by Corriere.it – an article by Roger Abravanel
THE SCHOOL OF INIQUITIES The educational emergency of the Italian school is there for all to see, but few seem to care. The Italian school is frighteningly unfair as evidenced by the PISA tests that highlight a frightening gap between South and North.
OECD research on the "life skills" that should be learned at school (for example the ability to understand and interpret what you read in the newspapers) says that only 20% of Italians are at level 3 (the one considered acceptable in a modern society) against triple percentages in other developed countries. Without these competences, a country does not progress and civil conscience is not born.
The debate of recent months on the school has focused entirely on resources and not on how to improve the level of quality of teaching. Yet what to do is quite clear: just look at what England has done in the last 10 years.
There are four levers to be used. The first is the possibility of having national exams and standard tests that can objectively measure students' learning in order to make the quality of teaching transparent and responsible, which is the only real variable that matters, as shown by some studies such as "how the best schooling systems come on top" by Mckinsey.
Well we are one of the few developed countries where such standard exams and tests do not exist and the evaluation of learning is left only to schools with frighteningly subjective criteria (the PISA of the South are at the level of Uruguay and Thailand but the grades of the teachers are good, at the level of those of the North).
Invalsi, the structure that should conceive these tests, is laboriously trying to get out of the commissioner's headquarters.
Secondly, the ability to train the majority of teachers on teaching is essential, providing them with feedback on their needs for improvement and access "in the field" to the best colleagues. With us this possibility practically does not exist also because many teachers do not accept help on the quality of their teaching from other teachers better than themselves. The body responsible for this purpose, Anasa, is also trying to get out of the commissioner and restructure itself.
Thirdly, we need an excellent class of inspectors who, independently, visit the schools periodically to see the quality and define the improvement programmes with the principals and monitor them.
In England there are 1500 "Her Majesty's Inspectors" and in France 3000 Inspectors of the Ministry. We have only 300 and they can no longer inspect but intervene only in the most serious cases, especially those of a disciplinary type.
Fourth, it is essential to re-establish the selection of teachers: in Finland and Singapore where there are the best schools in the world, teachers are chosen from among the 5% of the best graduates. 10 years will pass between the last and the next competition that will still see a massive hiring of "precarious" and the creation of a frightening generational gap between teachers.
As a result of all this, the sound principle of "school autonomy" is a chimera: a principal has no power over teachers and no responsibility because the quality of teaching in his school cannot be objectively assessed. However, public funding comes regardless of the results. Catching up is possible but reforms of public education are the most difficult.
The opposition is enormous and usually comes largely from teachers' unions that resist any attempt to objectively measure the quality of teaching and to insert mechanisms of rewards and punishments.
Yet some reforms have been successful, such as that of Tony Blair who had as his government's objectives "education, education, education". Blair managed to overcome enormous resistance because he had the support of British citizens, especially the parents of students, tired of seeing the decline in the quality of their education system.
In Europe, citizens' awareness of school quality is growing: when the latest PISA results were published in the press, German mothers began to call Finland to understand the causes of the gap with Germany and the OECD website in French overshadowed France's mediocre results for fear of social tensions.
Here, however, this civil conscience is frighteningly absent.
The majority of Italians are missing, those of the less privileged social groups who lose the opportunities that school offers their children to have a better future than theirs and put it in last place among the priorities.
The main concern is that children can stay at school even in the afternoon and have good grades, even if the latter do not reflect the real abilities of the students. When the current government tackled the problem of school waste, millions of parents protested against the risk of seeing resources stolen with damage to "quality".
But, unfortunately, this quality, as we have seen, today is not objectively measurable given the absence of modern systems for evaluating students' learning.
In countries like England, which have seriously addressed the reforms of teaching, we have instead gone from a mentality that says "nothing works here, but give us the resources and if we are lucky we will improve" to "the resources will come if we deserve them, showing that we can improve with objective and transparent measures".
Few people, however, know that we are not able to spend three billion EU euros at our disposal to improve teaching, especially in the South.
If Italians become aware of the importance of a fair and quality school, they will find a powerful ally: a good part of the 800,000 Italian teachers who are frustrated by the lack of merit and the decline of their profession.
Then perhaps politics will move with the necessary courage and commitment.