Problems in Education Run Deep

Maybe there’s something wrong with how we see the world, and ourselves.

In a recent Huffington Post article by Karin Chenoweth, three examples are paraded that illustrate the differences between the current US educational environment, and those of Finland, Poland and South Korea, as seen through the eyes of foreign exchange students from the US. In Finland the student noticed how the seriousness and rigor of the students matched that of the teacher: high. In Poland grades were read publicly, with low grades not seen as shameful but a normal part of learning. In South Korea the intensity and pressure to perform far outstripped anything showcased in “Race To Nowhere.

Can we argue that such comparisons are folly? Of course. The population of Finland is less than the state of New York, the population of Poland around that of California. The largest nation in the comparison – South Korea – has a population less than the Northeast US (from Washington DC to Boston). There’s a far greater cultural homogeneity in Finland and South Korea than most poorly performing schools in the US. A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute also questions the importance that has been put on the international benchmark – the PISA test – that’s principally referenced when policy makers complain that we are falling behind the rest of the world.

One thing is for certain, however; most teachers in the United States do not command the same kind of respect that their peers do in other countries. That is truly a cultural problem, and one that falls into a chicken or the egg kind of paradox. When was that respect lost? How do they regain that respect?

When anyone with a seven-figure bankroll can command a voice on the education reform stage, when our culture celebrates celebrity for the sake of celebrity, and lauds the plucky entrepreneur who became a financial success without any formal education, how do we expect underpaid educators to regain any respect within our society?

Are there pockets within the US where teachers of all levels are respected? Of course. I’m totally broad-stroking in this post, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Ask any educator you know about that moment at a cocktail party, regarding how people react when they find out your friend is a teacher. The pregnant pause. The simple “oh,” with a tailing-off air of unimportance. The “must be nice to have the summers off.”

The problems with our educational system go far deeper than simple changes in teaching practices. We need to shift our entire culture to one that truly respects, encourages, and celebrates education, where parents, educators, and students work together towards the same goal: learning.