Education Reform In America: Applying The Costanza Theory
Americans are obsessed with certain questions about schooling and education:
- How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly?
- How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers?
- How do you foster competition and engage the private sector?
- How do you provide school choice?
How well has this obsession worked for us? Judging from the PISA survey which compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), I would say “not well.”
In America, it is time to begin thinking differently. We should start by doing the exact opposite of what we’re doing now. That’s right. It’s time to implement the Costanza Theory: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” [VIDEO: George Costanza Does The Opposite]
Looking at Finland’s school model is also a good place to begin. Their success is especially remarkable because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.
There are no private schools in Finland. Of the small number of independent schools that exist in Finland, all are publicly financed. Parents can also choose, but the options are all the same. There are no tuition fees. There are no private universities. Every person attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.
There are no standardized tests except the National Matriculation Exam taken as students exit high school.
Teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each term, based on individualized evaluation by each teacher.
In Finland teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession. Teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country.
There are no lists of best schools. Cooperation is the main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools.
When the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program was never excellence. It was equity. Excellence was already assumed.
It begins with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance. While these services are available in most public schools, their quality and caliber are uneven.
“The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population” reports Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist based in New York City who is writing a book about what America can learn from Nordic societies, “but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed.”
The canyon between Americans who can afford $40,000 in tuition per child per year or even just the price of a house in a decent public school district and the other “99 percent” is painfully clear to anyone paying even half attention.
Finland’s experience suggests that to be globally competitive in the new economy, a country has to prepare ALL of its population well.
As Partanen so eloquently notes in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/
“As a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.”
More equity at home. What a capital idea. Now how hard can that be?
The problem will not be solved in Washington, D.C. It will need to start with local school leaders. No one else is going to fix it. Colleges and schools of education will need to help lead the way, offering sound training and design. But I’m not sure they are not part of the larger problem. Opening up the walled gardens, offering open, freely accessible classes and coursework is a brilliant first step. How this move plays out, one that runs counter to many university trustees’ thinking, remains to be seen.
Re-examining the roles that colleges and schools play in our global economy requires a new protocol. I suggest we start with the Costanza Theory, a theory that works exceedingly well when everything else you’ve tried has not worked.