By Jason M. Wester
I read with great interest as Dr. Gearl Loden, superintendent of Tupelo schools, weighed in on the issue of charter schools in the Jan. 27 edition of the Daily Journal. Dr. Loden argued that districts with a high rating should be protected from the intrusion of charter schools.
He has it precisely backwards. Districts with low scores should be protected from charter schools because those districts cannot afford them and they take away resources from the already starved public schools.
If Loden is convinced that school “reform” has a place for charter schools, I suggest he lobby for one in Tupelo. After all, Tupelo’s schools have better funding and local support than most and can surely absorb a charter school without too much damage to the public schools.
My guess is, if a charter school were to be located in Tupelo, Loden would be very much against it, and rightly so. Charter schools betray our cherished principles of equality, that everyone gets a fair shot. What is to become of the students who do not get into the charter school? Are we just going to hang them out to dry? Are we going to take resources away from the many and turn them over to the few lucky ones? Well, yes, apparently that is exactly what the Republican-led Legislature is preparing to do. Unfortunately, that is counter to cherished American values. All children deserve a shot in this life, not only the lucky few.
Looking to Better Models
Loden got this right: The U.S. has fallen behind. That’s why we should look to countries that are doing it better, and right now, one of the most widely discussed models is Finland. Finland has, over the last 40 years, transformed its school system so that today it is widely recognized as one of the best in the world.
Before you castigate me for making a strained comparison, at least hear out what they are doing in Finland and notice how strikingly different it is from what we are doing in the U.S.
• Teachers are empowered, supported, and paid as the professionals they are.
• Finnish students take only one standardized test when they are 16 years old. That’s it.
• Students are encouraged to take a hands-on role in their learning. Their learning is meaningfully connected to real-life experience.
• Students almost never have homework. They are under very little pressure to “perform” (as opposed to learn) as students must do in America.
• The system is publicly funded, yet it spends nearly 30 percent less than the U.S. For that investment, they get better outcomes, such as higher graduation rates and more students enrolling in college and vocational schools.
The Fins stripped away as much bureaucracy as possible and placed the emphasis on students and teachers. Meanwhile in the U.S., our politicians put layer of bureaucracy upon bureaucracy. Charter schools add yet another layer to the bureaucracy. Our politicians need reminding about what should be as clear as day, that learning happens between teachers and students.
Transform, Not Reform
Above, I put the word “reform” in quotation marks, for good reason. Reform implies that we can take the parts of the current system and reconfigure them, make a few tweaks here and there, but leave the bulk of the system essentially unchanged. Our schools do not need to be reformed. They need to be transformed. They need meaningful and drastic changes that give power to the students and teachers. Transformation is what happened in Finland, and transformation is what we need in the United States. But transformation is impossible as long as we keep doing the same things and expect different results.
The dirty secret among educators in the know is that standardized tests are exceedingly poor measures of students’ learning. Further, we know that those tests put tremendous pressure on students and teachers. We know that those tests don’t teach anything. We know that they prevent teachers from doing their jobs. More than one teacher wrote to me after my last column about standardized tests lamenting the fact that he could never delve deeply into his subject because he was constrained to teach to the mediocrity of the state tests.
In our current system, The Big Test is all that matters. Learning and connecting that learning to the real world, are seldom a part of the conversation.
Since the teachers and students are at the bottom of the education food chain, they shoulder the brunt of its pressure. We are getting kicked around by the likes of Finland. Surely, for our children, we can do better.
Jason M. Wester is a Tupelo resident who teaches at Northwest Mississippi Community College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.