A popular, complex issue is finally getting attention, but at the same time needs popular rethinking
President Obama delivered his State of the Union address on Jan. 28 in which he made high-quality preschools for every American child a priority. This sparked several editorials in “The New York Times” arguing how great this program is, how under-funded it will become and how little we actually know about early education.
Universal preschool is one of those rare issues in modern politics that has strong bi-partisan support, drawing from 60 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats. In 2009, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) gathered 33 countries’ math, reading and science scores The United States ranked 33rd.
Everyone wants to help children, because the more educated they are, the more likely they are to have a higher standard of living, which in turn makes the nation more competitive. It is a win-win, but there are some fundamental flaws.
The federal government is not very skilled when it comes to education. In 1965, the Head Start program was created under then-President Johnson’s War on Poverty. It is a program designed to help children from birth to age five of low income families to be better prepared for their schooling career.
However, the effectiveness of the program is still in question. A 2011 Department of Health and Human Services report sharpened the debate when it determined that the program had positive benefits across the board, but these were gone by the third grade. The No Child Left Behind Act is another example.
The program was designed to boost schools’ test scores and make sure that ‘no child is left behind.’ Instead, with the series of incentives built into the program, schools have developed a culture to teach the test. Now we are trying to impose a first or second grade curriculum on kindergarteners in an attempt to raise test scores.
The result —every child is left behind. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and with a universal preschool system, I expect to see more of the same. I do not believe it will be well-funded, which will lead to poorer results. When the men in Washington aren’t happy they will blame the teachers, demand that we improve the Pre-K test scores and try embracing a curriculum the children are just not ready for. The problem with the American education system is not its size.
The problem is one of culture. Expanding it to include three and four year olds will not raise the test scores. Everything from the Head Start program onward has been seen through the lens of competition, not equity. Take Finland, for example. Its education system is one of the best in the world, and children do not start until they are seven, with preschool starting at age five, and have less homework and testing. How do they do it? Here in America, we approach education reform through competition. Everyone and everything is ranked.
This results in an inequality where the good schools receive more funding and do better, while the poor schools get less funding and fall farther behind. In Finland, everything is about equity — to give every Finnish child the same education opportunities. There are no school or class rankings. The schools are not obsessed with test scores or how they compare to neighboring schools. Their sole focus is to make the most of their students, by teaching at the student’s pace. “Children learn better when they are ready,” Kari Louhivuori, a Finnish teacher and principal, said to “Smithsonian” magazine. And the Finnish results prove it.
The Finns also approach teaching in a way that is alien to American thought. In America, there is a (demeaning) dictum about teachers: “Those who can’t do, teach.” In many cases, American professionals view teachers as failures in their field. With this mind set, physics teachers become the physicist who could not make the cut and are only “fit” to teach.
In contrast, Finnish teachers are selected from the top 10 percent of their nation’s graduates and are required to earn a master’s degree. They are also paid better and treated with the same respect that Americans give to doctors and lawyers. Education reforms should not look like more of the same. We need to fundamentally change our understanding of education. Critics of the Finnish education system say that they benefit from a smaller and more homogenous population than America; therefore, it won’t work here in the states.
I am not asking that America adopt all the Finnish policies of low student-teacher ratios or abandon standardize testing, though I do believe this needs to be examined. I am asking that we radically rethink our attitudes about education. It is a small but vital first step in improving America’s education.
Sean McMahon is a junior from Riverside, R.I., majoring in English and advertising.