Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Education, Economics, and Equality: The Common Good

A couple of weeks ago on Facebook I passed on a meme that had been going around:

I led the image/quote with the following:

"It seems a foreign concept to our current political debates, the idea of 'common good'--things that only directly benefit others might also benefit me indirectly by making all of us stronger, smarter, and more prosperous together. Life doesn't have to be a competition."

For context, it comes from this four-minute video (the quote shows up around the 2:40 mark):

A couple of related articles have shown up in my newsfeed in the past couple of days, and I think they unpack some of the related issues very nicely.

Teachers Make Handy Scapegoats, But Spiraling Inequality Is Really What Ails Our Education System

Our average scores on international tests look a little above the average in reading . . .

Students in American schools where fewer than 10 percent of the students live in poverty actually are number one in the world in reading. Students in schools with up to 25 percent of kids living in poverty would rank number three in the world in reading, and even schools with as many as 50 percent of kids in poverty scored well above the averages in the OECD nations – which is mostly the European and some Asian nations. Our teachers are doing something very right in terms of educating kids to high levels in much more challenging circumstances than children face in other countries.

The place where we really see the negative effects are in the growing number of schools with concentrated poverty, where more than 75 percent of children are poor. And there -- the children in those schools score at levels that are near those of developing countries, with all the challenges that they face. . . . 

We know that there’s a huge gap at kindergarten between children from low-income families and children from high-income families. There’s a vocabulary gap -- the children from low-income families have, on average, about a third of the number of words, and concepts that go with those words, when they come into kindergarten. Now, this is greatly ameliorated by pre-school, but we do not provide free universal pre-school and lots of low-income kids do not get access to early learning opportunities.

Then there are the general things you would expect – about having books in the home, opportunities to go to museums, enrichment activities and all of those kind of things. I mentioned pre-school already, but there also the effects of things like stress. It’s very stressful to be a low-income person in the United States. There is eviction, there are people who are homeless, and in a number of districts near me in California we actually have as many as one in 10 kids who are homeless right now. Homelessness has been increasing, and 40 percent of the homeless are families with children. You have the stresses of unemployment, of making ends meet, and stress actually impedes learning. There is a whole physiological response to stress that shuts down cognition.

There are also effects of living, as many poor people do, in toxic areas, where there are health challenges that also pose cognitive challenges -- everything from pollution and asthma to lead paint and so on. So there are many, many challenges for people living in poverty to getting the educational start that you would want. Now some of these things we could address if we took up policies like some other countries have, but right now we are not addressing these in any kind of systematic way in most states. . . .

Yes, but that's our economic situation and is bigger than just schools, right?  We can't address the impact of society's economic issues from within our schools, can we?

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success

The Scandinavian Country Is an Education Superpower Because It Values Equality More Than Excellence

 . . . From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: 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?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to do.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. . . . 

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal's responsibility to notice and deal with it.

And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. . . .

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance. . . .

 . . . addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation's education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country's school system than the nation's size or ethnic makeup. . . .

The problem facing education in America isn't the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

The common good.  What helps those around me helps me.  It's not just a pipe dream.


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