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Hungarian talent support from an American point – interview with Chester Evans Finn Junior

Chester Evans Finn Junior is an American educational policy analyst and expert. He is a Doctor of Education from Harvard, he was professor of education at Vanderbilt University, and he was assistant secretary of education during the Reagan administration. In the last few months of 2013, as part of a study trip over continents to examine talent support programmes and methods, he had also visited Hungary. His book about what he had learnt is coming out in early 2015. Until then, English posts are available online about his experiences on the website of Education Next at (http://educationnext.org/gifted-education—what-i-saw-what-i’m-learning/) and www.edexcellence.net. While at the Hungarian Institute of Educational Research and Development, Mr. Finn had a meeting with Szabina Cziráki, deputy director of the National Talent Development Centre and Márta Szvathné Szalay, deputy director general of the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development for professional support.

A website says: “Chester E. Finn Jr. has spent most of his adult life studying and trying to improve America's education system.” If you had to summarize it in only a few words - what’s wrong with the American education system, especially related to talent support?

We have major problems with students’ achievement. Many of them are way below the average and do not learn nearly enough, although we’ve been making some progress – particularly with younger children, particularly in mathematics – at bringing them up. Yet while our major policy push in the last ten or twenty years has been to bring below average students up to the required minimum standard of proficiency, we’ve been neglecting our high ability students. All our effort went to the low-achieving students, and with the high-achieving students, our attitude has been often somewhere along the lines of “They’ll be OK, don’t worry about them, they’re smart!” This is especially troublesome if the child is talented but poor, or talented but comes from a poorly educated family: if the parents are not navigating the system for the child, in those cases the child is very likely to be neglected by the education system. They often go to schools full of low-achieving students where there is little time and energy left for enriching and accelerating their education. We need to pay much more attention to our talented students, not only as a matter of fairness and equity to them, but also as a matter of human capital for the country. We cannot neglect those who will be tomorrow’s scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs and intellectual leaders.

There are other problems in our very large, highly decentralized education system. In the US, the states are mostly in charge of the education programme, and we have also local communities additionally in charge, 14.000 of them, and approximately 100.000 schools. Some of them are fine, but many of them are not. We should give children more good choices amongst schools. American children usually go to the local school, but if the neighborhood school is a very bad school, it’s a crime to keep the child there if (s)he would rather go somewhere else. But then you need to make available other options which are better. We also have school leadership issues, we have funding complications, and we have teacher quality issues as well.

Now that you have heard about the Hungarian talent support programme – what are your impressions?

It has some very remarkable aspects. I’m impressed by the many faceted, almost comprehensive way of thinking about talent development, about the large number of supporting groups and organizations and I’m also impressed that there is some political support in the parliament and in the government. There is a very interesting funding mechanism, so people can direct money as part of their taxes into the talent fund. Those are all very impressive.

What I’m not convinced about yet is whether talent is being adequately identified and cultivated. I’m not worried about middle class children from educated families; I’m worried about talented children from poor families. It seems to me that the process of identifying talent depends too much on the teacher in the school. I’m not sure yet whether the teachers and the schools serving young disadvantaged children are well prepared or even interested in developing and identifying their talent. It’s very difficult for a national programme to do anything except rely on schools and teachers, NGOs and other organizations. But I’m also old enough to be a little bit cynical to think that if schools and teachers are interested in their talented children, they would have already identified their talented children, and they would not need a national programme to help them do that. So I don’t know yet whether this national programme is changing the behavior of teachers and schools so that more talented children are identified.

Don’t we expect too much of schools? Not only in the area of developing talent, but generally speaking: What is really the area where schools can do something for society, the students and their families?

Some people in the US believe that schools should do everything. They should prevent drug abuse, prevent teenage pregnancy, encourage health and offer free time programmes. It’s beyond the capacity of schools to solve the worst social problems. However, I’m sure that when we’re talking about disadvantaged children, schools need to do more than they typically do. In the US our most successful schools for disadvantaged children operate very long days, from early morning until evening, they often operate on Saturday; they often operate into the summer. The teachers have cell phones, and say “Call me in the evening if you need help.” And the schools work very hard not just on academics, but also on attitudes, and behaviors, and aspirations and plans. So the school takes on to some degree the role of the community and tries to change the cultural expectations of its children. And it is possible, if the school surrounds the child with – and that’s one of the potential advantage of the dormitory programme – because then the child is actually living in an environment that could – I don’t know if it does this very well – but it could change the child’s whole cultural expectations for what they’ll do with their life.

But schools that are able to do that are rare, and the typical school in the United States, which operates 5 or 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 180 days a year, is limited in its ability to do all these other things besides teaching basic skills. So it’s simple: if we want the school to do more, we must give the schools the capacity to do more, which means give them more of the child’s time, give them more influence over the child’s life.

This is only possible if the parents are willing to cooperate, otherwise the extra efforts of the school will not work. The group of children that we are primarily concerned with here is the children who are not getting a lot of help and support at home, or from their neighborhood, or from their community. Their neighborhood might be dangerous, there might be gangs, and there might be bad behavior. Parents should at least be willing to let the child be in the school, for this extended time – it may even help in daycare. But schools cannot deal with the problem of the most difficult families who cannot for example even deliver the child to the school. But they could help many more children than they presently help, if they had the capacity to do that.

Do you think centralizing the school system can help moderating huge differences between schools and individual children? I’m thinking about current trends in Hungary: the state has taken the responsibility of maintaining schools from local governments. Publishing textbooks has become a state task. In one of your articles, you mention the educational establishment as a “blob”. Is it a good idea to leave out different interest groups from the field of education, or can the state itself become part of the blob?

The blob, more politely termed the educational establishment, is a mixture of bureaucrats, teacher unions and publishers. Often, they do not have the children as the object of their attention, but rather themselves. Is my piece of bureaucracy powerful and wealthy? Are my teachers’ jobs secure or well-paid? Too often the adult interest takes priority over the children’s interests. No one lobbies for children.

I think the right way to govern education is a mixture of centralization and decentralization. I think the actual operation of the school should be decentralized, in terms of who are the teachers, how the budget is allocated, what are the teaching methods and so forth. I believe we should make the principal of the school responsible for these operational decisions. We should set standards centrally and perhaps a core curriculum, assessments or tests, and other measurement systems, reporting systems and some equitable funding systems. And then the centre should stop. It should not try to operate schools or make decisions about who will teach and how.

With regards to the core curriculum, the question is whether it is limited to some subjects? It’s a huge debate in the United States right now. We have national standards called the “common core” in two subjects: English Language Arts and Mathematics. Generally, teachers and schools do not like very comprehensive and prescriptive curricula. It might have some good effects for bad schools to have expectations prescribed for them, but it’s very difficult to avoid harmful effects in other places.

I do believe though that teachers need some freedom. I was just in Finland where they have huge confidence in each school and every teacher to make many decisions about how schools operate. They do have a national core curriculum, but it’s not very extensive, they leave many of these decisions about how to apply it up to the schools and teachers. One of your challenges in Hungary is that you keep changing direction in education. In the US, there is more stability in decision-making on the state-level, which is quite important in education. Instability confuses children and teachers alike, moreover, it makes the latter very cynical. They will say, well, this year I must teach about one thing, but next year they will make me teach about another thing, and the year after that they will make me teach about yet another thing, so the teacher would say “forget about it, I’ll just teach whatever I want to.” So you would probably benefit in Hungary from some greater stability in your education policies.

But with regard to the talent support programme, I think there is an impressive degree of agreement that this is an important challenge for the country. It has support in all political parties and from many private and civic organizations as well. It generates enthusiasm, and also some moral and financial support. So some of the stability I was talking about may exist in the talent development in Hungarian education.

Maybe because it is a good investment to invest in talented children, especially disadvantaged children: everyone wants success stories and they are capable of showing success stories. But what about those who are not talented? Obviously, we need less and less low-skilled workers today, but is everyone capable of obtaining high-level education?

Not everyone has to go to university, that’s a misconception. But many students would benefit from a greater level of skill. Many vocational and technical programmes, in the US at least, are inadequate for modern economy. Not everyone has to study philosophy or electrical engineering, but it is important for the vocational-technical part of the system to prepare people for the modern world, for the jobs of tomorrow, and to give them marketable skills.

We have covered many aspects of education, but we haven’t talked yet about perhaps the most important actors in education: teachers. In Hungary, we are now developing a system of testing teachers, and a sort of peer evaluation. How do we choose the “good” teachers who are to evaluate their peers, and what’s your concept of a good teacher?

There’s only one definition to what is a good teacher and that is a teacher whose children learn a lot. If the teacher’s effective, the students are learning.

Is it enough to test the students then?

You must do a very complicated analysis of the student results because the students’ results are the cumulative effect of many years of education. We are currently engaged in the US in value-added analysis. Essentially it is about where the child was at the beginning of the year and where (s)he is at the end of the year. It’s very complicated technically. And for many teachers there is no test data that’s appropriate– an art teacher for example, or a physical education teacher. We don’t have tests in those subjects so we cannot evaluate them on the basis of test results. Additionally, student test results are not the only valuable measure of effectiveness. A teacher might be cultivating writing ability, or let’s say creative ability or artistic ability, then these things might not show up on tests, because many tests are not very good. So you could have a teacher that’s very effective, making her students think, and write clearly, but if you have a multiple choice test, the writing ability would never be noticed. Peer evaluation has some advantages too, teachers can often observe and judge and that can help. A mixture of evaluation mechanisms is needed. It is important to do evaluation. To not do any evaluation is to presume that either you don’t care about effectiveness or that everybody is equally effective, which is not true.

You’ve held many offices, both at universities and also in public administration. Which was the one where you thought you are serving the cause of American education the most?

As for what I would regard as my most important contribution, it was helping to bring about a full-fledged re-boot of our "national assessment" system back in the late 1980's and early 1990's, such that we now have state-specific data on student achievement that is also reported according to whether it meets the 3 benchmarks we call "basic", "proficient" and "advanced."