"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, September 06, 2012

A Child-Centered Nation (Hint: Not the U.S.)

Those of us who are decades into our careers as educators and educational scholars/historians are likely more than exhausted by and deeply skeptical of (if not cynical about) international comparisons.

More often than not, international comparisons connected to U.S. public education are oversimplified at best and unforgivably misleading at worst, but our exhaustion, skepticism, and cynicism must be tempered when international comparisons offer authentic and complex evidence of how entire nations are committed to child well-being through their social and educational commitments—especially as those commitments contrast with the discourse and policies coming from either major political party in the U.S.

If you care about democracy and equity, and if you care about the role of universal public education and all public institutions in our national pursuit of democracy and equity, Pasi Sahlberg offers a clear and distinct picture of how Finland is a nation committed to child well-being, a picture that offers a sharp and powerful contrast to how America views children, poverty, privilege, the market, and democracy as it supports equity.

Two paragraphs from Sahlberg deserve close attention and wide consideration:
"When trying to understand Finnish schools’ success it is good to keep in mind that Finland scores high in many other international comparisons besides education. Finland is one of the most competitive market economies in the world according to the World Economic Forum, which also rates Finland’s innovation system as a global leader. Corruption is likewise rare in Finland, reports Transparency International. Finally, people often forget that Finland is among the most equal countries in how wealth is distributed and in how women and men are empowered. ... 
"Similar social and early education policies exist also in other countries. What distinguishes Finland from the United States and many other nations in child well-being policies is accessibility and affordability. In Finland, all children and families have the same right to childcare, health and educational services regardless of socioeconomic status. Another difference is that the primary purpose of early childhood education in Finland is not to enhance children’s readiness for school. It is to support families in raising healthy and happy children. School readiness in Finland means that the school is ready to take children as they are and to be ready to serve different children as they are."
I believe it is fair to say that one of the foundational tenets of breaking an addiction (alcohol, drugs) is to admit first that the addiction exists.

In the U.S., we are addicted to claiming our ideals exist, instead of confronting how we are still failing to achieve those ideals and then committing to seeking those ideals.

For a growing number of Americans, including disproportionately our children, poverty is destiny—both in our society and our schools.

So step one is that Americans must begin to make that initial confession that is painful and disappointing: Poverty is destiny in the U.S. because our society is inequitable and then our schools tend to reflect and perpetuate that inequity.

Steps two and three are making a powerful rhetorical stand that poverty should not be destiny, and then calling for real social and educational reform that seeks the broad and powerful commitments made in Finland, for example. As Sahlberg argues:
"If there is a lesson from Finland to others it is: Better gender equality helps in building consensus and thereby adopting education and social policies that invest more heavily on wellbeing and holistic development of children at home and in school."

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