Education reform in the United States – and particularly the improvement of the U.S. education system as it compares to those of other countries – has been a priority in our country for decades. On the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American students posted average results – falling behind ten competing cities and countries in all three areas of Math, Reading, and Science. Educators and politicians alike will agree that average results will not prepare our kids for 21st century jobs and will not support a competitive position for the United States in the current economy.
So what will? Reform efforts over the past few decades have tried some marginally new strategies with steady but slow results. The inception of Teach for America (TFA) paved the way for alternative certification programs as pathways to attract new teachers to classrooms in large numbers; and similar, but localized, programs have appeared in many major urban regions. TFA continues to expand to new areas, particularly rural ones, despite a drop in application numbers this year. And although some folks get fired up about the two-year commitment contributing to the problem of teacher turnover, TFA undeniably sends thousands of teachers into classrooms each year who would not have been there otherwise, making it difficult to deny the impact of such a major pipeline.
In addition to (or perhaps in conjunction with) the efforts of Teach for America and other similar programs to increase the number of teachers entering the profession, the arrival of charter schools into the educational landscape has opened the doors for experimentation at the individual school level. Thought to be originally conceived by Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, charter schools were intended to serve as educational laboratories where expert teachers could experiment with proven techniques that could then be translated to large-scale success in other schools. However, part of the deal for a charter school to receive such freedom is that it comes with increased accountability for student outcomes; and not all charters have been holding up their end of the bargain.
Some of our international counterparts think that reform efforts may need to be a bit more drastic if we want to see transformational results for kids. In Finland, for instance, schools will be altogether doing away with individual subjects by the year 2020. On the surface this approach may seem radical, but a closer look reveals that thoughtful integration of subject matter as it relates to the real world may truly be modern in its design and push our students to the type of critical thinking we are always seeking to achieve.
As reformers in Finland see it, subjects are not mastered separately, and jobs don’t require workers to perform solitary tasks in the same way they did decades ago. Instead, our students need to be prepared to understand the relationships between several fields of study at once – for instance, a European Union class in Finland may cover topics in the disciplines of geography, history, economics, and language. This type of approach is usually seen in individual projects or collaborations, but will now be an entirely new way of thinking about school curriculum.
So as the United States considers the international competition our students will continue to face for jobs and opportunities, perhaps we should also consider what it would be like to do away with the Mathematics and Geography textbooks in favor of an interdisciplinary approach. It may actually be the closest thing we’ve seen yet to a true 21st century education.