"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Learning From International Experience When It Comes To Education

A certain percentage of the population learns through experience. That percentage drops as we get older. As young children we do not have enough experience to make our own decisions or even to trust the warnings of adults. At best, we don't touch the stove because it will make mommy mad. At worst we just have to touch the stove to see what "hot" feels like for ourselves. But with age and experience we learn to both pull together facts and to use observations of others' experience to reach our own conclusions. We learn we are less likely to suffer if we approach new challenges this way.  So what can we learn through experience and observation about education to save ourselves some pain?

In Korea they have a vibrant private school market known as hagwons or, less formally, cram schools. Despite vocal government support for their public schools, many parents (and most notably those who are teachers and government officials) send their children to these after school schools so that they can have a competitive advantage over other students.

A writer for The Korea Times put it this way, "This sort of parents' love for their children has been passed down from time immemorial. Forcing humans born with genes responsible for competition not to compete never works by any means in all ages and countries." 

Where has this private attitude put Korea in terms of the market?  The Korean firm Samsung Electronics is on a fast track, while the Finnish company Nokia, based in a country whose public education is ranked number one in the world, is in decline. There is almost no private education in Finland and all teachers are free to choose their own curriculum.  Public education in Korea has lots of problems, but overall the country is benefitting from a pairing of is public and private education.
Turning back to America and what we can learn from observing these two countries' experience with education, consider the
Obama administration's position on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) which provides vouchers to allow D.C. students to attend more successful private schools. His latest budget did not include money to start any new students in this program which has been widely acknowledged as successful in improving graduation rates and somewhat improving student performance. The money currently leftover money in the program is enough to fund its existing participants through the end of high school. The result of this decision by the administration will be to force students back into the public school system. The rationale? They want better schools for all students, not just the voucher-earning elite.

The Administration chants the old mantra that the best way to improve public education is by increasing funding for public schools and this won't happen if everyone wants to run to private schools. This is the equivalent of the toddler who keeps putting his hand back on the stove to see if "hot" feels any less painful.

Valerie Jarrett, one of the President's closest advisers, called him the smartest man she knows. If he is, then he will look at what has been successful in other places and promote those things here. But we see that, unlike Finland which does not have a national set of education standards, this administration supports the development of national standards.  National testing, school ranking lists and inspection systems do not exist in Finland. They are being added daily in the U.S.  Korea has a robust private sector which fills in what the public sector cannot cover, while we try to make the public school be everything to the child and family via the community school push.  It looks like we are in for a world of hurt and I'm not sure that's the smartest thing to do.

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