America’s latest school report card jump-started yet another wave of panic that our students will never be able to compete on the world stage.The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s release of its annual Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, an international comparison of educational performance, placed U.S. kids in the incredibly average group.
But aside from the fear that our children won’t one day earn enough to prop up our Social Security/Medicare entitlements, the report wasn’t quite a death knell for the public school system.
America’s kids didn’t flunk. Where countries like England, France and Sweden are mired in mediocrity with no signs of improvement, the U.S. posted modest gains.
What’s most interesting about the PISA report, and important for the public school reformers here to focus on, is Finland.
Finland As A Model
Once again, Finnish students topped the PISA report card, but what makes this information worth scrutinizing is that 25 years ago Finland’s school system sat in the same predicament that public schools in the U.S. find themselves now. The Finns scored below average in math and science and had alarming achievement gaps between urban and affluent schools versus poor and rural schools.
They began scrutinizing the education policies and practices of more successful countries, took what worked, ignored that which went against the grain and built an educational system where today there is virtually no academic difference among socio-economic groups. Children in Finland can attend school anywhere in the country and be assured of the same quality of education.
The Exact Opposite
Not surprising to me, as a former teacher, is that Finland reformed its schools and rose to the top by doing almost the exact opposite of what reformers like Secretary of State Arne Duncan and Bill Gates would have Americans believe is the only cure for our ailing schools.
Despite the differences in our countries’ make-ups, (America is far more diverse and has a child poverty rate that is four times higher than Finland) they have much to teach us.
What Did Finland Do?
First, no child in Finland ever takes a standardized test. The only test a Finnish student takes is the one that determines if he/she will go on to university. In addition, standardized tests are not used to measure teaching ability or to compare schools. Parents, teachers and students assess progress and effectiveness of schools. Any comparison assessment relies on sample-based learning tests, which are low-stakes because the data is simply used in research to determine what works and what doesn’t. The Finns believe that education is a process, not a game to be won or lost.
Second, Finland put time and money into elevating the teaching profession. Parents and politicians regard teachers in the same manner they do doctors. In fact, the Finns trust schools more than any other institution except the police.
Teachers come into the profession with advanced degrees and they work with autonomy. Teachers are key players in determining curriculum and assessment, which might explain why the teaching profession attracts the best and brightest. After all, who wants to go into a profession where it is assumed you graduated in the bottom half of your class and couldn’t get into any other discipline at university?
Third, administrators from principals to school superintendents are all former teachers. No one is allowed to oversee the education of Finnish children in any role who hasn’t the educational training and experience. There are no exceptions. The idea that a business person or politician, who never taught, understands the learning process or should be in charge of reform would puzzle a Finn.
Fourth, Finland does not promote the idea of educating its young as a competition. Schools work in tandem and cooperation is the rule rather than the freakish exception. Interestingly, Shanghai – whose students bested Finland in math and science this year – also shuns the competitive model of school reform. In Shanghai, low performing schools are paired with and mentored by high performing ones with the emphasis on sharing techniques that work. Closing schools and firing teachers is simply not a choice.
What Could Americans Do?
How can American education reform benefit from Finland’s success?
First by admitting that what amounts to reform here isn’t “best practices” in the most academically successful countries in the world. When Finland began its reform, it took some cues from the United States but ignored those things that were fads or had no compelling long term data to support their effectiveness.
Perhaps it’s time that those who wish to make a difference in educating American children admitted that what we are doing is the same things over and over in slightly different packaging, and it isn’t working.
What Do You Think?
What does education reform look like in your community? Has anything in the last decade made an impact for the good? What suggestions would you make?
Photo credit: Vantaankosken koulu by Leo-seta