Jan 8, 2012

Schools, Finland, Equity, #Occupy

Image via Wikipedia
When I was in college I read the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol.  The book, released in 1991, was a startling look at the inequities among public schools. Sometimes the inequities Kozol describes are really hard to read about. Dilapidated school buildings exist on one side of a river while shiny, well-kept buildings exist on the other side of that same river. Why does this inequity exist? Because in the U.S., our public schools are funded mostly by local property taxes. A nice neighborhood with a large tax base will have the funding to make a really nice school building, keep it well-maintained, offer a wide variety of programs, and be up-to-date in its technology. An example of such a school is New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL. According to School Digger (a site that reviews and ranks schools nationwide), New Trier is ranked the 5th best school in the state of Illinois.
New Trier High School. Image Credit: Flickr/eszter

Just 30 miles south of New Trier High School in Chicago is the Chicago Vocational High School. According to School Digger, Chicago Vocational ranks 661st in the state of Illinois.
Chicago Vocational School. Image Credit: Flickr/ reallyboring 
What's the difference between these schools besides 30 miles? Poverty. Winnetka is a suburban middle/upper middle class town. Meanwhile, almost 100%  of Chicago Vocational's students live in poverty.

You may think that since Savage Inequalities came out in 1991 and it is now 2012, things have changed. Think again.  Kozols' later book, The Shame of the Nation, published in 2005, says that things have gotten worse. Now it's not just poverty that leads to inequity, schools are also becoming more and more segregated.

Our government has attempted to right these wrongs through a series of legislation--from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top. Throughout the course of this legislation, I have read articles about other countries that outperform the U.S. in achievement. One of the countries that has garnered a lot of attention in recent years is Finland. An article from the Atlantic, "What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland's School Success" is circulating widely on Twitter and in the blogosphere. I read this article and  was struck by a few quotes:
"There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation."
"Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity."
"That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year -- or even just the price of a house in a good public school district -- and the other "99 percent" is painfully plain to see."
As the 1% focus on keeping their wealth, the gap grows bigger between the haves and have-nots. According to Jonathan Kozol's work, increasingly that gap is also marked by color.

An acquaintance on Google + commented that what works in Finland probably won't work in the U.S. because of size differences. It's such a small country, comparatively. My response? New Trier is only 30 miles from Chicago Vocational High School. The population of Winnetka and Chicago combined is roughly 3 million. The population of Finland is over 5 million. I think that if we start small....perhaps by creating equity between schools that are in the same district, maybe expanding to schools that are within 30 miles of each other, we might see some huge differences. I think we owe it to the kids of our nation to try to level the playing field. Don't you?


  1. Interesting post!  Yes, we definitely owe it to our kids!  They are the future. xoxo

  2. Thanks, Tara! They ALL deserve the best, right? xoxo back at ya :)

  3. Hi, this is an interesting post.  My mom is a graduate of the Chicago public school system...the high school she attended was ranked in the 500's according to that site.  

    Looking at the site though, it seems like the Chicago Public School System has several top ranking high schools.  It is interesting that within the same district they could have schools near the top...and at the bottom.  For instance, a high school in that same general area my mom used to live in ranks number six on the list.  I think there are a lot of magnet schools....not sure how that would affect the "general purpose" schools.

    It would seem to me that Chicago as a whole should have enough of a tax base to adequately fund all schools.  I know the incredibly small house my mom grew up in is valued much more than it would be here(in Iowa City).

    Speaking to the basic point of your post though, why is one school near the bottom?  Why do some schools seem to fall through the cracks?  I think it is partly about money, but it is also about priorities as well?  Why aren't some schools well maintained?  Who speaks for the neighborhood that surrounds a school like the one near the bottom?  Are the people running the school district expected to have much accountability in poorer neighborhoods?

    One more point is that I understand it schools can spend as much as they want per pupil in the suburbs, where school quality is perceived to be better.  As I understand it there is a limit on how much any one district can spend in Iowa.

    I was incredibly surprised that Obama would have chose Arne Duncan, someone affiliated with the Chicago Public School System as Ed Secretary.  I would have hoped he could have found someone that comes from  a place with a better track record for equity in schools than Chicago.

  4. Fleur, I think the number one reason schools fall through the cracks is poverty. Priorities are different for schools and for neighborhoods when there is a lot of poverty. In a middle class neighborhood school, the priorities are probably academic. In a poverty afflicted neighborhood, the priorities are often about making sure kids get 3 meals a day, making sure they have winter coats to where when it's cold, and making sure they have a parent to supervise them at home. That is the reality for some kids--and not just in big cities like Chicago, but also right in our Iowa City School District. Even in our local district, inequity is a problem. Depending on what neighborhood your school is in, you might have a PTO that raises funds to put high-level technology in every classroom. Or you might be in a school that does not even have enough computers for a whole class of students to take keyboarding at the same time. 

  5. I hear what you are saying about the PTOs...I think that is a huge, and underreported issue.  

    My children attend/attended a higher poverty elementary in the ICCSD.  I don't think that previous school boards, and the past administrators attempted in any way to be responsive to the concerns of parents at that school.  How can we advocate for children from higher poverty backgrounds if we actually don't want to listen to the people in those communities.  I feel as if people want to talk "about" the higher poverty schools, but don't actually don't want to talk with the people in those schools.

    We aren't living in poverty, and when we chose our house in Iowa City we had no idea it was a school in a higher poverty area.  I think that most people working in the schools are very dedicated.  When things don't work as they should though in a higher poverty school though, those families have fewer options....and little voice.  

  6. You are so right. My kids are in a high poverty school, too. We lived here for a long time before we had kids and loved the diversity of our neighborhood; we still do! It is a really great school with an exceptional staff. They work hard to give voice to those families in poverty, lately through a grant aimed at getting parents into the school (I-SPIN). The problem is that so many parents have had previous bad experiences with schools that it's hard to make them comfortable enough to come to the building. Add that to the impact cultural differences between staff and families...Giving voice to those who deserve to speak is not an easy thing. I think it will take years to change the climate of our district enough so that people (besides those who are white and educated) feel comfortable enough to speak. We have to really work at welcoming everyone into the fold. I think most school staff people make an effort at that, but the community as a whole has a long way to go.

  7. Fascinating article.  I've been thinking a lot lately at how things have not changed racially in the last 30 years.  I can't understand why people put up with the inequalities.  It seems like they are either waiting for someone else to do the work or are so broken they don't believe they deserve better.

    Again great info. here.

  8. Yes! We do owe it to our kids. I'm struggling with this right now, thinking about schools. Debating to myself whether it's more important for my daughter to to one of the "better" schools or being in a school where she is not a racial minority. It seems pretty damn unfair that I have to make such a choice and even more unfair that she will have to live with it.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Letty! I often wonder the same thing about why people put up with the inequities. Seems like the #Occupy movement should be much bigger...and more diverse.

  10. I hear you, Martha. We went through the same thing with our kids. They are in a very diverse school that is considered "failing." What we've found is that their school has the most wonderful, caring, supportive staff we could hope for. I feel like the kids are getting a good education and are surrounded by a lot of kids who look like them. But their school building isn't as up-to-date as many others in the district that are more well-to-do (and almost 100% white.) It's a tough decision. 


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