After the less than flattering rhetoric and misinformation from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy regarding teachers during the education reform debate, it was refreshing to read that state Education Commissioner Stephen Pryor has suddenly decided that we should start trying to attract great teachers.
During a keynote address to the annual meeting of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Pryor apparently blamed a perception gap for the lack of great teachers. Pryor cited statistics from Finland, where he said 100 percent of school teachers came from the top third of their graduating class, according to the New Haven Independent. In the U.S., only 23 percent of our teachers came from the top third. In low-income U.S. communities, the percentage is only 14 percent.
But like most proponents of the corporate education reform model, Pryor is cherry-picking data to support his argument and leaving out the most pertinent facts because they don’t fit his narrative.
As Finnish education professor and former government official Pasi Sahlberg pointed out in the Washington Post, there are three key areas in which Finland differs from the U.S., and those differences contribute to the success of its schools:
“Funding of schools: Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.”
In July 1996, Connecticut lost a major lawsuit, Sheff v. O’Neill, regarding racial equality in education. In finding for the plaintiffs, Justice Ellen Ash Peters wrote: “Much like the substantially unequal access to fiscal resources that we found constitutionally unacceptable in Horton I, the disparity in access to an unsegregated educational environment in this case arises out of state action and inaction that, prima facie, violates the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, although that segregation has occurred de facto rather than de jure . . . students in Hartford suffer daily from the devastating effects that racial and ethnic isolation, as well as poverty, have had on their education.”
As Wendy Lecker and Jonathan Pelto pointed out in an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post and the Hartford Courant, Connecticut is still a long way from the achieving anything near the parity of fiscal resources called for by the Sheff decision. A recent report by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities found the current version of the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant is now underfunded by over $763 million — some 16 years after the Sheff decision and 23 years after the suit was first filed.
Plaintiffs have tried to correct this issue with case after case — the latest, CCJEF v. Rell, is scheduled to go to trial in 2014 in the absence of a settlement. Meanwhile, what is the Malloy administration suggesting we cut to reduce the state budget deficit? From the Education Department, $8.4 million. Much of it from the programs that benefit kids in districts that suffer most in the first place.
“Well-being of children: All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.”
The education reform bill passed in the last legislative session added 1,000 new preschool seats and 20 more school-based health clinics. But that’s a far cry from Finland’s comprehensive universal healthcare, preschool, and access to childcare for parents.
Education as a human right: All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.
This won’t happen in our country any time soon. What’s more, even public schools with entry based solely on merit, have become less accessible because of the test-prep industry. Those who can afford test prep do better, because they are taught the strategies for that test.
Just ask Kristen Record, Connecticut’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, who explained to participants at the CT Mirror Education Forum in Hartford how budget cuts that eliminated the SAT-prep course — which previously was offered to all Stratford youth— affected her students. “In the classroom, teachers want to see attempts to answer every question,” she said. On the SAT, attempting to answer every question can be counterproductive. “It can be the difference between being accepted to (college) or not being accepted,” Record said.
Many of Record’s students — and those in other lower income communities across the state — cannot afford the private test prep that their suburban counterparts receive.
“Students take their first SAT in October of their senior year, cold, with no preparation, no guidance, no previous SAT-test taking experience. It’s no wonder that many of them score below the state average,” Record explained.
Great teachers do make a difference — but that’s not the whole story of why Finnish schools outperform and Pryor shouldn’t pretend it is.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.