Schools We Can Envy

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Tuomas Uusheimo
The Kirkkojärvi School in Espoo, Finland, which accommodates about 770 students aged seven to sixteen and also includes a preschool for six-year-olds; from the Museum of Finnish Architecture’s exhibition ‘The Best School in the World: Seven Finnish Examples from the 21st Century,’ which will be on view at the American Institute of Architects’ Center for Architecture in New York City this fall

In recent years, elected officials and policymakers such as former president George W. Bush, former schools chancellor Joel Klein in New York City, former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have agreed that there should be “no excuses” for schools with low test scores. The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.

Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation. The reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, but because of bad teachers. These bad teachers must be found out and thrown out. Any laws, regulations, or contracts that protect these pedagogical malefactors must be eliminated so that they can be quickly removed without regard to experience, seniority, or due process.

The belief that schools alone can overcome the effects of poverty may be traced back many decades but its most recent manifestation was a short book published in 2000 by the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., titled No Excuses. In this book, Samuel Casey Carter identified twenty-one high-poverty schools with high test scores. Over the past decade, influential figures in public life have decreed that school reform is the key to fixing poverty. Bill Gates told the National Urban League, “Let’s end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education. I say it’s more the other way around: improving education is the best way to solve poverty.” Gates never explains why a rich and powerful society like our own cannot address both poverty and school improvement at the same time.

For a while, the Gates Foundation thought that small high schools were the answer, but Gates now believes that teacher evaluation is the primary ingredient of school reform. The Gates Foundation has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to school districts to develop new teacher evaluation systems. In 2009, the nation’s chief reformer, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, launched a $4.35 billion competitive program called Race to the Top, which required states to evaluate teachers by student test scores and to remove the limits on privately managed charter schools.

The main mechanism of school reform today is to identify teachers who…


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