Views in brief

March 21, 2008

Leaving U.S. children behind

A RECENT study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development makes a mockery of the dominant dogmas among U.S. education "reformers".

In a comparison of science, math and reading skills among 15-year-olds in 57 countries, the land of "No Child Left Behind" and exclusive pre-schools came in near the middle.

Who was first? Finland. What's their secret? "High school students rarely get more than a half hour of homework," according to Ellen Gamerman's Wall Street Journal piece following up the study. Furthermore, they have "no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted."

Other gems unearthed by Gamerman: Teachers and students call each other by their first names, school libraries have no Internet filters, there is "little standardized testing," and kids don't start school until age 7. Rather than cultivating an elite layer for future "leadership," teachers (who choose their own books and "customize" lessons) "concentrate on weaker students" and allow "bright students to help average ones."

Since college is free, and there are no elite institutions on the Harvard model, "Finnish children enjoy a less pressured childhood," Gamerman writes. Finnish schools provide "roughly equal per-pupil funding, unlike the disparities between [U.S. schools]," and Finland has greater income equality overall.

So the study, if accurate, correlates academic achievement with social equality, cooperation instead of competition, student and teacher autonomy, less testing and less homework.

Unfortunately, according to Gamerman, "worry about falling behind in the world economy" (despite having "one of the highest standards of living in the world") is pushing some Finnish educators and parents toward the "American style": "fast-tracking its brightest students...with gifted programs to produce more go-getters."
Avery Wear, San Diego

Left out of Black history, too

I APPRECIATED your list of suggested readings for Black History Month, which featured many excellent books I have read and others I know I want to check out. However, one thing about the list stuck out and troubled me: they were all written by and (largely) about men.

This is not surprising given the way the Black freedom movement has been portrayed in mainstream accounts, but it flies in the face of the true history. Women not only constituted the majorities of all of these movements, from the abolitionist struggle to the Black power movement, but they also played crucial leadership roles even as they were forced to challenge sexism both outside and within the movements every step of the way.

For instance, the Black Panther Party usually conjures up an image of leather-clad, gun-toting machismo, but at its peak in 1968, over 60 percent of the party's membership was women.

After several female Panthers were imprisoned and tortured in New Haven, Conn., in 1970, party leader Eldridge Cleaver came out with the following pronouncement: "Let it be a lesson and an example to all of the sisters, particularly to all of the brothers, that we must understand that our women are suffering strongly and enthusiastically as we are participating in the struggle.

"The incarceration and the suffering of Sister Erica [Huggins, leader of the New Haven Black Panther Party] should be a stinging rebuke to all manifestations of male chauvinism within our ranks...That we must, too, recognize that a woman can be just as revolutionary as a man and that she has equal status."

It is essential that we as activists reclaim and learn from this history. The list of known and written-about female leaders is too extensive to recount here (not to mention the countless who have been erased from history). For a good overview of some of these amazing women, check out Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 by Lynne Olson. For a more theoretical exploration of this theme, try Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis.

Here are a few excellent books about women who inspired me to become an activist: Maria W. Stewart: America's First Black Woman Political Writer, edited and introduced by Marilyn Richardson; Ella Baker: Freedom Bound by Joanne Grant; This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Kay Mills; and Assata by Assata Shakur.

I encourage others to share their favorite books and lessons from these and other incredible women.
Leela Yellesetty, Seattle

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