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Monday, January 03, 2011

Finland's lesson for US education reform

by folkbum

I'm a bit late to this, but since the topic never goes away, I don't need to be completely timely.

One of the things that confuses me most about today's education reformers is that on the one hand, they point to international rankings where the US is low to create a sense of urgency, while on the other hand, these same reformers advocate a series of reforms that do not exist in the systems ranked above us.

For example, reformers rightly cite the example of Finland as a country that did something right: Over the last three decades, they worked their way up from middling rankings with significant disparities--an achievement gap, if you will--between wealthy and poor students. Today, no such gap exists and Finland sits atop the rankings.

So, what does Finland do? Is there a voucher system? Demoralized, deunionized teachers? Standardized testing every few weeks, some of which is high stakes for students and schools? Charter schools run by private corporations? Performance pay and value-added teacher rankings in the daily newspaper?

Nah, of course not. Pasi Sahlberg, in the Boston Globe, tells us what they do have:
Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.

Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers. [. . .]

What could the United States learn from the Finns? First, reconsider those policies that advocate choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement. None of the best-performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation--not choice and competition--can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.

Second, provide teachers with government-paid university education and more professional support in their work, and make teaching a respected profession. As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent in the United States is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.
But, you know, that'll never happen. That would make sense.

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