I am on my way to the General Assembly for the morning rally for school choice and the late afternoon hearing on HOPE.
Going to the Legislature is always a bit depressing because so many legislators focus on a single “fix” for schools. Of late, the fix of the day at the Legislature has been school choice, mostly through expanding charter school options but also through providing vouchers.
What always surprises me about the education reform debate in the General Assembly is that it never looks outward at what is succeeding elsewhere. It fixates on a few magic bullets rather than on a cohesive and comprehensive reform approach.
When shown successful school reform models elsewhere in the world, politicians and educators alike often scoff that there are no lessons for America.
So, in mentioning the remarkable ascent of Finnish schools from historic mediocrity to world dominance, I expect to be told that Finland’s schools are full of focused Finns, and the U.S. can never hope to duplicate the successful data of a Finland or a Canada or a Singapore.
“My experience is that American educators have a list as long as my arm of reasons why this data is irrelevant, totally irrelevant,” said Marc S. Tucker, author of “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems,” at a recent Education Week panel.
“These other countries educate just a few and we educate everyone. The sampling procedures are clearly wrong. They are totally homogeneous country. We are very diverse,” he said, ticking off the common excuses.
“There is no truth to most of these points, but there is enough conviction among American educators that they are true that they pay no attention at all. We have to get beyond that,” said Tucker, CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
“These folks are eating our lunch in a matter that will have greater bearing on the success of this country in the next 20 to 30 years than any other,” he said.
“Canada, which is even more decentralized country than us, more diverse and spends less money on education, is beating the pants off of us every time an assessment is done,” said Gary Phillips, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research. “They are just right up the street.”
The problem, say the experts, is that too many states don’t look up the street or across the world to see what is working.
Nor do our lawmakers, many of whom prefer to champion slogans rather than come up solutions. More school choice! Offer vouchers! End teacher unions!
Finland has a strong teachers union, a national curriculum no private schools, yet it is leading the world in student performance.
Finland — and other successful countries — understand that a single policy or a hodgepodge of policies won’t work. You need a coherent system of policies aimed at the same goal. Finland began with a commitment to providing all children the same educational opportunities, and realized that raising teacher quality was the key.
“We are having a president’s race in Finland now and education is one of those things that everyone agrees must not be touched. Funding should not be touched, nor should education be privatized,” said Pasi Sahlberg, author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?”
“We never used excellence as a driver of education reform; we wanted equity and equality as the most important drivers. Funding flows to those who have special needs,” said Sahlberg. “We don’t measure schools so we don’t say this is a bad school or this is a good school in terms of funding. All funding is based on need.”
Finnish schools provide three daily meals. Each has a nurse or doctor so children receive annual checkups. Recess is sacrosanct. In fact, Finnish children spend less time in class and have less homework than American students, and there is no high-stakes testing before the 12th grade.
But the real reform that changed Finnish schools, once in the lower ranks of performance with great gaps in achievement among its students, was the professionalization of teachers in the 1970s and 1980s.
All teachers now have master’s degrees and are trained as researchers “so they understand what they are doing, how they should improve and change their own work,” said Sahlberg. “In Finland, we believe it takes 10,000 hours before you are at the peak of your profession.” In America, he said, many teachers quit before that point.
Finland upgraded standards and admissions for teaching programs and moved them from third-tier institutions to research universities. Along with enhancing status, Finland raised teacher salaries. It’s now more difficult to get into a teaching program than into law or medicine.
While U.S. colleges could impose tougher admissions standards and attract higher-caliber teaching applicants, they could not influence states to commensurately raise salaries.
“What Finland has done about teacher quality is one part of larger framework and all the pieces fit together,” said Tucker. “We keep making minor changes to an education system that is 100 years out of date. It is not that the United States has a bad system. We have no system.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog