Category Archives: stupid school tricks

In which public school administrators, supporters, and graduates unwittingly fuel our determination to homeschool a revolution.

The Surprising Success of Finland’s Schools

Finland SchoolsFinland has had recent surprising successes in measures such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s PISA survey, which compares the fifteen-year-old students of various countries in reading, math, and science. For the past decade, Finland has ranked at or near the top, along with heavy hitters South Korea and Singapore, while the U.S. has muddled along in the middle ranks. Consequently, educators from around the globe are trying to mine the Finnish model for ideas to improve education in their own countries.

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, has authored a new book called Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? and is speaking to educators in the US about what is being done in Finland.

Anu Partanen reported on Sahlberg’s reception and the lessons US educators are NOT learning about Finnish education in the recent article “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.” Sahlberg and Partanen both seem to believe that American educators are missing Sahlberg’s main points.

And yet it wasn’t clear that Sahlberg’s message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about….

From [Sahlberg’s] point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

Partanen then lists several things named by Sahlberg that Finland does in a vastly different manner than American public schools:
~ Finnish schools assign less homework.
~ Finnish schools engage children in more creative play.
~ Finland has no standardized tests.
~ Finland’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves.
~ Report cards … are based on individualized grading by each teacher.
~ In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.
~ If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.
~ The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
~ Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
~ There are no private schools in Finland.

Partanen accuses US educators of not wanting to listen to all of Sahlberg’s message, but Partanen is just as guilty as those he accuses. He actually quotes Sahlberg’s concern (above) that Americans are obsessed with evaluation and tracking and accountability but then ignores that point just as thoroughly as the US educators do in favor of his own apparent agenda. Which part do you think Partanen focuses on?

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it. Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

No private schools. That’s the message Partanen gets, the whole message, and what he thinks we should import to the US. While I am not downplaying the importance of that part of the Finnish formula, and I do think less competition in educational fields is an excellent idea, I find it at best amusing that Partanen ignores so much of the rest of Sahlberg’s message to educators: Less homework. More autonomy of teachers to teach, examine, and rate children individually. More autonomy of principals to be in charge of the teachers rather that being bogged down in red tape regulations. No standardized testing.

These are the points that are at the heart of Finland’s surprising success, and apparently the points that Sahlberg himself is concerned are being missed. Standardized testing and tying teacher evaluation to student results means less individualized attention to each student, putting them all through a sardine press that fits none. Allowing teachers to have their own classrooms where they can connect with the children as individuals and without the pressure of standardized testing looming spectrally over all is what frees them to be good teachers, frees the children to get a real education.

How do I know this is true? Because private schools that follow this model in the US get the same results. Check out John Stossel’s excellent report, “Stupid in America,” to see how privately run schools, with no oversight but the intimate group of principal, teachers, and parents, get incredible results on a very minimal budget:

Muddling along as the US public schools do, with competition between schools, within schools, and between students on standardized tests, produces the mediocre results we have been seeing in US public education in recent decades. One way to get to the top of the heap to emulate countries South Korea and Singapore, which essentially eliminate childhood in favor of intensive study habits that according to some lead to increased suicide rates among teens.

The other way to get to the top of the heap, apparently, is to chuck nationalized educational standards altogether, and return control of the classrom to where it belongs: the principal, the teachers, and the individual students themselves.

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful (Smithsonian Magazine)
Why Finland’s Schools Are the Best in the West (CBC News)

Take the Test!

Rick Roach took the test and started something. Roach, a four-time official on the Board of Education in Orange County, Florida, one of the largest school systems in America with 180,000 students, took the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test), Florida’s high-stakes standardized test for 10th grade math and reading. And he made the results public. I simply must quote Mr. Roach’s comments from the original article:

The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%. In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.

It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.

If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail ‘cut score’? How?

I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.

There you have it. An elected school board official from one of the largest school systems in the U.S., stating that standardized tests lack relevance to the adult, working world, and are perpetuated by specialists who lack perspective and are not accountable. There is actually a growing movement within and without the school system to opt out of high-stakes testing as irrelevant to any real-world application. In Fighting the Tests Alfie Kohn points out: “Don’t let anyone tell you that standardized tests are not accurate measures. The truth of the matter is they offer a remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered. Every empirical investigation of this question has found that socioeconomic status in all its particulars accounts for an overwhelming proportion of the variance in test scores when different schools, towns, or states are compared.”

What Mr. Roach started by taking the test and publishing his results is actually a grassroots Twitterstorm tagged #takethetest: people are now challenging their own politicians to take their local standardized tests and publicize the result. Joe Bower actually managed to get Alberta’s Minister of Education Thomas Lukaszuk to respond to his challenge on Twitter (see a screenshot of the conversation); whether he’ll take the test or not remains to be seen.

Will you challenge your local politician to take the test? I wonder if any will respond?

Alfie Kohn The Case Against Standardized Testing
The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools
by Alfie Kohn

“He’s Bullied, But He’s Still Got to Go to School!” … Doesn’t He?

Jonah Mowry posted this video of himself about his fear and despair at the thought of starting 8th grade, because of the severe bullying he has experienced since 1st grade … and he started cutting himself in 2nd grade. At some point – at several points – during the ensuing seven years, he has contemplated suicide.

Jonah was fortunate to get a positive response to his video, and the kids at his school responded by befriending rather than more bullying. I am exceedingly happy for him that he’s got some friends now, that he garnered good feedback and his bullies realized what they were doing.


But I find myself in a real morass of anger and confusion because of this video, because this can happen to a child in our society. Here is a child who began cutting himself when he was just seven or eight years old. Cutting! This is incredible to me, and I can’t help wondering: when he came home crying, and beat up from bullies, and bloody from his own hand …

Why did his parents send him back to school?

I do not mean to imply that Jonah’s parents didn’t care or weren’t aware of what was happening to their son. I will work from the assumption that they knew and that they were trying their hardest to find the best help available for him both at the school and outside the school. But knowing that this is not a one-time scenario, that this is happening every day to children all over this country, I have to wonder how it is that so many of us have bought into the idea that keeping these bullied children in school is the most important factor to consider in this equation?

How has the institutional school system so brainwashed us all that we have reached a point where it is more important for a child to learn to add and subtract than it is to protect him from this sort of animalistic behavior? How can we – we parents, we teachers, we school bureaucrats – think that it is okay for him to despise himself, his life, and his peers, as long as he can diagram a sentence properly?

I’m filing this in the “Stupid School Tricks” category because this does not happen anywhere except in school (and if the school does nothing to promote it, it certainly does very little of real impact to stop it). If this were happening to your child anywhere else – anywhere else: church, the YMCA, the park – you would stop it. You would talk to the Sunday School teacher or church board or just change churches. You would go to the Y at a different time, or find another place to work out. You would stay inside, or go to the park only when the bullies were in school. You would find options.

You would protect your child.

And yet, when a child is bullied to the point of self-mutilation and thoughts of suicide, rarely is the first thought of pulling him out of school. Nor the second, third, or fifty-second thought. It’s just not on the table. Parents, I know you are trying to help and protect your child, but you are thinking inside of a square whose lines have been drawn for you by people with a vested interest in keeping your child in school.

I admit I do wish that more parents would simply realize that removing school from the equation is a viable option, but I realize that they will not. They can’t think outside of that square because they don’t even realize the square is there, hemming them in. So what outrages me is not so much the parents as it is the system that drew us into the square and has us all brainwashed into thinking that no matter how bad it is inside the square for your kid, leaving the square – leaving school – is worse.

Just think: a whole bureaucratic system with a vested interest in keeping your child in school, no matter how bad it is for him there. How bad must it be when a bullied population has as its slogan “It Gets Better”? That is an awful sentiment! “Stick it out, kid, because someday you won’t be bullied any more.” How about not being bullied now, in the formative and most tender years? How about protecting our kids?

So, if you are the parent of a bullied child, please let me reassure you: pulling your kid out of school is not the worst thing in the world. Watching him go through seven (or more) years of hell on earth; watching the professionals paid to educate and guide him through his childhood sit back and say, “Hey, don’t worry, it gets better after you’re gone from here”; watching him lose his sense of himself as a person of worth; perhaps walking in one morning to find he has taken the next step and eliminated himself from the equation …

Please don’t watch your kid be bullied and think there’s nothing you can do because the system tells you “he’s got to go to school.”

NO, he doesn’t. Pulling him out of school and teaching him nothing would be a step in the right direction, would help him turn out to be a better person than letting him live through this sort of agony day in and day out and realizing that, to his parents and teachers, his mental state is of less importance than the fact that he must be educated so he can “make something of himself” at some hazy future date. How about helping him make something of himself right now, instead? How about helping him make himself into a whole person?

There are options. There are always options. One counselor might say, “Stick it out, it gets better.” Another counselor might say, “This other school is better, try it out.” But if your child is at this point, I have to say I think finding another counselor or switching schools is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Parents of bullied children: I know you want to help. I know are trying to help. But moving his chair to the sunny side of the deck doesn’t change the fact that his ship is going down. Be brave for your child. Be brave with your child. Try something different. Bring him home. Bring him to the safest place on earth for him, and let him heal.

Severe bullying is an excellent reason to try homeschooling. Think of it this way: even the schools are saying, “it gets better once they’re out of school.” Listen to them and take those words to heart. Get your child out of school now. Homeschooling is not the only option, but it is a good option to take into consideration.

I know single parents who make homeschooling work. I know two-working-parent families who make homeschooling work, or who find a way for one parent to quit and be home with the kids. I know homeschooling families who use grandparents or neighbors or friends from church who can be with the child during the day if he’s too young to stay alone. I know homeschool parents who need a little extra income and will sit for and teach the child of working parents, taking him to homeschool group meetings where he can make friends who won’t bully him.

No, homeschooled kids aren’t perfect, and of course there is some teasing, but that level of bullying just doesn’t happen in homeschool circles. It can’t. No homeschool parent would stand for it. The homeschooling parent already pulled her kid out of school; she isn’t going to hesitate to pull him out of a bad situation with a homeschool group.

And you shouldn’t hesitate to step outside the lines drawn and enforced by the institutional system, and pull your child out of a bad situation at school. It won’t be the worst thing in the world. Instead, it might be the best thing you ever do.

P.S. to the parents of the bullies: I’m talking to you too. Do you want to stop your child’s bullying behavior? Take him out of the situation that gives him that power, or that environment that makes him feel he needs to assert power over other children. Let him start living a real life without fear, which is often what prompts that types of behavior. Let him be safe too.

Jonah Mowry: A Typical Teenager
Does Homeschooling Prepare Students for the Real World?
Rebecca Black (YouTube Viral Video “Friday” Singer) Bullied into Homeschooling
Bullying: A Reason to Homeschool – series of posts looking at short-term homeschooling

Making the Choice: When Typical School Doesn’t Fit Your Atypical Child
by Corin Barsily Goodwin and Mika Gustavson: A look at the perceived barriers to homeschooling for children who don’t “fit” traditional schools, and how to find educational options that fully address your child’s academic and emotional needs.

Can You Teach?

Me vs. II’d like to answer this question from a public school teacher ranting on homeschooling: “So, first of all, homeschooling parent, you think you can teach English as well as me?”

Actually, Mr. Scaccia, I find myself wondering if you can teach English as well as I.

However, in the spirit of fraternity and community among teachers, I will hint that you might like to brush up on the proper use of me vs. I just a bit before your next stint in the classroom. And, just a suggestion: you might want to stop bragging about your English major unless you find a good proofreader. But hey, I guess it’s a step in the right direction that at least you didn’t say “as good as.”

Idiots, Then School Boards

“In the first place God made idiots. That was for practice. Then He made school boards.” So says the wisdom of Mark Twain, and just this week, two separate incidents prove he’s not far off base.

SHELTON, CONNECTICUT: High school senior and advanced placement student James Tate taped a message on the side of the school building, asking a girl to go to prom with him, and earned an in-school suspension which triggered an automatic ban on attending the prom. Tate had not been in trouble before but his record and the minor nature of his infraction were apparently not considered before handing down a rubber-stamp disapproval. Really, it’s tape, people. Have a little perspective.

A groundswell of support for the teen and his date – who said yes, by the way – included calls, letters, and emails to the school office and local newspapers and a more unusual “Let James Tate Go to the Prom” Facebook page with over 193,000 fans as of this writing, all demanding that Tate be allowed to take his date to the prom. After holding firm to her decision for a week, the principal finally relented today and will allow Tate to attend the prom.

DAYTON VIEW ACADEMY, OHIO: But the same day the Connecticut principal reversed her decision, a straight-A eighth-grade student was suspended from her prom for … get this … reporting two students having sex on a school bus. The bus was full of students and in motion, and there were eight – count them EIGHT – chaperons on the bus at the time, but they were busy at the front of the bus watching a movie. The students involved in the sexual behavior are being punished, but so is the girl who reported them. She is being held liable for waiting until she got home and telling her mother, who then reported it to the proper authorities. I’d like to repeat something here: There were eight chaperons on the bus. Why weren’t they doing their job? I am not going to fault a twelve- or thirteen-year-old kid for being afraid to go forward in front of all her friends and the people perpetrating the misdeed and report them! At least she did report it. I will fault the chaperons for not chaperoning, and the school board for punishing a child for stepping up to do the right thing!

The proliferation of this type of zero-tolerance judgment is just incredible. We’re punishing students for doing the right thing but not on the school’s schedule or punishing good kids for pulling totally harmless pranks. I hope someone will be starting a Facebook fan page for the Dayton View Academy eighth grader soon.

A Heapin’ Helpin’ of Crazy

Five Texas schools will participate in an experimental study to record on video everything that children eat in the cafeteria. Each student is assigned a food tray with a bar code, a picture is snapped of the tray after the food is purchased and then again when the tray is returned to the kitchen, and from that calories and nutrients consumed are calculated. Parental consent is required and parents receive a report of what their child has consumed.

I’m reminded of the best way to boil a live frog: rather than throwing it into boiling water where it would just jump right out, set the frog in tepid water and gradually warm it up. The frog will not notice when the danger point is reached, and will peacefully succumb to the heat. I really don’t know why anyone would want to boil a live frog, but I can think of a lot of reasons, none of them portending any good to the citizens of the United States, why the government would like to accustom our children to increasing invasion of privacy and loss of individual dignity.

Adolf Hitler wrote to the parents of his country, as the Nazi Youth corps were formed, “Your child belongs to us already … what are YOU? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing but this new community.”

And that’s why I am homeschooling the revolution at my house.

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