Sunday, April 29, 2012

High Anxiety Schooling vs. Its Polar Opposite

Yesterday I attended a local viewing of two education documentaries - The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman and The Finland Phenomenon.  (Disclaimer: I provided the copy of The Inconvenient Truth.)

The differences in the films are stark.

The first film was created by teachers who currently are working in the New York Public Schools and fighting from a grassroots perspective against the Mayor-Bloomberg-run public schooling system.  The filmmakers do a decent job of connecting the dots between the private monied interests and school reform. The private charters co-opt public funds for private profits and the results (or lack of them) are unfairly judged.

The public schools are routinely held accountable while charters are given a sweet deal with none of the accountability public schools face.  For instance, charters are allowed to "co-locate" with public schools. That means they get the physical resources of public schools while literally pushing the public school children into the basement.  In addition, charters can remove students from their rolls, thus forcing them back on the public schools.  This has resulted in test scores that look great over time.  Charter scores rise as the student population decreases. Generally the high-poverty or disabled are forced out.

The tenor of the film is explosive.  There is documentation of public meetings where parents and students are screaming at public officials to take their concerns seriously and to promise an equitable education for all rather than turning citizens against each other in lotteries where a student's future is left to chance.  That is followed by lots of evidence that the charters are not what they appear to be and that many of the celebrated results come from cooking the books.

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman is anxiety producing in the extreme.

After that we watched the film on Finland.

The mood and tone of this film is calm and inspiring -- as is the Finnish system of schooling.

Following the film every adult in attendance wanted to know: How do we get that in our country?

Here is what was learned from the Finnish school system:

  • In the 70's the country recognized that human capital was their chief resource, and they needed to ensure that all children were educated well.
  • The nation determined the purpose of schooling (see above) and dedicated resources toward that end.
  • They set a national curriculum which is simple but clear and allows localities to meet the standards in a locally-situated context.
  • Teacher preparation was studied and reformed.  Applicants must meet rigorous standards before entering the schools of ed.  All teachers have undergraduate degrees in their subject area and are at the top of their class before pursuing the two-year Masters program in teaching.  Now, after 25 years, there are routinely more applicants than can be accommodated in the programs.
  • Once in, the novices watch master teachers, meet in collaborative groups to debrief lessons, share their lessons prior to teaching them, tinker with them in collaborative groups following the lessons, are given time to collaborate and plan, and then work hard to make sure that lessons are focused on giving students adequate time to discover their learning through projects and other student-centered activities.
  • Once employed, these well-trained teachers are trusted to do their work.  There are no "accountability" systems.
  • Teachers spend a little over half the time in front of students than American teachers.  (600 hours versus our 1100).
  • Teachers stay in their careers throughout their lifetime.  The profession is honored and highly sought after.  Compensation, once the teacher has gone through a probationary period, is equivalent to other professions.
There were other surprises:
  • Students don't start formal schooling until the age of 7. (There is a one-year preschool, state sponsored.)
  • There is very little homework.
  • Students are in school fewer hours than American students. (But schools are for learning only and there are no distractions like sporting events and so forth.)
  • There is minimal emphasis on testing.  There is a graduation examination.  Any other testing is used to inform instruction.
  • All students are taught together - no tracking of ability.
  • Teachers expend lots of time on planning lessons which ensure that students feel calm - not stressed.
  • In high school (grades 10-12), students can choose between an academic or vocational track.  Both are equally valued and honored (and supported in the above manner).  Unlike the German schooling system there are no placement tests for this.  Students are not forced into either track.
  • If a student changes his or her mind mid-way through, the shift from vocational to academic or vice-versa is equally accommodated, with no stigma either way.
  • Students can opt to do some programs in two, three, or four years - their choice.  Again, no stigma to these choices.  (Students spoke about the programs and why some might choose one over another, and it was clear the students saw a logical rationale in why a child might make different choices.)
  • Finland spends less per child than we do.  (Please note above: teachers are paid well, but the stability of the teaching force results is spending less, not more.  We spend LOTS of money on recruiting and training and testing and testing and testing....only to do it all over again in just a few years...)
  • Facilities are equal in terms of equipment.  (They appeared bright and clean...and calm.)
  • Everything a student needs during the school day is provided.  That includes meals and snacks.
  • Class sizes are kept small.
Certainly all this touchy-feely stuff couldn't result in real learning?!  Where's the nose-to-the-grindstone effort needed for success?

Finland routinely beats out all other nations in performance by their students.  By comparison the US has been ranking around 17th when stacked up against other industrialized nations-- though individual school systems pulled out can routinely out-perform all nations -- and our ranking has been falling.

My colleagues sometimes argue that our high level of poverty is more of a deterrent to learning than teaching conditions and argue that Finland does not face the levels of poverty we have.  And with that I would agree.  Nearly 1 in 4 students in the US live in poverty and that level of stress is never conducive to learning.  Finland's poverty rate is around 4% (rather than our 22%).

But we have done nothing in the past ten years but compound the stress our students and teachers face.  And we have the lack of results to show for it.

If facilities were equal... If teachers were well-trained, trusted, and honored...  If class sizes were small...  If the emphasis were on learning rather than testing... If students felt that moving at a more individualized pace were acceptable...  If the choice between vocational vs. academic learning were encouraged...

If, if, if.  

Surely we would do better--poverty and all.


  1. Oh, Mary! I think I'm ready to move to Finland. better yet,ready to try to make it happen here. I guess I would like to know how they came to realize that human capital was so important. This morning on "This Week" the former CEO of Hewlitt Packard stated that the economy can't make a real turnaround because the schools are failing to turn out andemployable workforce. Thanks for sharing this. Be interesting to find more details about the beginnings of this reform.

  2. Sadly, Finland borrowed some of their ideas in the seventies from us. Currently the Commission on Effective Teaching and Teachers recommended many changes that mirror the changes made in Teacher preparation. Other intiatives are working towards implementation of broader standards. Meanwhile, teachers themselves need to be mobilized to demand working conditions and facilities that guarantee a high-quality education for all of our students. Read the Commission report here and then demand that teacher organizations move toward professionalizing the profession.