Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Education, Innovation, Infrastructure – The Resurgence: Part IV

Knowing nothing else about its education system, how would you evaluate a country that, as described by the Wall Street Journal, embraces a policy whereby “High-school students rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night? They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells, and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don't start school until age 7.” To top it off, students do the least number of class hours per week compared to nations around the world, and the number of annual school days is about 30 percent fewer than that practiced in the U.S. You might conclude that the country involved, Finland, is conducting a strategy doomed to failure. If so, you might be surprised.

Interestingly, in a report prepared in advance of an educational conference that opened in New York in March of this year, the use of a totally divergent approach to the education process as conducted in the U.S. elicited the following statement: “Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation. Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.” That assertion was not made by a member of the Teachers’ Union, but by Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the international achievement test known by its acronym PISA, sponsored by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development).

Every three years this series of tests called the Program for International Student Assessments (PISA) is conducted amongst the OECD 34 member countries. Throughout the last ten years (through 2009) of testing Reading Literacy, Mathematical Literacy, and Scientific Literacy, Finland has scored first, second or third in each of those categories. (By contrast, on the [latest] 2009 test, the U.S. came in 15th in reading, 19th in Science, and a miserable 25th in Math, and each of these numbers are worse than those achieved in 2006.) As a result, Finland is acknowledged to have one of the best educational systems in the world.

The global consulting firm, McKinsey & Co. recognized Finland in its report titled “Closing the Talent Gap.” However, it is the second part of that title that is most significant. It stated: “Attracting and Retaining the Top-third Graduates to Careers in Teaching.” McKinsey concluded that of all the features in the Finland educational system that have contributed to its exceptional, almost unrivalled test scores, the uniquely elevated quality and training level of its teaching staff was the most important.

In an early April issue of, Schleicher obviously agreed with that report stating, “Finland’s sweeping success is largely due to one big, not-so-secret weapon: its teachers. It’s the quality of the teaching that is driving Finland’s results. The U.S. has an industrial model where teachers are the means for conveying a prefabricated product. In Finland, the teachers are the standard.”

The Time article continues, “That’s one reason so many Finns want to become teachers, which provides a rich talent pool that Finland filters very selectively.” Only 10% of the 5000 applicants each year are accepted to the faculties of education in Finnish universities. There’s another thing: in Finland every teacher is required to have a master’s degree to attain a permanent position. (The Finns call this a Master’s in kasvutus, which is the same word they use for a mother bringing up her child.)”

Think of this system–– college graduates vie for the possibility of becoming a teacher; a five year teaching program is required; potential teachers are chosen from the top-third of the college graduating class. (In the U.S., on average, teachers are from the bottom third of the class.); teacher candidates must ultimately attain a Masters degree. However, there is also a cultural factor involved. Teachers in Finland are venerated by the public and looked upon with the same reverence as doctors are here in our country.

On that latter point, a recent report by the McGraw Hill Research Foundation stated, “The teaching profession in the U.S. does not have the same high status as it once did, nor does it compare with the status teachers enjoy in the world’s best-performing economies.” That’s a sad and costly commentary. Costly? As they say, “Let’s do the numbers.” The McGraw Hill report says; “Bringing the U.S. up to the average performance of Finland, the best performing OECD education system in PISA [the world-wide testing mentioned above] could result in gains on the order of $103 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010.”

The OECD recently produced a very lengthy and elaborately detailed report as to how the U.S. might utilize some of the strengths of the Finland system (plus several other suggestions) in order to improve student performance. A discussion of this report in The New York Times stated that the top recommendation was, “Make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession.”

The report acknowledged that university teaching programs in the high-scoring countries admit only the best students, and “teaching education programs in the U.S. must become more selective and more rigorous.” It also points out that raising teachers’ status is not mainly about raising salaries, however, pay is a factor. According to OECD data, the average salary of a veteran elementary teacher in the U.S. was $44,172 in 2008, higher than the average of $39,426 across all OECD countries (the figures were converted to compare the purchasing power of each currency). But that salary level (in the U.S.) was 40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates. In Finland, by comparison, the veteran teacher’s salary was only13 percent less than that of the average college graduate’s. In the U.S., this results in top students gravitating to other professions such as medicine, engineering, law, technology, and the financial industry, all of them providing for a more prosperous lifestyle.

In an interview, Mr. Schleicher said the point was not that the United States spends too little on public education — only Luxembourg among the OECD countries spends more per elementary student — but rather that American schools spend disproportionately on other areas, like bus transportation and sports facilities. “You can spend a lot of money on education, but if you don’t spend it wisely, on improving the quality of instruction, you won’t get higher student outcomes,” Mr. Schleicher said.

The report poses the question, “Can the U.S. learn how to improve its education outcomes by looking to the example of high-performing PISA nations like China, Finland, Japan, The Netherlands, Canada and South Korea?” It answers as follows (using British spelling): “The fact that many countries have seen rapid progress in their education systems shows that the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ Few countries have been able to capitalise more on the opportunities the ‘flat’ world provides than the United States, a country which can draw on one of the most highly educated labour forces of the industrialized nations (when measured in terms of formal qualifications). However, this advantage is largely a result of the ‘first-mover advantage’ that the United States gained after World War II by massively increasing enrolments. This advantage is eroding quickly as more and more countries have reached and surpassed the US’s qualification levels among its younger age cohorts.” (This was pointed out in last month’s article).

According to the OECD report, “Similar trends are visible in college education. Here the United States slipped from rank 2 to rank 13 between 1995 and 2008, not because its college graduation rates declined, but because they rose so much faster in many other OECD countries. These developments will be amplified over the coming decades as countries such as China and India raise their educational output at an ever-increasing pace.”

The OECD baseline qualification for reasonable earnings and employment prospects [as outlined in the above report] is a high school diploma. Among OECD countries, the average proportion of young adults with at least a high school diploma has now risen to 80% to 95%. In contrast, changes in the graduation rates have been modest in the United States (at 70%), and, as a result, only 8 of the 34 OECD countries now have a lower high school graduation rate than the United States.

The future of our nation depends on its ability to boost student performance in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Our students and adults are already facing fierce competition for jobs from people overseas, and to succeed in the global economy, our students will need a much stronger foundation in STEM. Since almost 90% of the fastest growing jobs and high-paying jobs in the economy are STEM-related, requiring some post-secondary education, having a high school diploma and the skills to succeed in college and in the workplace is essential.

Can we increase the stature of our teachers, improve teacher salaries to levels that compete with other professions, attract teacher candidates from the top third of college graduates, improve international test scores, and prepare students so they compete favorably for the jobs of the future? The long-term consequences of failing to achieve these and other education goals could be devastating to the standing of the U.S. in a more competitive global market, and equally calamitous to our economy. Unfortunately this entire issue is exacerbated by the extreme and drastic cuts in education budgets at every level of government throughout the country. Right now the answer to the above question is probably, NO!