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Finnish Envy

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While I recognize that Freudian psychology has little credibility within the profession any more, I believe if we put the new reformers in education--Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Billionaire Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and their ilk--on the psychiatrist's couch we'd be likely to diagnose them all with Finnish Envy, and a considerable degree of delusion as well.

First, we should be clear that the current psychoses among the new reformers in education are nothing new. Consider the Golden Age of U. S. education (as praised by Michelle Rhee herself), the 1950s.

Well, according to Rudolf Flesch, author of Why Johnny Can't Read--And What You Can Do About It (1955):

"Only in the U.S., reported Flesch, is there any remedial-reading problem. In Britain, kindergarten children read Three Little Pigs; in Germany, second-grade pupils can read aloud (without necessarily understanding all the words) almost anything in print. By contrast, average U.S. third-graders have a reading mastery of only 1,800 words. Why is the U.S. so far behind? Says Flesch: 'We have decided to forget that we write with letters, and [instead] learn to read English as if it were Chinese.'"

And Admiral Hyman Rickover's Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs are Better (1962) and American Education, a National Failure; The problem of our schools and what we can learn from England (1963) offered even more bashing of U.S. schools, including making (not a surprise) international comparisons and calling for national standards:

"To some critics, the situation cries out for a 'national curriculum' to equalize schools. Loud among them is Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who calls local control 'the greatest obstacle to school reform.' Says Rickover in a tendentiously titled new book, Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs Are Better": 'I know of no country that has brought off successfully a really thorough reform of the school system without making use of some national standard that sets scholastic objectives.'"

Half a century later, the country is being bombarded once again with charges that U.S. schools are failing, but the messages have changed little except they come in documentaries and through the left-wing media perpetuating false information about international results on tests.

Earlier in the first decade of the twenty-first century, under the George W. Bush administration when Margaret Spellings held the position of Secretary of Education, we saw what was coming--Political misinformation to protect political agendas when Spellings exposed herself as either incompetent or dishonest by claiming that NAEP test scores proved NCLB a success. Pallas, Bracey, and Ravitch called her out for her distortions, but those facts found little traction in the press.

More recently, the stakes and the misinformation have morphed even further into the absurd because we have little distinction now among the many interests using our public schools as political, corporate, and ideological footballs--Secretary Duncan, Rhee, Gates, corporate charters (KIPP), Teach for America, and celebrities (Oprah, John Legend, Andre Agassi).

An interesting refrain they all seem to share is a fascination with Finland, specifically the much praised Finnish schools.

But when we hear U.S. schools criticized and Finland held up as the gold standard for reform, we rarely hear that U.S. children suffer under the weigh of poverty (22%) that is significantly higher than the childhood poverty rate in Finland (4%). The new reformers like to show selected rankings (test scores comparing apples to oranges) while hiding others (childhood poverty).

And those same new reformers who have identified bad teachers and protective teachers unions as the central problems with U.S. schools also fail to share that 95-98% of teachers in Finland belong to unions, have their graduate education paid by the government, and work collaboratively within a system that does not use high-stakes testing. The blog Schools Matter struck the nail on the head by characterizing the use of Finland by the new reformers as cartoonish, except this isn't funny at all.

While the contradictions and distortions currently being promoted by the new reformers and reinforced by every aspect of the media are proving to be a disservice to U.S. schools, its students, and the entire country, those of us who care about those schools and children should take a moment to call the reformers' bluff: Let's be like Finland, except we can't just focus on schools alone.

How about healthcare?

Somehow, I believe if we join hands with the new reformers' as they call for our schools being like Finland, we'll experience yet another psychological condition--likely Schizophrenia?

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An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in (more...)
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