Online courses can't replace the good old fashioned teaching methods we once pioneered but are now driving Finland's educational success.
Several months ago, on a damp gray afternoon, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Racine, Wisconsin, just a few blocks from the Lake Michigan shoreline. That weekend a colleague and I would be conducting a leadership training session with teachers, parents, and community leaders, and I thought I’d get a feel for Racine during my visit. I was the shop’s sole customer. Main Street was nearly deserted. Now and then, a single car or passerby would appear. The city has a busy and curious past: it was a destination for New England Unitarians and record numbers of Danes; residents were staunch opponents of slavery and set up safe stops along the Underground Railroad; reportedly one of the world’s first cars was built there in the early 1870s; malted milk and the garbage disposal were invented and produced there. But signs of that history were nowhere to be found. The city has lost 16,000 occupants since 1970, when 95,000 people lived there.
A few hours later, in a large hall in a Roman Catholic retreat center a few miles up the shore, more than 40 Racine residents were seated in groups of six around large round tables. As part of the session, I circulated a one-pager that we had created as the basis of a drill and asked the group to read it. It began:
The School District has announced that it has signed an agreement with a major online learning company—Future Success, Inc.—and MIT to produce a world-class math curriculum. Because of private capital raised by Future Success, the entire program—equipment, software, laptops for all district students, and even subsidies to support Internet services for families in need—will be provided at no cost to the District for the first two years. . . . Cost savings will be created due to a shift in staffing patterns. In the traditional approach, 116 teachers were needed to deliver math instruction to the district’s students. . . . Only 42 will be needed under the new arrangement.
As the group concentrated on the page, there was a stirring at one of the tables. A fellow in his 50s spoke up. “Hey, wait a minute. This isn’t a drill,” he said. “I teach at the local technical college, and this has already happened to us.” He described how his job as a teacher had changed. He once related to 20 or 30 students in a classroom several times a day to but now was a technician who sat in front of his computer responding to emails from 200 online students and grading online homework and tests.
Changes such as this are happening all over the Midwest. If you spend any time there, away from the Chicago lakefront and the few thriving smaller cities built around major universities, you can see and feel what happens to a region when its past glories have badly faded and no new ones have emerged: dying downtowns, abandoned mills, gardens and vegetable plots in the heart of depopulated inner cities, the most functional remaining factories now operating as modern corporate operations in once-rural areas. Mechanization and globalization have reconfigured agriculture and manufacturing in ways that are easy to discern. Less obvious, less visible, less dramatic is the transformation in education, the Midwest’s third great area of entrepreneurial energy and national leadership.
For about 150 years, the Midwest’s education philosophy—a philosophy that prevailed elsewhere in the United States as well, if less emphatically—was centered on a commitment to preparing students to do useful work. Local people, connected to their communities, built successful schools based in large part on this pragmatic principle. But today this principle is undercut by political demands for ever-shifting versions of reform, by market demands for efficiency, by smothering student debt loads, and by the mistaken priorities of colleges racing for prestige. The debate over improving education—in the Midwest and throughout the country—often seems hopeless, but it turns out that we have long known what to do and are now suffering from the abandonment of the good methods we once pioneered and practiced.
• • •
Between the 1820s and the 1970s, the Midwest was home to at least three waves of educational expansion and innovation. First was the establishment of scores of small colleges, then thousands of high schools, and finally hundreds of community and technical colleges. The founding of so many new educational institutions, over an extended period of time, scattered over a massive region today home to roughly 100 million people, created social change of such scale and longevity that it has become part of the fabric of the nation, so engrained it has largely escaped notice.
Beginning in the 1820s, the Midwest generated a critical mass of new colleges—Oberlin and Ohio Wesleyan in Ohio, Grinnell in Iowa, Knox and Wheaton in Illinois, Beloit and Lawrence in Wisconsin, Earlham and Butler (née North West Christian) in Indiana, Alfred in Western New York, and many more. Towns competed with one another to attract new colleges the way modern communities vie for a new casino, a state-of-the-art prison, or the next superstore. These were denominational schools, with strong religious ties. Theological and moral education and discussion were common. In their early years, many of the colleges included a commitment to manual labor as part of the curriculum. Far ahead of the Ivy League schools in the east, these embraced co-education. If they are remembered as a group at all, these schools are thought of, as Kenneth Wheeler has written in his fine book, Cultivating Regionalism (2011), as hotbeds of progressivism.
What’s forgotten, or minimized, and what Wheeler reminds us of, is that the region also “emphasized productivity and usefulness . . . and valued creativity and new ideas.” This culture “led naturally to a career choice of science, with . . . its emphasis on experimentation and receptivity to new possibilities, and its propensity toward usefulness.” One son of a Congregationalist minister, Grinnell graduate Robert Noyce, went on to found both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corporation and to launch a new business culture in a place we now call Silicon Valley. The impact of the Midwestern culture of usefulness was sustained well into the early and even middle part of the 20th Century and captured in a single sentence by Marilynne Robinson in her novel Gilead: “To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear.”
The second wave, the “high school movement,” gained strength while the first wave was still rolling forward. “The supply of educated Americans increased greatly and almost unceasingly from 1900 to around 1980,” Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz write in The Race Between Education and Technology(2008). “The towns of the Midwest, especially the tiny towns, were wellsprings of social capital and thus of schools and human capital.”
The enormous increase in educational attainment in the early part of the twentieth century came primarily from a grass-roots movement that propelled the building and staffing of public high schools. It was not due to a top-down mandate or pressure from the federal government, nor did it result from powerful local interest groups or arise because of legal compulsion.
In 1910, only 19 percent of Americans of high school age were enrolled in a school and not quite 9 percent graduated nationwide. By 1970, approximately 96 percent were enrolled and nearly 78 percent graduated. This was a national phenomenon, not just a Midwest trend, but it was very much a fact of Midwest life during this period. “In some parts—such as the Northeast, the West, and much of the central part of the nation—high schools spread like wildfire and youth flocked to them in droves.” While this expansion was deeply connected to local communities and local leaders, people understood that what they were doing was a massive and unique educational experiment, historic in both scope and scale.
When we think of a movement in modern times, we imagine something like Occupy Wall Street or a massive march. We see thousands or even hundreds of thousands of individuals gathered for an event or a campaign. We see slogans, banners, charismatic leaders, riveting speeches, sharp confrontations, and media attention. To imagine a movement of institutions is almost a contradiction in terms—or in preconceived notions. But the country experienced just that.
Like all meaningful movements, this one had roots. It grew out of the ground broken in the previous century by the small colleges that graced so many growing towns. It didn’t have one charismatic leader but emerged out of a culture of values and virtues that had formed slowly and fitfully during the previous century. Goldin and Katz describe three of this movement’s fundamental features: it was often flexible and forgiving when confronted with youthful transgressions; it welcomed girls and young women; and it was highly decentralized. “Schooling in 1900 was not only publicly funded, but it was also publicly provided by tens of thousands of fiscally independent school districts. . . . the vast majority of districts in 1900 were small . . . . Education in terms of its funding, staffing, and curriculum, therefore, was largely a local affair.”
A decision by a group of largely Lutheran civic leaders in a central Wisconsin town to tax themselves and their neighbors so that a high school could be built and sustained is not the stuff of a Steven Spielberg production. But across the Midwest and beyond, small-town leaders—émigrés from all parts of the world, black and white, followers of many denominations and faiths, farmers and fabricators and small business people—laid the foundation for what was then the largest and most inclusive educational expansion on the planet. None of this fits on a bumper sticker. It can’t be condensed into a sound byte. And it’s broader and deeper than any brand.
The high school movement crested in about 1975, but not before stimulating the third wave of educational expansion and innovation—the growth of community colleges. Wisconsin was a leader in this wave. It was the first state, in 1911, to provide enough aid to fund a system of vocational, technical, and adult educational schools. In fact, every community of 5,000 or more citizens was required to establish an industrial education board with the power to levy a property tax. Wisconsin also became the first state to set up apprenticeship agreements.
In 1917 two-year and vocational colleges represented just 5 percent of all of the higher education institutions in the nation. By 1935 they were 25 percent of the total. Today, these schools account for 40 percent of the colleges in the country. In 1,200 locations, they educate nearly six million students, both young and adult learners. Last year, I spent time on two of Wisconsin’s sixteen technical college campuses—at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, about 150 miles north of Madison, and Waukesha Technical College, west of Milwaukee. These sixteen campuses educate 380,000 students each year. What struck me, on both campuses, was the remarkably high quality of just about everything visible to the naked eye. These were not afterthought institutions—the poorer third cousins of the four-year colleges in the state. They were well built, modern, carefully maintained, and rooted in their respective communities. On the wall of the main buildings, in both places, were the descriptions of the founders and supporters of each school—a combination of local business and civic and political figures. Donors included local farm and feed stores, manufacturers, and employers of many stripes. The promotional material, in the spirit of the Midwest’s earliest education reformers, emphasized pragmatic training that led to long-term employment.
These three waves of educational innovation shared some common characteristics. Again, they were highly decentralized. They were connected to local people in local places with local histories and cultures. They were all profoundly pragmatic, integrating work as a part of the curriculum in the case of the first wave of small colleges, responding in part to the region’s need for workers in the case of the high school movement, both reacting to the demand for qualified labor and increasing the capacity of young and adult learners in the cases of community and vocational schools. At the same time, two of the three waves, the small colleges and high schools, were also socially radical—embracing the goals of freedom for slaves, access to education, and equity for women long before the broader culture and other institutions followed suit. These waves of change were led and shaped by a mix of people who were, for the most part, the opposite of charismatic. And these institutions were, at the start and for many decades, financially sound—publicly funded, “owned” by a broad range of local taxpayers, not overly dependent on government subsidies or on market gimmicks.
• • •
Today, many of the qualities that informed the three successive waves of educational expansion and innovation have been turned on their heads, as school districts are increasingly affected by forces far removed from local communities and utterly disconnected from local interests, dynamics, and needs. These forces tend to militate against the pragmatic principles upon which the expansion was based.
One of these forces is financial. State support for public colleges and universities has dropped from a little over 38 percent in 1991–1992 to 24 percent in 2008–2009. Community colleges scramble for available funding that may or may not connect to the felt needs of their immediate communities. A case in point is the College of DuPage, just west of Chicago. The campus is a beehive of more than 26,000 attendees. Many of the young students seek a less expensive alternative to four-year schools and many of the older students look for skills to advance careers or to lead to new jobs. According to local business operators, in the office parks and light-manufacturing areas near the school, well-paying jobs go unfilled because applicants lack the skills and training to handle the higher-tech work. The funding to make this obvious connection between willing students and well-paying work is limited and hard to access. So the school largely ignored this enormous opportunity until pressured by DuPage United, a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which I help to manage. Meanwhile, state funds were available for a new Homeland Security Education Center and for a facility that features a few hotel rooms and a wine cellar. While the security and hospitality industries do provide job opportunities, the wages and benefits offered by the manufacturing sector are significantly higher.
Another influence is the race to be “elite,” or more elite, particularly among the top ten percent of colleges and universities, whose operators apparently think lavish facilities and plentiful administrative staff attract the best students. Princeton, for instance, recently started work on a $330 million “arts neighborhood.” The rail spur off the Northeast Corridor Line of New Jersey Transit, called the Dinky, will be altered, and a new Princeton train station will be built. New housing and arts-related facilities will spring up. This massive project follows a math library designed by architect Frank Gehry and a science building that cost the earth.
In 2010 the editor of the alumni magazine of Yale, my alma mater, wrote an essay that began this way: “The 1,100 Yale managers who had filled Battell Chapel were utterly silent when President Richard Levin . . . told them . . . . ‘We have more people working’ in business and administrative staff at Yale ‘than best practices suggest we need.’” To call this an understatement is to say the very least. An institution with about 11,000 students and 9,000 staff somehow allowed its management corps to reach the almost incredible number of 1,100. The president said that the process of assessing the staffing level would be deliberate and that no one should panic.
These kinds of projects or extravagances—common at almost all major universities, public and private—are the institutional equivalent of bling. Instead of diamond studs and gaudy chains, universities build cute arts communities and hire hordes of staff—servants really, fetching books for students in an open library, renting cars for student volunteers for the ride to a nearby soup kitchen—to meet every student need.
Beyond buildings and bureaucrats, another sign of elite status is the race to provide the latest hot technology. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the new thing. The creations of technology titans at prestigious universities, MOOCs are underwritten by cutting-edge investment firms in the same Silicon Valley founded by Robert Noyce. Columnists such as the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman wax lyrical about the possibilities. Words such as “transformational,” “disruptive,” “radical,” “irreversible,” and “inevitable” appear in every puff piece. New university presidents—such as Christopher Eisgruber, the Princeton provost recently tapped to succeed the retiring Shirley Tilghman—feel compelled to include the increasing use of online instruction as one of their core commitments. And existing university presidents, such as the University of Virginia’s Teresa Sullivan, risk immediate, public, and humiliating dismissal if they do not embrace this glittering technology quickly and passionately enough. President Sullivan was fired and then reinstated, but the message was clearly sent to all other university presidents and would-be presidents: sign on with MOOCs or face irrelevance. Faculty resistance to MOOCs is growing.
This is not to say that all claims made on behalf of online courses are ridiculous. If you are a good science student in rural Montana, and your high school does not offer AP Chemistry, an online option may be a very useful. Some fields of study—particularly those that depend on the transfer of technical information—lend themselves to online instruction more than others. But the MOOC movement is built on a set of very shaky assumptions. One is the notion that education is merely the transfer of information. Another is that information can be transferred more efficiently by an online presentation than by a teacher in a classroom. A third is that one celebrity professor performing for the online masses is more effective than one hundred capable professors in front of one hundred gatherings of students. All of these assumptions are untested.
If MOOCs were offered as an experiment, as an approach to be tested and evaluated and refined, that would be one thing. But MOOCs are being sold, hustled really, as the best and brightest breakthrough since the printing press. The MOOC sales staff all have what in religious circles is called a “witness story.” There’s always a poor lad or lass in some desperately poor place, as far away as possible, who takes a course that would never be available if not for MOOCs. I heard one recently about a boy in Mongolia who took a poetry course through an Ivy League online offering. Now, I’m glad that he had the chance to take that course. And I hope more have the opportunity. But, as scientists love to say, the plural of anecdote is not data. And it is reasonable to suggest that we need to see more data about the impact of MOOCs over time. The limited data already available are ambiguous. Yes, there seems to be enormous initial interest, with some courses attracting even hundreds of thousands of watchers. But the data also show that most of these watchers stop watching and that few finish. The dropout rate is far greater than the appalling rates in failing high schools that led the corporate and foundation elites to demand the restructuring and closing of these schools.
Combine this evangelical embrace of online alternatives with the willful naiveté regarding questions of power and profit—who controls and who benefits, who loses influence and who pays the price—and you have the two essential ingredients for another in a long line of costly and destructive sideshows.
This entire experience has the same feel and dynamic as our nation’s most recent infatuation with the complex, radical, transformative high-tech “advance” in housing finance that led to the financial collapse of 2009 and the slow-motion depression we still struggle to escape. I vividly recall a breakfast meeting with an intelligent and well-intentioned housing official at the highest level of New York City government in 2006. He had recently attended a meeting of the smartest people in housing finance, led by the whip-smart son of a billionaire philanthropist. They had been discussing securitization and other strategies to expand home lending. As with MOOCs, one of the rationales was that it would enable people, poor and urban, to enter the housing market. As with MOOCs, it was incredibly complex and technical. In fact, my breakfast partner, now a top-level federal official, said, “Only seven people in the world really understand how it all works.” I remember saying that this didn’t seem to me to be a good thing. Meanwhile, under the cover provided by academic economists and government agencies, rip-off artists were peddling sleazy subprime mortgages out of strip malls in Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles, to borrowers who would end up in foreclosure and bankruptcy a few years later.
Colleges strapped for cash are already cutting staff, introducing MOOCs, and hoping for the best. Once the instructors have been removed and the budgets have been trimmed, it will be difficult to return to what we could call a more relational approach to education. The new MOOC entrepreneurs know this. The college bureaucrats whose interest is to protect or even expand their fiefdoms while paring away at the instructional staff know this. Those who simply hate teachers associations or what they think of as the progressive tilt of colleges and universities relish this. And those who believe that all associations are now passé, that in this post-institutional world the online consumer should be free to find the perfect virtual product, are cheered as their fantasies of the future morph into new realities.
• • •
We are a long way from the local connections, the local relationships, and the local interaction of early denominational colleges, high schools, and community colleges. In these three waves of institutional development, the major dynamic moved mostly from the inside out—from the interests, needs, perspectives and cultures of local communities into and through the schools that they created and sustained. A critical mass of those locally based institutions sparked a chain reaction: the training of well-equipped and capable scientists, engineers, farmers, welders, teachers, secretaries, business managers and founders, and many others. This farm system produced talented players by the millions. And those players invented, built, and steered the social and economic engine of the nation for more than 150 years.
Today, that dynamic has reversed. Since about 1975, local institutions found themselves reacting more and more to external forces—budget cuts at the state level, mandates from the federal government, various market “solutions” that masked further losses of local identity and control, failed corporate models of supervision and management that added endless layers of supervisory staff. Work, pragmatism, usefulness—the values that formed the foundation of many of the most remarkable educational institutions in the nation—are now sniffed at by the distant governmental and academic elites making the decisions. Alongside a commitment to pragmatic and this-worldly usefulness, many of the institutions created during the three waves of expansion also have a clear sense of a social mission. Most modern schools have neither.
Why all of these disruptions? The greatest factor may be money. The once-stable financial foundation of the nation’s education system has collapsed. Several elite institutions, such as Yale and Carnegie Mellon, along with dozens of other American colleges, have disgraced themselves by rushing to open overseas campuses in totalitarian countries—a fad that already seems to be fading, in large part because the crass money grab that motivated in has raked it far less than was hoped for. But almost every modern college and university depends on a faculty that is largely made up of temporary workers—adjuncts. Two thirds of the more than one million faculty members in the nation are adjuncts. If you still believe that universities are hotbeds of socialist agitation, ask any tenured professor how he or she feels about this culture of serfdom that buoys a shrinking number of tenured staff.
Worker solidarity and class consciousness may remain as quaint concepts in a few classrooms, but they are not a reality in university life. Adjuncts make extremely low wages, often teach at several schools, and rarely have so much as a desk or a table to use if they happen to have a spare moment before or after class. Their numbers keep growing—both absolutely and as a percentage of all people teaching in higher education institutions.
And all that slicing away at the wages and benefits of instructors hasn’t slowed down the ever-increasing cost of college. American students now have nearly $900 billion in outstanding student loans, a third of which is held by subprime lenders. This is the next bubble that threatens to burst and smear the American economy. And it resembles the housing bubble in almost every way. In housing, two generations of development and ownership—based on the steady construction of millions of modest homes and the patient building of equity in small but consistently growing increments—were replaced by an orgy of oversized homes, manic swings in value, and a collapse that threw millions of families into underwater mortgages or outright foreclosure.
In education, every virtue of the three successful waves of educational expansion and innovation has given way to a culture detached from any deeper mission, disconnected from local communities and concerns, and founded on an unstable mixture of underpaid labor and accelerating debt. Education, once the key to the nation’s advances in science, manufacturing, economic opportunity, and social cohesion, is now increasingly extractive and predatory.
• • •
Twenty-five years ago, when the New York City public school system seemed permanently mired in mediocrity, a New York Times reporter asked me, “Alright, what’s the answer?”
I said, without thinking really, “One hundred nuns.”
I grew up in a Midwestern city, Chicago, where nuns and priests and ministers were very much a part of the fabric of our lives. It was a world of institutions—parishes, congregations, ward offices, ethnic societies, unions, local companies, workplaces we could see from a window in our homes and that our parents and their children, once of age, could walk to. I don’t mention this out of a sense of nostalgia or without a very clear sense of all the limitations of this world—its insularity, its hostility to the other, its cover-up of sins and abuses, its resistance to change.
And yet a hundred nuns was more than just a glib response. Those nuns embodied a sense of mission. They lived and worked in and among the communities they served. They had high expectations of themselves as instructors. And they set tough standards for their students, no matter how poor, no matter what the situation in the home, no matter how many weekend hours were spent in part-time jobs.
I thought of them last summer, when my wife and I visited Finland. While there, we wanted to see for ourselves if the “Finnish miracle”—that nation’s reputation as a center of educational excellence—was real. Our host was himself a retired instructor in his town’s teacher training institute. One day, he invited over another senior instructor, and they told us how they saw their work as teachers and trainers of teachers.
In a very quiet and restrained fashion, they described their professional context. For the 68 slots in their teacher training program—three years of undergraduate and two years of masters-level instruction—they received 2,400 applications. Teaching jobs are more sought-after than medicine, law, business, or high-tech careers. The training of teachers includes in-class observation, co-teaching, and then teaching, almost from the start. “When we are done with them,” they said, “they graduate as teachers.” The pay is average, not particularly high, but not American adjunct-level either. Nearly every teacher belongs to the union, as do administrators. There are almost no private or charter options. There is very little mandated testing, either of teachers or students. Each team of teachers in a school receives a set of overall goals and has the freedom to plan and organize how to reach those goals based on its own judgment. When my wife and I described the “drill and kill” culture in many American schools, the Finns just said, “That’s not teaching.”
Everything we heard from our hosts echoed what we had read in Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons (2011), about the transformation of the Finnish school system. Thirty years ago, Finland’s schools were mediocre and struggling. A combination of teachers union, business, and government leaders hashed out a plan to turn the system around. At the heart of that plan was the goal of making all Finnish schools—no matter how remote the location or poor the village or town—top performers. Finns decided to improve the teaching force, limit student testing, and transfer leadership and decision-making to education professionals at the school and district level, enabling an effective hybrid of central-government influence and local control. Today Finland’s school system ranks regularly as either the highest performing in the world or somewhere in the top four.
The Finnish emphasis on the “supply side” of the education experience—the recruitment, training, and support of teachers—is striking. Our nation leaves teacher recruitment and training to a hit-and-miss hodgepodge of 1,400 different providers—public, private, online, for profit, many either mediocre or inept—which almost everyone acknowledges makes no sense. As a result, our educational culture has built-in gaps and deficiencies that generate and perpetuate disputes over teacher quality, teacher testing, tenure, and public versus private correctives. Capable people who long to teach endure teacher-training programs that are often dreadful wastes of time and money and that fail to prepare them for the needs and challenges of the students and communities they will serve. Generic preparation for a suburban-type school system that barely exists anymore only deepens the disconnects between teacher and student, school and community, education and employment.
The same is true when it comes to students. Our nation doesn’t come close to providing the health care, public safety, parental support, and pre-kindergarten opportunities that many other countries provide. We leave those issues to chance as well. We mock the Nordic countries for the high costs of their social services, while our school children fall further behind.
In Finnish public schools today, in the best of the new schools supported by reformers in several cities, in the most focused technical and community colleges of the Midwest, in many high-performing traditional public schools and districts, there is still the audible hum of meaningful mission, as there was in many urban Catholic schools of the 1950s and ’60s. Whether the mission is to build a congregation, or prove that minority children in the South Bronx or on the West Side of Chicago can thrive if relentlessly challenged and supported, or revitalize the nation, there are those carrying it out. Or perhaps the goal is to show that working-class kids from Waukegan or Waukesha can master the skills needed to staff modern manufacturing plants or to demonstrate that society is not fixed and final, but plastic and fluid. In every successful educational culture, something bigger and deeper than market efficiency or ideological assertions from government motivates those involved.
That something, if not explicitly religious, is, fundamentally, spiritual and forward-looking—qualities that are in short supply in the many hundreds of American communities like Racine, where teachers, parents, and students are surrounded by decline. That motivation is rooted in a belief that almost all children and young adults can grow and develop. It builds new institutions, or reorganizes existing ones, around those core values. It places a high value on the direct public relationship—the back and forth, the interaction—between teachers and learners. And the dynamic of teaching and learning that occurs in those schools, at their best, is a kind of secular liturgy.
We can’t buy this kind of motivation from the market. No tool or program can spark it. And the elites at the top of the current educational heap—who advanced their careers while the educational culture declined—have no clue.
What else is new? The next wave of educational change will be imagined, shaped, tested, and carried forward by the same kinds of pragmatic leaders who built scores of new colleges on the prairie and planted a generation of high schools and then a generation of community colleges in every corner of our country.
All nations need building—or rebuilding—including ours.
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