My reading of the press surrounding Guggenheim’s film Waiting for Superman has been accompanied by intermittent outbursts of giggling mixed with gagging. While his film presents a very real snapshot of the inequities in our public education system, particularly concerning some of our struggling urban schools, his depiction of charter schools, which represent only three percent of all public schools in the country, is nowhere near accurate. Like our exemplary public schools, there are exemplary charter schools, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Response to his film, however, has resulted in a nationwide dialogue on education, including a website called Not Waiting for Superman, focusing on Rethinking Reform.
It cannot be argued, however, that the current focus on standardized testing is the solution to the perceived problems in American education. What Guggenheim does draw our attention to is the reality of inequity in our schools. Students who live in our richest neighborhoods — or who have parents who have the means to send them to private schools — receive a much different education than those who do not. This is not only about the way we fund our schools, but also about the social supports our society has in place to ensure children and families have the security that enables equal educational opportunity.
We could learn quite a bit by following Finland’s example. In Finland, a country that now ranks number one in the world in K-12 education after completely overhauling its failing system 30 years ago, “more 99% of students now successfully complete compulsory basic education” (Darling-Hammond, “Steady Work: Finland Builds a Strong Teaching and Learning System”). In addition, instead of placing blame on teachers, the Finns embrace them and invest in them. According to Darling-Hammond, “all teachers receive three years of high-quality graduate level preparation completely at state expense.” The Finns equitably allocate the resources for those who need them most, have high standards for all while supporting those with special needs, ensure qualified teachers with a competitive university system where only the top 15% of students who apply are accepted into teacher education programs at universities, and maintain a delicate balance between national regulation and local autonomy. Moreover, the Finns hold the core educational principle that they must address the whole child and, as a result, all students receive a free meal at school each day, in addition to free health care, transportation, learning materials, and counseling (Darling-Hammond). At home, social supports for the entire family exist that include health and dental care, special education services, and transportation to school (Darling-Hammond).
And for all of the money spent on Finland’s schools, there is only one standardized examination given: for those who wish to attend university. Students receive feedback from teachers in the form of narrative comments instead of grades or numbers, so the whole child is addressed. The idea is to use the information to improve learning and the children’s ability to work in groups and solve problems — real world activities — not to punish students, their teachers, or schools, as is the case with No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top in the United States.
Perhaps the United States still suffers from the stigma of having always been number one. Now we can’t swallow our pride and admit that it’s not the case anymore. Politicians are trying to place blame on schools and teachers when, in fact, test scores are really better than they’ve ever been (really, they are). If we really want to compete with the world, however, perhaps we should look to who is number one and study what they do. Let’s look at Finland. Let’s study their system and mimic it. Let’s strive to be equitable. Let’s eliminate all social barriers so that all of our students are on equal footing. Let’s be sure that all of our teachers are the best and the brightest by paying them a top salary, paying for their college education (and making it competitive for them to even get into teacher education programs), and revamping the way we train and ease them into the classroom. Let’s send our professors and teachers to Finland for exchange to study their system. Let’s send our politicians there to see how they do it.
It took Finland only 30 years to completely turn around their system. We don’t need to wait for Superman. He is within us all.
Are we too proud and too stubborn to enact real change?