Reading in the Gulag of Common Core

(if you’re here to see KPM’s bio scrub, scroll down to the bottom)

I have five other pieces going and a serious case of writer’s ADD, but Kathleen Porter Magee just really annoyed me.

Porter Magee works part-time at Fordham Foundation, recently tasked with churning out paeans to or defenses of Common Core, and also at the College Board, where she works for the guy who wrote the Common Core, and I’ve yet to see the media inquire as to whether this might be a conflict.

KPM, as she is often called, has been singing the praises of Teach Like a Champion Doug Lemov for a couple years now, which is inconvenient because Lemov pushes prior knowledge, and her new boss Coleman spits upon it. But anyway, she’s trying to thread both needles here—push Lemov and the Common Core insistence that all students be forced to read “grade level books”.

The money quote bolded:

And the pushback against this particular CCSS directive is growing. For example, self-described “small-town English teacher” Peter Greene likened assigning texts based on grade level “without regard for the student’s reading level” to “educational malpractice.” This pushback is backstopped by an entire industry built up over decades on the premise that students should be kept away from complex texts at all costs.

Really? Are you kidding me? There’s an industry devoted to keeping students away from complex texts? Cite, please? The organization that says “my god, we can’t have kids reading hard words!”

That’s insane, but so is her position that teachers should ignore their students’ actual reading ability and insist on assigning books the polite kids just pretend to understand and the impolite kids just ignore entirely. That opinion is very North Korea, frankly, although NK and the chubby new Leader would be much tougher on the impolite kids.

For the record, there is in fact no industry dedicated to keeping kids from reading Metamorphosis. More immediately relevant, KPM is wrong in insisting that teachers should ignore reading ability when assigning texts.

I was interested to realize that Common Core standards differ by subject in their willingness to acknowledge the below-level student.

So the math standards include some advice on what to do with kids who are behind and , like NCLB, has nothing new to offer: tutoring, algebra support, summer school. Yeah, thanks for the tip. None of them worked last time, either.

But the ELA standards largely refuse to acknowledge the reality of struggling readers—not even, I was a bit stunned to see, much recognition for English Language Learners, flatly rejecting the notion that they might struggle a bit and leaving any support to the states to figure out. Common Core’s refusal to placate the massive ELL lobby is telling, because in that case there’s going to be no recognition of native English speakers who simply aren’t smart enough to read at grade level, so English teachers, you’re screwed. Just kidding, because as we all know, standards throughout history have always called for kids to read at grade level, and teachers have and undoubtedly will continue to pick texts targeted to student ability whenever possible (it isn’t always). They’ve always done that, which begs the question why Fordham Foundation is acting like a wild hair has intruded someplace uncomfortable on the subject.

My conclusion: the big focus on “grade appropriate texts” and emphasis on teachers’ refusal to use the Common Core “exemplars” is just strategy. Common Core’s going to fail, so why not build the terrain for the inevitable blame game that’s coming by arguing that even now, at the beginning, teachers are ignoring Common Core by assigning texts their kids can understand, instead of grade-level texts. KPM’s broadside insult to teachers or an unspecified “industry” desperately working to keep kids away from “sedulous” and “balkanization”—and remind me why, again, she’d go work for the guy who’s planning to scrub the SAT of these words?—is, in my view, part of an effort to position the foundation for the standards’ inevitable failure.

And so, their demand that teachers pretend that all kids from kindergarten on have equivalent reading abilities. Yes, some kids don’t read as well, but that’s because they go to the low income schools that have bad teachers who assign some students Dr. Seuss in second grade instead of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. In this way, the seven year olds are denied the ability to debate whether the speaker was referring to his eventual death or his desired but delayed suicide, thus preventing them from being excellent readers on their way to college readiness.

I haven’t opined on the totality of the ELA standards yet, but on this one point I have been consistently shocked ever since Fordham released the study in which it declared, with a straight face, their horror that English teachers were using their students’ reading abilities to assign texts. Usually reformers insist on behavior that at least logically makes sense if you don’t have a clue about the reality of education. But the stance on this is absurd. Why would anyone insist on forcing kids to read books they can’t understand?

I taught humanities for one year in public school, to freshman with reading abilities ranging from sixth grade to college level, and I can state with confidence that the low ability kids did not benefit in any way from being forced to pretend to read Twelfth Night. They liked the movie, though. As I describe in that post, I gave up SSR with my students because they simply stared at books they didn’t want to read. When I took away their choice and gave the weaker students enrichment activities designed for bright fifth graders, they engaged and acquired content knowledge. Why would anyone seriously argue against that?

For the past eight plus years, I’ve taught reading enrichment to a mostly Asian crowd of freshmen, with abilities ranging from FOB to reasonably competent (rarely do I have a stupendous reader and writer, but it does happen). Here, too, I have not seen them benefit from reading texts they don’t understand because, despite their outstanding test scores, the kids I teach have mediocre reading abilities thanks to dismal active vocabularies and weak content knowledge. Much of my teaching time is spent, again, assigning them reading they can understand and demonstrating the importance of remembering content knowledge.

So while I haven’t taught a lot of English in public school, my experience with early high school readers is extensive, and Fordham’s position is flatly ludicrous.

On a slightly different note, I’m getting a bit tired of KPM pushing her teaching experience. Her Linked In profile shows clearly that not only has she avoided anything approaching students for over a decade, but that she was only at the Washington Archdiocese, a prominent mention in all her bios, for ten months. She didn’t leave an impression. Likewise at Achievement First, her title may have been impressive but she still worked part-time, according to her husband, and the only document I can find with her name on it suggests she was basically HR. Achievement First is known primarily for its questionable application of “No Excuses” discipline, not its great curriculum.

She was probably a teacher for some period of time from 1997 through 2000, the three years after she graduated from Holy Cross with a degree in French and Political Science before she started her master’s degree. Maybe she just doesn’t list her credential education. More plausibly, she taught for a year or so at a Catholic school, maybe language, maybe French.

Back when she married Marc Magee, teaching was such an important part of her bio that she never mentioned it, only listing her work at Progressive Policy Institute, Hoover, and Fordham. Her footprint at every place but Fordham is non-existent.

I have mentioned before that very few education policy people on either side have any extensive teaching experience, but better to just plead out than pretend.

Maybe she’s got more experience than I can find, or slipped in some teaching while working at Fordham part time. Maybe a reporter will ask her to be specific, produce documents of her curriculum work and her lesson plans. Hahahahaha!

Anyway. If it comes down to a choice between an reticent Kathleen Porter Magee and me, an anonymous teacher blogger….wait. Never mind.

Look, I’m not expecting you to take my word for anything. But if you still accept policy hack bios at face value, think again.

As for the Common Core Reading Gulag, where everyone must read at or above grade level because the Great Leader says so, I’ll leave you with a simple application of logic.

On one side, you have an education reform organization, dependent on the will of its funders, insisting that English teachers everywhere are failing their students by assigning them texts that will be more likely to engage them and thus increase content knowledge, rather than texts randomly declared “grade level” by wishful thinkers. On the other side, you have the majority of English teachers, insisting through their actions that students are best served by reading words they can understand.

Michael Petrilli has tacitly admitted (and said so explicitly on the Gadfly show, as I recall) that he never believed in the NCLB goals of getting all students to proficiency, but he had a boss, and that was the party line. Now, he’s pushing the Common Core party line.

You can believe that Petrilli and KPM are pushing a party line because they get paid to, or you can believe that teachers are part of a gigantic industry dedicated to ensuring that students are never exposed to complex text.

It’s up to you.

PS–I just liked the title; don’t take it too seriously.

Addendum, June 12

I am delighted to see that KPM’s bio at Fordham has been thoroughly scrubbed.

Here’s how it appeared when I wrote this piece, on May 17th. It was in place through May 30th, at least, as you can see by the dates of the articles.


And here’s what it looks like now. A lot shorter. All the company names gone, no mention of her teaching, just “working directly in schools”. Still a bit squiffy, but hey, they had to save face.


Think it was me? I hope it was me. It’d be fun if it was me. It probably was me.

About educationrealist

34 responses to “Reading in the Gulag of Common Core

  • Mark Roulo

    Common Core uses Lexile (I think) for grade level determination. This gives teachers an “out”. Lexile mixes together two things to determine grade level: (1) average sentence length, and (2) rarity of vocabulary. This results in books like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” getting scored as about grade six, even though the vocabulary isn’t *that* difficult … Lexile weights average sentence length more than vocabulary rarity/difficulty. The Oz books score as more difficult than they actually are because Baum uses a lot of semicolons where we would use periods today.

    I’m sure there are lots of these books that Lexile scores too high. I expect the teachers to find them and assign them to their below grade level readers.

    It is unfortunate to waste time playing these games, of course …

    My question is: Do the folks running/specifying/designing Common Core realize this?

    • educationrealist

      Yes, I’ve heard that before, about the Lexiles. I’m sure the teachers who are forced to follow Common Core will play those sorts of games. Lots of them will probably just ignore it.

      As to your question–I keep coming back to the basic dichotomy. They’re either dishonest or ignorant. I’ve generally leaned to dishonest–that is, they’re only pretending to believe their own nonsense.

  • Hattie

    Well, of COURSE you’d deny it. You’re part of the vast conspiracy, full of people who are apparently dumb as a box of hammers but manage to not only coordinate to keep all those poor widdle kiddies down, but keep quiet about it as well.

  • anonymousskimmer

    How is expected reading level determined for each grade/age? And do these standards ever incorporate newer comlexities such as the necessity to also learn how to decode “jive talk”, “text speak”, etc…? Or are the kids just expected to keep pace with the Queen’s (Victoria’s) English while simultaneously learning all these culturally necessary new idioms and dialects in their free time, and keeping the two separate?

    I just looked up the word “sedulous”, as this is the first time I’ve ever seen it.

    Much to my surprise it has nothing to do with “sedition”.

    But can you tell me why roots meaning “without guile” would be taken to mean “diligent ; careful perseverance”? Wouldn’t “with blind luck” be just as good a fit for “without guile” (or even a better fit since guilelessness implies profound naivete, while diligence doesn’t)? Crazy Romans. 😦

  • Roger Sweeny

    “I haven’t opined on the totality of the ELA standards yet, but on this one point I have been consistently shocked ever since Fordham released the study in which it declared, with a straight face, their horror that English teachers were using their students’ reading abilities to assign texts. Usually reformers insist on behavior that at least logically makes sense if you don’t have a clue about the reality of education. But the stance on this is absurd. Why would anyone insist on forcing kids to read books they can’t understand?”

    I suspect they really believe that if there is the right push from the teacher, and if the school has a consistent climate of high standards, then all the students will read “grade level” books and will, with help, understand. Yeah, it shows “don’t have a clue about the reality of education” but the alternative is deep, dark despair.

    Most people in the ed business, right or left, traditional or reformer, believe (though few articulate it) that one cannot have a good society unless just about everyone passes a college prep curriculum in high school and a substantial majority of people go on the get a college degree. But if lots of kids can’t or won’t, then we live in an unchangeably unjust society.

    When the only alternatives are, “Believe in magic” or “Believe America sucks and will always suck,” most people will choose the former.

    • Powerlurker (@Powerlurker)

      The goals are much simpler than that. There are two main motivations behind Common Core: first, to prevent school from gaming No Child Left Behind by simply lowering their standards to the point that even the dumbest students already met them, and second, to put some emphasis back on imparting content knowledge as a goal of the educational system.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I agree that those are the motivations. I also think that it is impossible for 90% or 80% or maybe even 50% of American 18-year-olds to meet those standards. The Common Core people think just about everyone can. Which is why I agree with ET that they “don’t have a clue about the reality of education.”

        You are absolutely right that states gamed NCLB. The reality that lots of kids would never be “proficient” was one no one wanted to face. Common Core people think that stopping the gaming will change the reality. They are almost certainly wrong.

      • educationrealist

        Roger is nicer than I am. I mean, duh, of course that’s the goal. The only people who could set such a goal are people too ignorant to understand that teachers *are* imparting knowledge to the best of the students’ abilities.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Maybe I’m too nice a guy, but I do think lots of students have ability to do better. But they don’t have the desire. They aren’t interested in (high school) courses that prepare them for (college) courses that prepare them to be professors.

        If we weren’t so hung up on college, we wouldn’t force them to try to be something they don’t want to be.

      • educationrealist

        “better” as in reading at 8th grade rather than 6th, sure. With the right motivation. The problem is that this would still be defined as failure, so we can’t do what might work to get them there.

  • EB

    I actually think the Common Core people got it backwards. Instead of having standards that are the same for everyone, which dictate that everyone will attain the standards in the same amount of time (but with curriculum and instruction vaguely defined), they should have designed a solid curriculum with support from validated instructional methods, but allowed for the reality that different students will proceed thru the curriculum at different speeds. Especially, students may move quicker in some subjects than in others. And of course, at some point in the mid-teen years, the curriculum itself will have to look different for kids who are job-bound than for kids who are college bound. Not necessarily drastically different.

    • educationrealist

      That’s exactly right. But they can’t do that.

    • anonymousskimmer

      I disagree in part.

      At some point the student’s themselves deserve to have a say in what they will be educated in. And not with just an elective here and an elective there.

      Micro-curriculum, not macro.

      • educationrealist

        I’m all for more electives, but the problem is that once we set up school as a mechanism for job creation, no one will want to pay for anything that doesn’t further that goal. And of course, the problem is that from their standpoint (not from mine) we *can’t* do anything to improve the job readiness for many kids.

  • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse

    There is some evidence for a part of the brain called the Visual Word Form Area. This putative region of the brain helps with the task of recognizing words on a page and makes it much easier to read.

    It is suggested that some (or perhaps most actually) humans do not have this area, and find reading large swathes of text (like the above) just plain tiring.

    I wonder what that would do to their reading level and their desire to read and their comprehension when they do slog through the text. Perhaps it would be like me reading Chinese.

    I know that I have read tens of thousands of words per day since I was first introduced to books in a library (maybe when I was 8, but then we were mildly impoverished.)

  • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse

    but allowed for the reality that different students will proceed thru the curriculum at different speeds

    Gasp! You mean that they should publicly acknowledge that some students will never be able to do Calculus (because the proceed thru the curriculum at such a slow speed, or because they are simply so lacking in intelligence that they cannot understand it)?

    • EB

      For some students, that would be true. For others, it may not be about intelligence but maturity, or willingness to invest in the math progression to the extent needed in order to arrive at Calculus by age 17. In my generation, almost no one took Calculus before college, and I don’t think this damaged the US economy to any noticeable extent.

      One of my kids was shoved through the Calculus in Grade 12 progression because her test scores were good, until she dug in her heels in Grade 11. She never learned what was being taught because the pace of instruction was too fast for her.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse

        I know a teacher who has a Mexican (probably Mestizo) student. The student works really hard, but is simply dumb.

        This demonstrates that conscientiousness and IQ are controlled by different genes.

  • Anthony

    “For the record, there is in fact no industry dedicated to keeping kids from reading Metamorphosis.”

    No industry, but there are plenty of teachers who get mad when one or two of their kids start reading well above their grade level or otherwise get ahead of The Plan. And others who get really annoyed at kids who learn the material well without doing any of the homework.

    • educationrealist

      As to the first no, there aren’t. There are probably teachers who get annoyed when their kids aren’t doing the assigned tasks. But in any case, even given the existence of them, they aren’t engaged in a conspiracy to prevent kids from reading complex words. Much less an industry.

      As to the second, of course there are, but since that’s wholly irrelevant, I’m not sure what your point is.

  • Anthony

    I have begun to entertain the theory that Common Core proponents put together a package of things for right-wingers to dislike about Common Core and surreptitiously passed them around, in a deliberate attempt to make it impossible for the teachers’ unions and other liberal groups to oppose Common Core, for fear of being associated with their political enemies.

  • Lagertha

    I have waited for a chance to chime-in on CC, and, I have enjoyed this blog, so much, after discovering it a year ago. Wish I had known about it earlier, since there is nothing I have ever disagreed with.

    Common Core, I’m wildly guessing, is based on the system that has been used in Finland for many years. American reformers have been smitten with the Finnish school system for a couple of years now, but they have not really fully understood that it is NOT what they think it is, nor will it magically cure what ails American schools. And, being that I am Finnish (duo citizen w/ USA); have a mother who taught English & German in Finland; have HKI U professor cousins whose kids are in Finnish schools; I feel that I can burst the CC bubble by telling all of you some truths about the Finnish system that those annoying American reformers chose to ignore as they now try to push CC to the American public. By the way, my brothers and I went to mediocre and above average public schools in Brooklyn and NJ while ESL learners in middle school/primary school; scored very high on the “old” SAT’s, and went on to Ivies and a LAC. Of course, we benefited enormously from “old school” tracking in the 70’s, which was fully discarded by the early 80’s. What a pity.

    Well, these are some of the things that CC fans have ignored as to how the Finns use their education core standards which are supposed to be adapted by US public schools :

    1. PISA is taken in 9th grade, around the time students (students start school at 7) are 15 turning 16. At the end of 9th grade, surprise, Finnish students are entitled to receive a HS diploma, and many graduate, move on with their lives. 80 % continue to business schools, Votech community college-like places, nursing schools, industrial schools, trade schools. All free of tuition. Teaching, however, requires the rigorous Bac HS for 3 more years, and then you pray that you are accepted to a 6-year university program after that.

    2. ONLY 20% of Finnish students move on to the intensive baccalaureate 3-year program for which they have to take a test- that would be the equivalent of scoring 1300 out of 1600 SAT. One simply will not get ACCEPTED to the national universities without being in this percentile. University of Helsinki and Aalto only accept the top 10%. Most students in that very small group (17-19 year olds) are confident enough to continue for the baccalaureate diploma, since they have passed ALL the tests that will ALLOW them to enter the Bac program in the first place.

    In the Helsinki area there are roughly 10 HS. For each one, a student must take an exam to see if they get into their favorite one…normally, one picks 3…and of course, their district HS, if they are not accepted to the any of the other, favored ones. Currently, the most popular one is completely taught in English, and only the top 3% get in there. Of course, it is the STEM HS (similar to Stuyvesant) in Tapiola, a suburb of Hk. Many American ex-pats’ kids go there…and Asians/other foreigners whose parents are working in the tech sector in Finland.

    3. Starting in 7th grade, there IS tracking, at least in the Finnish metropolitan areas. Finns believe strongly in letting their best minds move quicker faster…children are considered a national resource, so the country believes in supporting the top students/most academically gifted from falling off the rails because of boredom/crappy parents/crappy home life. Even the best hockey players go to their “own HS” in Lahti since Finland knows that they will become future multi-million dollar NHL players and come home to Finland as the top 1% taxpayers. Finnish people are loathe to leave Finland….at least forever.

    4. Not only do Finnish kids have to read books in Finnish, but Swedish is also required…and English, starting in 2nd grade. Most of the immigrant/refugee kids can be exempt from Swedish, but they must learn Finnish or they will not succeed in the country. If their English is good (better than Finnish), there are “English only” High Schools where they can spring board to universities in UK or USA…which is fairly common. I know several non-ethnic Finns, immigrant students that are at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, etc.

    5. Curriculum is not dumbed-down, nor is it unrealistically hard for students who just can’t master the content. Skilled teachers do a fair amount of differentiation, and parents have no say as to who gets to be in the “higher track,” or not, since every child has to hit certain bench marks. There is far less parental involvement and no sports. Teachers are free to teach, no annoying parents meddling, and, this is accepted as status quo.

    Some work is done together as a group in the classroom, some is harder for the more capable students…and no one argues that this is not fair. There is plenty of pull-out programs for the students who are struggling with content, particularly the newer immigrants. Also, every week the same content is taught (with different levels of rigor) in every Finnish school but the teachers are completely entitled to deliver the content in a method of their choosing. This is why the quality of teachers is so high and why their education is long and laborious – why they are respected.

    6. Special needs kids have separate schools – the Finns have not figured a way to realistically, in their opinion, integrate SN children. In some cases, a high-functioning student who is autistic is integrated, and possibly attending a top HS & later, university.

    7. Finnish students more or less, must know what kind of student they are/what they are interested in/what are they good at by 15-16. All males upon turning 18 must serve in the army or navy, where they get another chance to do some soul-searching. It is not imperative or socially more acceptable to go and get that university education as opposed to wanting to be a plumber. Career choices are numerous, and, it is not considered negative to end your secondary HS education after 9th grade. I have many friends who are ship’s captains, nurses, small business owners, marina managers, equine managers, bakers, potters, fire fighters, nuclear power plant technicians, professional snowboarders who were loathe to enter that rigorous 3 year HS Bac education, even if they could have, academically.

    Finland believes that students develop an innate sense of themselves and what kind of career they want from their K-9 years. And, proof of that is that everyone seems happy in that cold, northern country, and, the population is increasing every 10 years. And, yes, there are plenty of millionaires and well to do with their yachts and water-front homes. It is not some kind of socialist, snowy wasteland. They do pay more taxes than Americans, but they don’t have to worry about tuition for any type of post secondary school education; they have universal healthcare and the fastest internet in the world, great infrastructure. Beckham had all his knee surgeries there.

    I know this is really wordy, but I felt like stating all this since American reformers ignore the plain truth that not every student is the same/has the same motivation/same level of acuity/same interests. And, this is NO ONE’S fault. It is a shame that all I ever hear from CC supporters (particularly by Ivy League graduated journalists and reformers) is that every student in America can supposedly do the level of work that a student bound to a Caltech/MIT/Stanford does. That everyone is special/everyone is equally creative/artistic/intelligent is not true and should be obvious to people. If this was the case, one would think that reformers would question the very validity of a Noble Laureate: did they “game” their research? Did they receive sneaky, expensive test prep to get into their initial undergraduate university? Were they from a perceived affluent family, so were thus, privileged over others? Are they really intellectually superior in their field? Is there work somehow fraudulent?

    Expecting all students to excel like all top % students world-wide, can not be willed somehow. And, I do think the point that a previous commenter made (if CC fails, it proves that current American teachers are crappy) about the nefarious intentions of the reformers is a valid one.

    My own sons benefited from high SAT’s and AP’s, but were bored to death and “tuned-out” before 10th grade in HS. Despite being in the top 3% in math nationally, they said the AP tests were hard…and they were relieved that they got the 4-5’s they were hoping for. The AP track which begins in 10th grade, is now the only “accelerated program” left in American schools, yet the courses are extremely rigorous. Only 20% of the students in their CT HS take these courses. Some drop them after the first 3 weeks.

    Their HS is one of the last “comprehensive High Schools” left in CT since funding for all levels/disciplines passes the town budget every year. They pursued a lot of sports to stay on the rails. Both STEM students, they skipped their freshmen year in college, are able to graduate early, and will continue for a Master’s tuition-free, in Europe. They are able to earn extra money on campus teaching Calculus and Algebra 2 to incoming students.

    I now loathe the moniker of “a good school” as far as college and “bad schools” for High Schools. My sons wanted no part of college apps to Ivies and their ilk (too wordy, too personal, too annoying, too goody-goody, too esoteric) and opted to go to the Honor’s College of a large, boiler-plate public research university next to the mountains or a beach. Mountains or a beach is a must, in my family. They will graduate with no debt in a few years. And, already have great summer jobs working a tech job.

    Common Core probably will just further divide states, local govts, citizens and educators while they try to re-invent the wheel one more time in this country. And all it will do is hurt the best students and hurt the struggling students. Finnish schools, that the CC is based on, imbed levels within the grades; differentiate; exactly what American reformers choose to ignore. And, most profoundly, they ignore the fact that 80% of Finnish 16-yr-old students do not go to a 4-year and beyond University/College.

    I learned English in 5 months. My brother and I watched about 30 hours of TV a week…yet we went on to the Ivies & Co. and have lived productive lives. I always say I consider Gilligan’s Island, F Troop, Hogan’s Heroes, the Munsters, Laugh-In, etc., part of my formal education.

    • educationrealist

      I knew about the tracking, but the rest of this was new to me. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it!

      • Lagertha

        This was the first time I have ever made a comment about anything. I have been fuming (about schools, lack of interest in really attracting STEM students by universities; and university admissions bs & tuition costs) for a long time. Sadly, I am glad that my youngest of 3 sons only has a few years to go until he leaves for the west to university…unless he gets into the Naval Academy.

        I don’t see a positive future for American secondary schools in many parts of this country. My eldest son attended middle school at a Magnet school, which did not deliver the quality of education efficiently, but it was fun and memorable for him socially. Charter schools and Magnets screen quite a lot of their modus operandi from the public. Most of them, if not all, do not have AP courses, which hurts non-minority kids on the college app. Therefore, parents avoid voluntary integration by HS time for their child. Our reason for bringing our son back to our district HS was that he was left largely on his own with “learning packets” since he was 3-4 grade levels ahead of the majority of students. And, yes, he tends to get really lazy and day dream if left unsupervised by teachers. He is one of those kids though, that never seemed to study but scored A’s on tests. He hates explaining/writing how he got to his answer. No American public schools really like these types of kids…except in Finland.

        Obviously, the options to attend a private school for 35K/annum or a religious school for 15-20K/annum in our state is not an option for many. I find it interesting that more and more immigrants are moving into our town…and some very brave minority families have been making in-roads to our town for the last 10 years, buying the more modest homes in the area first. We do have 100 Project Choice kids and ABC kids…who all do very well, except maybe 2 kids who don’t want to be in our school with a 90% white (5% Asian) population. Our HS ranks in the top 5 in CT and within the top 50 in the country. A small, semi-rural New England, very quiet, very boring (esp. for teenagers) town, but somehow we manage to graduate 94% who move on to university/technical schools/service. And, we will always have our “shop” classes, PLTW (STEM) program, social work & business “career” track programs, culinary, music, theater, art & music tech, etc., as long as everyone continues to approve the school budget yearly.

        People are very reticent in this part of the USA, and, I can tell that our school administrators and teachers are pretty much pretending to adhere to the CC standards. I feel our teachers have been encouraged to do whatever they think works best, stick to the books they revere…no one will tell the CC thought police. And, that is why the school system continues to carry the real estate value of our homes in town.

        Our annual graduation of our students, Choice kids, Special Needs, and ABC kids speaks for itself. However, since this is just one hamlet out of 169 CT towns with a majority of highly educated parents, it is not a national model for how to transfer the success to say, Arkansas, Mississippi, West Virginia, Ohio, Texas, New Mexico, California, etc, and every inner-city. And, the 3 levels of speed and ability do not start until High School, when it is often too late for bright kids who have tuned-out. Finally, our town HS is possibly the most similar to Finnish schools due to many of the reasons I just explained, but this was way before CC. Yet, as with most students world-wide, only 10 % go on to the most highly selective universities in this country, or get incredibly great scholarships to state universities based on academic merit. Every year someone manages to get into Army, Navy, Air Force as well.

      • Lagertha

        forgot two pertinent details: 8. Finland has NO private schools; so the children of the top 2 % income homes go to the same public schools…this is a big difference with regard to US schools. Warren Buffet once implied that because of the existence of “private schools” – probably
        would include parochial schools – Americans do not “blow into the embers together,” as we say in Finland. Of course, as I said earlier, the Bac HS years require an entry test to the most popular ones: they are still public schools, but function more like theme-based, curriculum-based magnet, sometimes Swedish/English language based schools. It is a crap shoot which HS accepts you, but the lucky high IQ/High entrance-exam-result students always get their 1st choice.

        Finland has a primordial instinct to work together with your neighbors or die from the elements alone…which basically explains their national philosophy, and, as to why they were able to thwart the threat of the Soviets in 1945. But more on that some other time.

        9. Music (singing/instrumental) is a compulsory component of the curriculum (as is art) in the 1-9 years. A student must play an instrument (or sing) during those grades. Kids can switch instruments…and playing the violin, trumpet, guitar or the simple recorder is just as respected.

        This is often discussed as a major reason why Finns are so good at math and coding. It is pretty weird…as I always had high math test scores, but ventured into art, not engineering (father had taught at MIT) that my father had hoped for me. I was definitely a mezzo-mezzo violinist.

        Finns have a natural love of music, and, it goes back to the Bronze Age with yoiking (singing narratives like the Kalevala.) It has been thought that understanding the rhythms of music/reading music/creating music builds those brain synapses. Music is a huge part of Finnish culture…and per capita, they produced the most opera singers the last 30 years or so. And, weird bands like Apocalyptica (mostly electric cellos) have gained international fans. After the era of Sibelius, there is still new music emerging that transcends classical music.

        All my sons play a string instrument (different ones since they are SO competitive) and have stuck with it through HS, although I doubt they will continue as adults. It’s kind of funny, but our local HS now has 10 varsity football, wrestling, rugby, soccer and crew boys in the orchestra.

        When my youngest son wanted to quit chorus (he has a great bass voice) in 7th grade, I told him Luciano Pavarotti makes 16 million dollars per year; and, naturally, he changed his mind.

    • A Finn

      As a Finn who has worked his way pretty much as far as you can go in the educational system, I find a need to correct the many inaccuracies in the comments about our schooling system and culture in general. Using the same numbering as in the post:

      1 & 2. It’s not 20 % that go the “Bac HS” (=lukio), it’s over half of the students. It’s not some rigorous training for the elite students, rather it’s seen as a continuation of the elementary school, giving students more time to think about what they want to do in the future (work and so on). You can choose about 1/3 of the courses, and there are a few other choices you make (wide or narrow math studies, language studies).

      Lukio takes 2-4 years (you can choose your pace; 3 years is still most common), and ends in matriculation examination. I have no knowledge about SAT scores, but to pass the exam doesn’t sound like scoring anything close to 1300 out of 1600. There are 7 possible grades in the tests you want to take (4 mandatory tests, but you can take more subjects if you like), and each test gets graded on 7-grade scale. Only the lowest grade means that the test wasn’t passed. The grading scale is sliding, so that the lowest 5 % of test scores will get the failing grade.

      Good grades in specific tests will get you extra points for university entrance exams (say, if you want to study math, you get extra points if you got one of the top two grades in the math test in the matriculation examination). However, the points will just make getting in a bit easier, but are no prerequisite. In fact, you don’t even need to graduate from lukio, as you could in principle study the relevant subjects on your own, and still get into university if you scored high enough in the entrance exam.

      How hard it is to get into university depends on the subject you want to study. As an example, you can find last year’s data for University of Helsinki here:
      It’s in Finnish, but the last column is the ratio of those admitted to those who took the entrance exam. (The other percentage is admitted vs. all who applied. It’s common to apply to several universities and/or subjects, and take the entrance exam only if you feel it’s necessary, like if don’t think you did well enough in your first choice, and want to get another change at another university, which explains the difference between the two figures.) Most subjects are relatively easy to get into, with a few hard ones (say, medicine with a very large amount of applicants; and history of art, with very few starting positions).

      2 & 3. You can choose one of a few special lukios, which have a bit different mandatory courses and are oriented around certain subjects, like sports lukio, or STEM-oriented lukio. You don’t need to specially gifted to get into one of those; I went to one of the latter, and my grades average from elementary school diploma (which is used as the main criterion for admittance into lukios) was 8.8 on a scale of 4 to 10; IIRC, you needed 7.9 or 8.0 that year to get into that lukio. There were normal lukios in my city that were harder to get into.
      Here’s a list of lukios in Helsinki, of which there a few more than the 10 claimed in the post above:

      If your diploma grades aren’t good enough for even the lowest lukio, you can take 10th grade to improve the grades.

      4. You don’t need to read books in Swedish or English (if your native language is Finnish; switch Swedish with Finnish for the Swedish-speaking Finns) at any point in elementary school or lukio. You do need to study those languages, but most care little about really learning Swedish, as it’s used only in few places.

      You don’t need to be especially good in English to get into “English only” lukio, you just need to be able to follow the teaching.

      5. I mostly agree with what’s been said here. But having suffered a fair share of lousy teachers, I do think that quality of our teachers is exaggerated abroad.

      7. No. If you go to lukio, you can take the 2-4 years to think about your future.

      There’s no must to serve in the army when you turn 18 (most do that when they are 19-20; my original assignment was for the year I turned 20). You can get postponement for various reasons, like university studies, and it usually makes sense to get into uni and then go to army after your first year.

      Based on the comment about captains, nurses, and so on, I don’t think that the writer has really spoken to anyone younger than say 50 years old about lukio. Nowadays any new nuclear power plant tech would have gone to lukio, and most new nurses have done so, too.

      8. There are private schools in Finland. The first two examples from the list of lukios in Helsinki are Apollon yhteiskoulun lukio and Elias-koulun lukio.

      9. Music is a very small part in elementary school, and you have to take one course (out of at least 75 total) of it in lukio. The comments about musicality of Finnish people are not accurate. Yoiking is the tradition of Lapplanders (the original Finns), who are a minority of about 10,000 people in Finland.

      • Lagertha

        I was mostly referring to Helsinki city-center schools…trying to NOT include Swedish schools, any Aikuislukio (adult) schools, schools far from the center like Ita-Keskus…so the list may be about 13-14, with some new ones that I forgot to mention, like media lukio…other newer schools. Of course, I am mainly speaking about SYK, Ressu, Mattlidens (far from the center,) Apollo…schools like that. And, most of these are very hard to get into. Apollo may be private, but the tuition is a fraction compared to comparable American private schools. Phillips Exeter, Andover and Choate, for example, cost $38,000 a year now…20% less if you live at home…but most students board. Dalton, in NYC, is even more (and not a boarding school,) as is everything in NYC. So, private schools in Finland, which may cost 900 Euros a year, cost even less than ordinary small-town Catholic HSs in the US.

        And, yes, I admit I should have said 50% ( instead of 20%) go on to Lukio, but I know that certain Lukios are not open to all….most, in the capital city are highly selective, and, will subsequently exclude average students of average ability. And, yes, I am mainly focused on a discussion about students interested mainly in getting into a university to study STEM/ pre-med/ pre-law/teaching/equivalent of the MBA/music or fine art; all the students hoping to be accepted to Aalto or University of Helsinki, and the highest art school and conservatory in Finland. And, certainly, I’m not talking about an obscure major (whatever that could be – most students in the US will start including that as their proposed major on their Harvard application-hah!)) where acceptance into a UHki program is easier. Let’s just assume I’m talking about medicine, law, MBA, mechanical/electrical engineering.

        This is the current obsession of American education reformers: that all American students, but specifically urban/largely minority students, should be able to get into the selective universities in the USA if only their schools were as good as Finnish ones. And we know, the Lukios of Hki and outer-Helsinki are ranked as far as selectivity…not officially, but parents and kids know which are the most highly regarded….ergo, highly selective. And, I am primarily focusing on the students aspiring to get accepted to Aalto, UHki, the national art institute & conservatory, again, BECAUSE acceptance to highly selective universities/colleges, is the OBSESSION of education reformers in here, now, in the USA; in other words, “if only our High Schools were better, or they were like Finnish ones,” or, with the Common Core crusade, “little Johnny would get into Yale.”

        American education reformers do not talk about High Schoolers going to your plain ole’ humble state university (unless it’s Berkeley!) or a less selective college/university which may be more reasonably matched to your skill-set and intellectual ability & “giftedness” in the arts, interests, or whatever, while finishing up your HS years. Reformers in the USA, think that students can ALL get into Berkeley, MIT, Harvard, Willliams, Duke, Curtis, etc. It is ridiculous to me that everyone here, who has power to be involved with this issue, ignores the fact that a student’s skill-set should be matched to a college/university according to their ability…which we all know, world-wide, that innate/cultivated ability, is highly variable. Once again, not everyone can be accepted to the most selective institutions in their country. So, the discussion is more about Common Core being similar to what the curriculum of Finnish Lukio seems to be, in order to be the latest salvo to try here.

        In the US, there is a deluded idea among education reformers that everyone could be accepted to prestigious institutions if their HSs were just better. What that “better” is, is the crux of the debate over Common Core. What that “better” is, is the multi-billion dollar question. What that “better” is, is it in Finland? I’m basically suggesting, “no,” or that the Finnish system will not bring a miracle to US urban schools that are mostly full of majority-minority students living in poverty, and have English language learners in the mix.

        So, the suspicions are: Bad teachers, lowly-educated teachers, poor funding (always about money, which is a canard,) unions unfairly keeping mediocre staff on board, segregated schools, unfair testing, courses like AP (which are hard) which should be made available to all (regardless of aptitude-silly idea,) the list goes on. But, no one in the US really discusses student responsibility or parental responsibility…that seems to be taboo. And, ability grouping and tracking in primary schools was deep-sixed about 30 years ago (public schools.) This is why many send their kids to private schools (yeah, they pay about $200,000 for each kid for their HS education!) and parochial schools….the Catholic school in my small New England town costs $12,000 per year per student.

        The problem in the USA is that reformers only TALK about “failing schools,” without analyzing everything and anything that causes the failure. Primarily, these are the PUBLIC schools in our cities. There is very little discussion about small, rural public HSs in say, West Virginia, where there is less money, and little variety of courses for students…it is all about ONLY the “inner-city schools.” For instance, very few poor families can afford to live in Manhattan anymore, but the kids ride the subways in to the schools that may be in the center of Manhattan-these public schools are not “neighborhood schools” anymore. And most Manhattanites send their kids to private schools, similar to those expensive private schools I mentioned .

        Many European cities have big social problems in their suburbs, not in the center of the city. In the states, most of the large cities have large poor neighborhoods. NYC has kind of pushed the poor as far as possible from the island of Manhattan, but the public schools are still there. And, most people who live/work in NYC, are financially successful (you have to be) that they will scratch up enough money to send their kid to a private school, not go to those “bad schools” near their apartment.

        You, see, most American HSs are supported by real-estate taxes. That’s why many affluent towns and hamlets have productive/successful students and “good schools,” yet, by no means are more than 20% going to the most selective universities after HS, despite their high quality schools.

        A poor Appalachian town (in West Virginia again, perhaps) has the same problem…not enough money to have robust programs, more materials, etc., but somehow the brightest kids may still make it to a highly selective university if they have that deep desire to work hard on their studies, and, more importantly, get out of that sad little, economically depressed town.

        Schools are not supported equally across the states. Now, the federal govt pays for the urban public schools in America, but suburban and rural towns get a tiny portion of fed money compared to what the city schools get. Yet, the student achievement is still abysmal in public, urban schools, even if they have 3 times the funding per student. And, I don’t even want to explain what all the controversy is about Charter Schools – and bore you to death with this drama.

        The big problem in the USA is that these reformers believe it is something other than a student’s initiative that keeps them from performing as well as a suburban kid here, or a kid in Finland. And, this conundrum never ends since everyone in power to fix this, chose to just pontificate about this, and are too highly sensitive or hampered by political correctness, to go ripping into every detail and really discuss solutions with sheer honesty and courage.

        So, my post about Finnish schools is more about the homogeneity of Finnish students (small portion of immigrants) and, that thinking CC (based on Finnish school curriculum) will magically raise the achievement of American urban HSs. For instance, there is NO discussion of how abysmal the scholastic achievement is for the Lakota in South Dakota or the Navajo in Arizona…no one in “education policy power” in the USA cares about the Native Americans.

        My ship captain friend did “graduate” from a rural Lukio, but he hated school, and only got his ‘white cap’ to please his parents. As for the power plant technician, he’s not an engineer or even an electrician, mostly some kind of support staff member. And, I know that nurses go to Lukio, but they do not go through the “grind” of med school later, or of someone who wants to be a research scientist in like, microbiology, and needs to get a PhD. I did not word my post clearly, since I usually just write quickly, unfiltered, off the top of my head.

        The current students I know in Finland consist of family and friends’ kids in Hki and a small, rural seaside town. A very gifted rural student (he played several instruments – is a really good guitar player, and tried many instruments in primary school, is a good soccer player,) was accepted to Aalto for Engineering (electrical and comp sci). He opted to get service over with, and is now done with the Navy…before he begins Aalto. He is 20.

        Another student has tried 3 times to be accepted to Law School (UHki) and now is applying elsewhere in Finland. He is also applying to flight school. And, if all else fails, his Swedish skills will give him a shot at Swedish universities. Another tried 4 times to get into med school, and finally gave up, and is pursuing something else not related to biology at all. One student is a gifted photographer, but can’t get into a program she wants, despite coming from one of the prestigious Lukio schools, and is currently working in a grocery store in the center of the city figuring out her next plan. And, from what I have witnessed there, students that are fluent in 4+ languages (including Swedish) have more advantages than ones who don’t…same in the USA…where it’s almost unusual that someone speaks 2 languages! So, I do have lots of examples, but I probably failed to be more detailed, initially.

        So, yes, I may not be as accurate in my knowledge of all Finnish schools, but still think that they do a better job of guiding youngsters into careers than in the USA (which was my whole point) – and, why that is so, is why it interests American education reformers.

        Yet, the entire focus of American education reformers is about the inner-city students, not the majority of American High Schools, which, in many ways, are fine. Reformers obsess about mostly minority, poor students stuck in “bad schools.” And, that these students need to get accepted, eventually, only to the high selectivity universities; NOT consider all the other 100-3900+ American universities/colleges that may better serve their skills. I mean, really? – do we really think only a few universities are worth attending, and everything else sucks?

        Reformers also feel that everyone must have a university degree; so, can you see how this is silly? What about those students who hate school and want to be a fireman, for instance? Or farm their retired parent’s farm even if they have the grades to make it in engineering? Or, what about one of my closest Finnish friends, whose father was a prominent surgeon, who got his “white cap,” yet enrolled in boat-building school, specifically, wooden boat school!? His father was first horrified, yet his son (an entrepreneur in anything to do with boats,) out-earns his siblings who have prominent careers & graduated from UHki.

        I find it funny that if I’m mostly painting a positive picture of something Finnish… being complimentary (accurate/dated, or not, doesn’t really matter if it is just semantics,) Finns need to dump on the post! But, I am very thick-skinned. For the record, I also had some really terrible teachers, but managed to get a bachelor’s and Master’s from top 20 universities in the USA…with pluck and luck. There were also many students who were minority ethnic/race, who did well in my HS and were in my universities…alas, they went to private schools or their parents lived in suburban towns with motivated High Schoolers in their local, public High School.

        Lastly, I don’t know if I would have gotten accepted to Ateneum/TaideKorkeakoulu had we remained in Finland. And, my language skills withered away the longer we remained in the USA.

        Gotta watch WCUP now.

  • Tort

    I’ve suspected for some time that the school district employing me knows CCSS is going to fail: They aren’t buying any new textbooks.

    Regarding Fordham: dilettantes.

  • Lagertha

    so, I took a stab, Ed. Shows that I am less of a Finn, I suppose! And, gulp, my cousin, a University science professor, feels that Finnish schools may have gathered exaggerated accolades from American education reformers. So, Finn is probably correct to suggest that Finnish schools have hyped cred, and I agree fully that there are some teachers in every country who just should not teach, or teach anymore. I just remember the names of the good ones I liked. But, teacher quality is not a big enough factor in “bad schools,” in my opinion.

    • A Finn

      Yes, our system is often overhyped abroad, especially based on good PISA scores. What is not recognized that the scores have already taken a turn downwards, possibly because the system is quite expensive, and worsening economy has lead to less resources for the schools and even some schools closing down for a week with all the teachers temporarily laid off when the funds have run out. Increased disruptive behaviour by the pupils has also been in public discussion recently, and teachers have complained about the lack of legal tools to deal with the problem cases.

      A few other thoughts:

      – What I can’t emphasize enough is that everything is free for the students at any level. Money will not get you substantially better education, which is why private schools are not popular.

      – The state actually sponsors students with a student allowance and rent support, so it’s possible get your higher education without working at the same time and/or racking up a huge amount of student loans (or without rich parents). The sum is not huge, but enough to get by. To be eligible, you need to earn a certain amount of credits per month of allowance, and the allowance is available for a fixed number of months (55 months, the last time I checked).

      – There’s not a wide gap between “elite” schools and the ones considered to be not-so-good, at any level. You can get good education anywhere, not just in the big cities; as an example, in this year’s comparison of lukios, the best overall evaluation score was achieved by lukio of Säkylä, a rural town of less than 5000 people.

      – It does not matter which schools you attented to, when it comes to university choices. Everyone applying is at the same level in that regard, and scores in the entrance exam combined with possible extra points from the matriculation examination grades are what matters. The choices are made solely on personal achievements and performance, not on some notions of prestige of the lukio that the student went to.

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