problem has been nudged in the right direction since the 1960’s, though there is a way to go before American teachers reach levels of pay achieved by Finnish teachers, who earn 60% of what Finnish doctors make. The image problem is still a problem. I told some students of mine about a former colleague who got a perfect SAT score when he was in high school. One student asked, “If he’s so smart, why is he a teacher?” Teachers of such students might well ask themselves that question.

What do excellent teachers do? The teacher education program I enrolled in didn’t know and never said, so I still had a lot to learn as I faced my first classes on my first day of teaching. How did I learn it? I heard the names students mentioned as the best teachers, and I spent a lot of my free periods in their classrooms watching them.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, teacher educationists were saying that nothing the teacher says or does in class makes much difference in how students learn. It would be nice to think that they are finally revising that view.