AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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What Matters Most

by AFT President Randi Weingarten


Scaling Up Success
NY Times, Dec. 19, 2010


One of the great frustrations with America’s public education system is that our success stories are rarely scaled up. To our children’s detriment, decision-makers are more likely to chase fads, shift course or choose “reforms” lacking evidence of effectiveness than they are to adopt and expand educational approaches that have been proven successful.

AFT President Randi Weingarten and Finnish education expert Dr. Pasi Sahlberg talk about why Finland's school system is so successful.

Unfortunately, this is true on many levels. Accomplished teachers rarely have opportunities to share their craft with colleagues or to mentor new teachers. The “secrets” of successful schools too often remain a mystery, even to schools close by. And rather than replicate the practices of high-performing school districts for the benefit of far more students, many superintendents seem intent upon putting their own imprint on a school system—evidence be damned.

The results of an international assessment released earlier this month show the consequences of America’s failure to build on what works in education. American students ranked in the middle of countries participating in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. Underlying the results are the stark differences between practices in the top-performing countries and the prevailing approaches to education in the United States.

What are the hallmarks of the highest-achieving countries in the world? Simply put, they out-prepare, out-invest, out-respect and, as a result, outperform the United States.

President Obama has said the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Unfortunately for children in the United States, the top-down, test-driven, evidence-free approach to education that has dominated this past decade has failed to put the United States on the path that high-achieving nations have followed.

The top-performing countries on PISA—Finland, Singapore and South Korea—have a heavy emphasis on teacher preparation, mentoring and collaboration. They de-emphasize standardized tests, and each has a well-rounded curriculum that teachers can tailor. In Finland, which I recently visited, teacher training is demanding, rigorous and extensive—with ample clinical experience. Teachers in these countries are esteemed, and are expected to make teaching their profession, and they’re virtually 100 percent unionized.

Contrast this with the United States, where teacher preparation too often is insufficient for the complexity and importance of this work. Teachers frequently are assigned a classroom and left to sink or swim. High rates of turnover are expected and even built into the system. Indeed, half of all teachers leave within their first five years. This constant churning costs American school systems $7 billion each year. The cost to American students is incalculable.

The top-performing countries provide a more equitable education for all students and offset the effects of poverty through wraparound services that support students and their families. South Korea, for example, provides increased pay, smaller class sizes and more time for collaboration for teachers working in hard-to-staff schools.

Shanghai, which outranked all its competitors, emphasizes support for struggling teachers and schools. As the New York Times reported, “When a school is in trouble in Shanghai, authorities pair it with a high-performing school. The teachers and leaders of the strong school help those in the weak school until it improves. The authorities send whatever support is needed to help those who are struggling.” The United States, in contrast, too often substitutes last-resort measures such as school closings and mass teacher firings for this thoughtful approach proven effective by the world’s education leader.

High-achieving countries treat teachers as professionals, and responsibility for student outcomes is shared. School systems work with teachers and their unions, and parents and students are engaged and responsible, as well. Compare this with what happens in the United States, where teachers are routinely asked to accept policies made without their input, and then blamed when the policies fail. And often teachers are held solely accountable for student achievement, rather than the mutual responsibility approach that has proven so successful in many other countries.

Educating all our students at high levels is not easy, but our international neighbors show that it can be done. We must study and replicate the best practices, both here and abroad, for the benefit of our kids, and our competitiveness.