An excerpt from a CNN online article:
Today, Finland is regularly ranked as having one of the best-performing education systems in the world. The country’s literacy rate is tops, its math proficiency second, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international trade group. Students from elementary through high school are among the world’s best in test scores.
A generation ago, that wasn’t the case. In the 1970s, Finland’s schools were among the worst in the developed world.
The problem was attacked on all sides, says Pasi Sahlberg, a former official in Finland’s education ministry.
The country invested heavily in teacher education, requiring master’s degree-based, five-year qualifications instead of three-year bachelor’s degrees. Child poverty was addressed with meals, health care, dental care and counseling — all free of charge for children. Finally, the system pursued what Sahlberg calls “intelligent accountability” that combines standardized testing with teacher assessment and school self-inspection — with an emphasis on the teachers, not the tests.
Where did they get their ideas? Actually, they got a lot of them from the United States.
“Within your 15,000 districts and 100,000 schools you have probably all the educational innovation that anybody needs to build good schools or well-performing districts,” he says. “The Finnish education system owes a lot to these American ideas.”
And yet Americans are forever lamenting the state of their schools. As Diane Ravitch, education historian and former assistant secretary of education to President George H.W. Bush, points out, we’ve been fretting about the American system and looking enviously over our shoulders for decades, whether it’s to Germany, England, the former Soviet Union, Japan or China.
“We have this narrative that we’re failing, failing, failing. The rest of the world would like to be like us, and we’re saying, ‘What’s wrong with us? We’re so terrible.’ It must be some kind of American inferiority complex,” she says.
Yes, of course there are schools with problems. Some districts have been damaged by cheating scandals, others suffer from poor facilities. The battle to improve test scores, led by federal programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, has provoked criticism (including Ravitch’s). Some officials want to give more money to charter schools at the expense of the public system or offer “school choice” through vouchers.
Finland, which is small, homogenous and has less income inequality between rich and poor, managed to completely remake its structure. Is that possible in the polyglot, poverty-pocked United States?
It’s already happening. West Virginia has instituted some of Finland’s ideas — some of which, of course, originated in the United States. Sahlberg believes they can work throughout the country, but they have to start with respect and training for the teacher.
“I think there is far too much loose rhetoric criticizing public school systems and blaming teachers in the U.S. that has no ground,” he says. Finland has such respect for teachers that the job is now seen as being “on par with other academic positions, such as lawyers and doctors,” he says. But it’s because the country invested in the profession and continues to do so.
Ravitch adds that society has to join in. “There’s a youth culture that’s very disobedient, and the laws are such that it’s very hard to maintain any kind of standard of discipline, and everybody blames the teachers,” she says. “But it’s kind of a vicious circle, because you have a lot of parents who are not particularly responsible either. The most common complaint at schools is if there’s a parent night, there are many schools where nobody shows up.”
This is nothing new … even aspects of the Japanese school system remain based on the American system put in place after WWII. this article highlights one of the great paradoxes:
1. The United States is looked down upon in terms of the public education it gives students. Standardized tests scores appear on the surface to confirm this, especially among developed nations.
2. Many nations base some or a great deal of their system on the American system of public education, and seemingly beat us at our own game using strategies that seemingly don’t work.
3. Despite other nations using what our teachers use to teach, and doing it successfully, most of the rhetoric has been to blame American teachers for the problems in American public school education.
There are other points of interest:
1. Finland generally only requires students be subjected to a standardized test towards the end of high school.
2. American conservatives generally claim to want to dismantle any federal laws regarding public education. They see this as unwanted federal intrusion into a state matter.
3. Some Americans are greatly concerned about federal measures (NCLB, Race to the Top) which impose a single curriculum on the nation, and how that curriculum may change under future administrations. There have been no allowances for special education or students who are not fluent in English.
In the neat future there is a short video I will be sharing regarding paradigm shifts in education, and how the collective work of Presidents Bush and Obama are acting as barriers to change and reform that do need to be seen in many schools.