Great Expectations

As the bipartisan consensus favoring a high-standards-and-assessments agenda for public schools begins to fall apart, and the entire U.S. education system (from pre-K through college) seems poised on the brink of collapsing back to the dual-track feast-or-famine inequality of the nineteenth century, it’s good to hear of useful models that might work even here. In the July-August issue of the Washington Monthly, Thomas Toch and Taylor White of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching have written a review of a new book by Amanda Ripley that examines high-performing schools in Finland, South Korea and Poland through the eyes of American exchange students. In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Ripley makes a pretty compelling case that the key ingredient in high-performing public schools remains high expectations for all students along with the resources to help them succeed.

This passage from the review particularly struck me:

[I}n Finland, the notion that all students can work their way to high standards allows educators to move close to half the country’s students into and—importantly—out of special education classes at some point in their educational careers without stigma. In contrast, many American educators believe ability is fixed: students are either smart and capable of reaching high standards, or they’re not.

Another big difference is the ability of countries like Finland to lift the performance of teachers not through accountability systems based on testing students, but on attracting highly qualified teaching candidates through better pay and working conditions, along with significant financial support during their training:

One hundred percent of teacher candidates rank in the top quarter of their high school classes, and teacher training is concentrated in a few high-quality universities. Admissions standards for the education programs are high. Master’s degrees are required for all teachers, and educators make competitive, professional wages. As a result, Finland now attracts its best and brightest into public school classrooms, where it gives them wide latitude over their work….

The Finnish national government also pays every prospective teacher’s tuition (and every other college student’s tuition), and supports them during yearlong residencies with mentor teachers, another expensive proposition.

It’s obviously a bit of a reach to envision an educational system in this country where a national commitment to equality and excellence will require a triple leap over traditions and political divisions. And obviously, the nativistic impulses of one of our two major political parties make European and Asian models difficult even to discuss. At this point, however, given the current trajectory of American education, breaking the mold may be the only alternative to a failing grade.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.