Why we’re seeing corruption in american classrooms: Comparing the U.S. to Finland and Singapore

When careers hinge on statistics, corruption is never far away. Last month Bronx high school principal Janet Saraceno resigned in the midst of a grade-changing scandal in which dozens of students allegedly received credit— and then diplomas— that they didn’t really earn. Improving the graduation rate would have earned the principal a $25,000 bonus.

In districts across the country— most notably in Atlanta— cheating scandals in schools are shocking and outraging the public. The outrage is justified— cheating is wrong— but what if the rules of the game are crooked? What if these scandals don’t represent isolated bad apples, but rather a public surfacing of evidence that we’re reforming our system in the wrong direction?

Public schools in the U.S. badly need reform. In report after report, we see our kids slipping behind their counterparts abroad. The status quo isn’t defensible. Top-performing nations like Finland and Singapore have upgraded into world class operations their school systems that were middling just 3 decades ago. America is pouring money and resources into reforming its schools, but the stats are persistently sliding in the opposite direction.

Let’s compare five facets of our system with Finland and Singapore.

#1: Teacher Recruitment & Training

In Finland and Singapore, it’s highly competitive to become a teacher. If accepted, teachers go through rigorous and fully subsidized training. All teachers have at least a Master’s degree.

In America, there is a patchwork of programs and certifications that can ultimately put someone in front of students. A Bachelor’s degree is required, but little else for an alternative certification teacher. There are vast fluctuations in quality between teacher preparation programs. Top-tier programs like Teachers College, Columbia University (my alma-mater) cost around $50,000 for a 38-credit, 12-month program. That’s prohibitive for most would-be great teachers, particularly because starting teacher salaries aren’t high enough to pay off student loans and maintain a solid middle-class life.

#2: Teachers’ Unions

In Finland and Singapore, teachers are one hundred percent unionized. This is not controversial in those countries. The unions and ministries of education share collaborative, positive relationships. It’s common and even encouraged for educators in Singapore to transition seamlessly from working in the classroom to working for the government to working for the government.

In America, the percentage of teachers who belong to a union continues to decrease. Teachers’ unions are frequently caricatured as the villains in education. (See Waiting for Superman and check out its army of supporters if you think this is hyperbole.) The default relationship between American teachers’ unions and school districts is one of mistrust if not outright contempt like in Washington, D.C. during Michelle Rhee’s tenure.

#3: Teachers’ Workload

In Finland and Singapore. the average teaching load is 20 hours with students per week. Teachers have ample time to plan, collaborate with colleagues, and provide substantive feedback on student work.

In America, the average teaching load is 30 hours in front of students per week— 50 percent higher than that of the top-performing nations. Many American teachers feel perpetually swamped by work, struggling to keep up with the volume of out-of-classroom responsibilities (lesson-planning, grading, meetings, professional development, paperwork, contacting parents, etc.). According to recent NEA data, teachers report “heavy workload” as the number one hindrance to quality teaching.

#4: Testing & Assessment

In Finland and Singapore, there are high-stakes tests prior to the college application process. There are no high-stakes decisions attached to standardized tests.

In America, high-stakes testing begins in early elementary school and continues until graduation. Preparing for and taking standardized assessments engulfs a significant portion of students’ time, distorting curricula. More and more, educators’ livelihoods depend on test scores. “This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.” Riverdale Country School Headmaster Dominic Randolph says in the lede of Paul Tough’s recent cover storyfor The New York Times Magazine.

#5: Funding

In Finland and Singapore, education funding is considered a sacred priority. At the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning annual conference, Mike Thiruman, president of the Singapore Teachers Union proudly said: “During a recession, every department deals with budget cuts except education. The education budget actually goes up.”

In America, per pupil funding varies greatly across school districts. Thousands of teachers have been laid off in the aftermath of the Great Recession, often fomenting generational warfare over who deserves the pink slip. Investment in education is a topic of constant argument for policy makers.

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These considerations take a toll on American teachers and students. Many educators are stressed out and pressured to focus on myopic goals. Deepening poverty means more and more students are hungry, sick, transient, truant, lacking access to healthy food, exposed to drug use, living in unsafe neighborhoods, or steeped in family crisis. Principal Saraceno’s ill-advised alleged grade tampering is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dysfunction in schools.

So where is the hope?

Education is a long-term, personal endeavor. Scrutinizing year-to-year test scores is the wrong way to find out what’s really happening in schools. The students in my fourth grade class at the Bronx’s P.S. 85, described in my memoir The Great Expectations School, are vivid examples of the dangers of reducing young people to simple data.

We should take a cue from the top-performing nations I discussed above. We should use tests as just one element in a variety of assessments and no single element should carry such weight that it could ruin a teacher’s professional life or single-handedly doom a student to repeat the year. Examples of more authentic assessments include portfolios of student work and “exhibitions” developed by the Coalition for Essential Schools that resemble a graduate thesis defense. Those systems involve a closer personal look at what students can do, and education is a personal endeavor.

Corporations that create tests or sell test prep programs have seen a bump in their bottom lines thanks the explosion of high-stakes testing in American public schools. The rest of us are seeing an under-achieving generation of students, a teaching force fleeing the profession in droves, and incendiary reports about a few bad apple cheaters.