Education Reform Doomed

Published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 31, 2015

Bill Gates and his lieutenant, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, insist that America's schools must be run like a business. If educators faced both the accountability (standards, high-stakes testing, merit pay) and competition (vouchers/choice, charter schools) of an open, capitalistic market, then teachers would finally have to get off their duffs and get to work.

Trouble is, after nearly two decades of this, American education is no better. That's because, Gates and Duncan maintain (completely unfazed by overwhelming evidence to the contrary), we haven't implemented market-based reforms enough. So now, let's switch to the new Common Core Standards, and use them to evaluate not just schools, but individual teachers.

Sorry. Even the Common Core are doomed because they cannot cure what truly ails American education today.

A correct diagnosis, however, would involve acknowledging the Voldemorts: vexing, embarrassing issues that, frankly, we'd much prefer not to name:
  • America recruits most of its educators from the bottom percentiles of college graduates. (And now, thanks to "reform," my state, California, has seen a 66 percent decline in enrollment at teacher-education programs.)
  • Fifty percent of our students writhe in poverty, the highest rate in the industrialized world, and the single most powerful impediment to academic success.

  • Our communities and, therefore, our schools are now more segregated by race and class than ever before in our nation's history. (Vouchers and charters, by the way, only exacerbate this.)

  • Heaping insult upon injury, we usually send our least qualified teachers to staff those decrepit, segregated schools -- perhaps the most heinous moral outrage of our time. 

  • Our families and our culture are in crisis. In fact, the United Nations ranks the United States 34th out of 35 industrialized nations in terms of childhood well-being.

  • Finally, our entire system of education is based upon a century-old assembly-line industrial model. We sort children according to their ages, insist they all learn identical things at precisely the same time ....
Why don't Gates and Duncan focus on any of the above dire, longstanding educational crises? Perhaps they are blinded by their ideology. Competition and other market-based strategies enabled Gates to amass his fortune. Therefore, they can't help but raise the "fortunes" of public education as well, right?

Besides, market-based educational reforms are so apparently simple, so relatively cheap. Everyone can conveniently ignore the real and shameful problems hobbling America and its public schools today. After all, to address them, we'd need to transform not just our schools, but our communities, 
even our very culture.

Finland did. 

In the 1960s, Finnish schools were by all measures mediocre. They are now universally recognized as some of the finest in the world. In 2009, they were ranked number one.

How did Finland do it? The Finnish Parliament replaced its failed market-based reforms with a new, bold plan: Finland would put a great teacher in every classroom in the nation.

Finnish teacher-education programs are now more competitive than many medical and law schools. All prospective teachers must earn master's degrees, but the government pays their tuition. When they graduate, teachers earn salaries commensurate with other similarly educated professionals.

In Finland, there are few, infrequent national tests that have nothing to do with teacher or school evaluations. Classes are small, with usually no more than 20 students.

Critics of citing Finland as a model usually cling to two differences between it and the United States: Finland is so much smaller, with a relatively homogeneous population. They're careful to eschew any of the many other, more profound contrasts, however, such as its narrow distribution of wealth. Or the fact that the Finnish rate of childhood poverty is only about one-quarter that of the United States. Or that all Finnish children receive free health care, free preschool, and free tuition to all colleges and universities. Their parents enjoy extended, paid maternity leave, free high-quality child care, and even a governmental stipend per child. Seventy-seven percent of Finns bought a book last year. Seventy-five percent of parents read out loud daily to their children.

By the time those children enter their first, bright classroom, they are so much more healthy and better-prepared than most American kids. And then they all meet great teachers there, too.

If we in the United States are to nurture our children as well as the Finns do theirs, we must likewise accept that real reform must be holistic and far-reaching. Education is but the canary in the coal mine of our nation. If the wretched bird is dying, it warns us that there's a heck of a lot more at risk than just our public schools.

In truth, we cannot reform only American education. We must reform America.
Otherwise, our schools are doomed. And so are we.

University Heights native David Ellison currently instructs high school history and Spanish in Union City, California, and is author of "Bloodletting: Why Education Reform is Killing America's Schools." (

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