What a good time to be going into education! No joke!

Last time I wrote about economic pressures on working families, and how since the mid-1970s the incomes of the lowest 20 percent of families have not kept up, and have even regressed. If wages for basic service and production jobs are not keeping up, then skill levels must increase, so more people can have a hope of making their way.

Education thus becomes even more important for everyone’s future prosperity. But wait — now we have no money.

We urgently need to improve education, yet there’s little new money to apply to the problem. So what do we do? This is the creative challenge of our time.

What are we doing with the money we already have? Let’s put the kids at the center, and ask what they actually need to thrive and grow at school, and then in life — work, family, citizenship. Why send them to school in the first place? And why are we assuming that schools can produce great results all alone?

The best things that school can do for kids: expand their horizons and their sense of possibilities, teach them skills so they can experience the joy of mastery, inspire them to love learning, and encourage their dreams. Teachers can be inspiring mentors that the children love and look up to, and the schools themselves can be communities that teach how to participate in a democratic society, affect the world and move up in learning, career, leadership and service.


In my view, we have been wandering in a long nightmare, trying to force education into a pattern of tests and punishments — for schools, for teachers, for administrators and for students. We’ve been detoured from the best things that schools can be and do.

The outcomes are not promising. Scores don’t improve overall, not even in Maine. And the results that are supposed to follow from better schooling — better preparation for employment, skills matched to the needs of business and industry — aren’t happening enough, either.

This is not to say that all testing is bad. Test scores are important as a partial measure of how we’re doing. Just recently the Maine Economic Growth Council, on which I sit, released its annual “Measures of Growth in Focus” report, which highlighted that fourth-grade reading scores in Maine are not improving. But is the solution to concentrate harder on the testing?

This reminds me of our annual physical check-ups. Let’s say that one of our numbers — weight, blood pressure, blood sugar — is out of kilter. Do they threaten, “We’re going to test you every week until you get better numbers?”

No. Instead, your health professional will advise you to make some lifestyle changes to get that problem number into a better range. You may get medicine if it’s an emergency, but basically they say, eat more of this and less of that, get some exercise, do these other things, and then we’ll look for improvement in the results.

So what’s the prescription for schools? It’s actually not a mystery. We know some basic principles — in fact, we invented them. Diane Ravitch, a nationally known writer on educational policy, gives a short list: equality of educational opportunity, individualized instruction, portfolio assessment and cooperative learning — all inspired by John Dewey, pre-eminent American educator on citizenship and democracy.


In “Schools We Can Envy,” (New York Review of Books, March 8, 2012), Ravitch tells us the story of Finland, which has built its school system around Dewey’s ideas.

Finland now has one of the best-performing school systems in the world, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment test results. Here’s a shocker, though — for the first nine years of school, Finnish students don’t take any standardized tests. They take tests, but they are local and they are meant to provide information to the teachers for improving learning.

So, what’s my recipe for improving educational outcomes?

* When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Punitive educational testing is counterproductive.

* Stop blaming the teachers. They are the professionals. We need to use their commitment, knowledge and dedication.

* Let’s think together about how to achieve better results with the resources we have. I am not recommending that we keep everything the same. That doesn’t work either. It’s time for a change.

What could we do differently? More next time.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at [email protected]

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