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An Education Heaven, Taking the Fun Out of School, and Trouble in Tokyo

April 01, 2004 3 min read
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Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, April 5-16.

There’s a scene in Field of Dreams in which the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, having just played catch on a freshly minted baseball field, asks, “Is this heaven?” No, he’s told, “it’s Iowa.” Put a teacher in Shoeless Joe’s figurative shoes, and the answer might be: “No, it’s Finland.” In September, an international survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Finnish schools the best of 32 countries. Based on tests given to 15-year-olds, Finland scored first in literacy and among the top five in math and science. (The United States fell in the middle.) So observers are flocking to Finland—where class sizes are comparable to ours and per-student spending is just $5,000—to see what’s up. A typical “comprehensive school” (grades 1-9) reveals kids who start at age 7, get 15 minutes of recess at the end of 45-minute lessons, and pad around in socks with musical instruments in tow (in case they want to practice). The theory: Kids learn best through play. They also revere teachers, whose profession is ranked Number 1 by—get this—teenagers! Why? Well, in a society where reading aloud, going to the library, and learning foreign languages are considered sacred, it’s no wonder the facilitators are judged superior beings.

If Finland is heaven, educationally speaking, what should we call the United States? Specific comparisons might be helpful. First, let’s look at the arts in U.S. schools. In districts nationwide, arts programs are being sliced and diced, thanks to budget constraints and anxiety about meeting NCLB requirements. One-fourth of the 1,000 principals recently interviewed by the Council for Basic Education reported a decline this past year in the time spent teaching art, and one-third expect future reductions. So some schools are turning to nonprofit groups to supplement arts education, with students either visiting studios or learning from freelance instructors. This piecemeal approach bodes ill, according to Elliot Eisner, a Stanford University professor. “Without any arts in the schools,” he projects, “we’re going to be raising a population of semiliterate kids that won’t be able to access the arts at higher levels.”

Another endangered species is recess. Public schools in the Washington, D.C., area, like many in the country, have cut back on playtime and field trips to concentrate on reading and math skills. “Shortening recess by five minutes daily provides 25 minutes of additional instruction time [weekly],” barks one school official. Some folks, however, have reservations. “Most parents I’ve talked to are happy with the new emphasis on the basics and improving test scores,” one elementary school parent says. “But I do know that school for my daughter is nowhere near as much fun as it was for me when I was growing up, and that makes me sad.”

And so it should. Already, the stress level among teenagers is so elevated, colleges are offering their students counseling in personal well-being. Here’s the conundrum: In order to get into first- and second-tier colleges (the ones that cost a small fortune to attend), teens need the sundry credentials (academic, athletic, and social) called for in admissions applications. But even those colleges are admitting things have gotten out of hand. In January, Barry Mills, president of Bowdoin College ($37,950 a year), sent a letter to parents expressing concern. And school officials have been encouraging students to forgo the treadmill for scenic walks, or to read novels for (perish the thought) pleasure. In that same letter, of course, Mills reminds parents that their kids “still have to succeed. This is not about relax and schmooze your way through.” And to whom, exactly, did he send these letters? Mostly baby boomers, who, when they were in college in the ‘60s and ‘70s, were encouraged to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

But if the Finland/heaven summit seems unattainable, U.S. teachers can be thankful they don’t work in Tokyo, where the board of ed demands that teachers stand and sing Japan’s “militarist” national anthem. A political war between liberals and conservatives is under way in Japan, and since 1999, “Kimigayo” (the anthem) and the hinomaru flag, both nationalist symbols, have been pushed by the ruling party, with teachers expected to lead the way. But only in Tokyo are they threatened with the ax. Almost 200 teachers have been disciplined for not complying, including five who were recently fired.

We may have found our education hell.

—-Rich Shea

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