Finland, as I’ve written previously, completely revamped its education system. It did so for both obvious and more subtle reasons. First, its international test scores sucked. Second, Finnish leaders were anxious to create a more vibrant, competitive private sector, one it hoped would be spurred by increased educational performance. They succeeded, spectacularly so (source: Wikipedia).
But you won’t hear much about the Finnish reform movement. It is so un-American in both concept and execution. Moreover, even the author of Finnish Lessons, who himself played a prominent role in the revamping, realizes that educational reform of the Finnish kind cannot occur in a vacuum. He quotes from an external audit conducted by the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development:
…it is hard to imagine how Finland’s educational success could be achieved or maintained without reference to the nation’s broader and commonly accepted system of distinctive social values that more individualistic and inequitable societies may find difficult to accept.*
The United States, as these pages have documented on numerous occasions, is an intensely “individualistic and inequitable” society. We have given new meaning to unfairness and inequality. So, it does not surprise me in the least that we cannot comprehend, let alone even acknowledge, that there is a different and far better way to reform our public schools.
In America, we do things insanely backwards, always focusing on after-the-fact approaches while expecting different outcomes with each wave of educational reform. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are two egregious examples, both of which attempt to change an entrenched system via “accountability.” It works in broad outlines like this:
Mary wants to be a teacher. She attends college, with an emphasis on education, of course. She graduates, receiving her teaching certificate. A school district hires her. Go forth and teach, she’s told, probably ill-equipped to do so without months if not years of constant struggle with disturbing child behavior and frustrating institutional pressures. Many of her colleagues will give up the grueling process. And no matter how well Mary believes she’s doing in the classroom, increasingly she will be judged by how well her students perform on standardized tests.
All teachers in America are under threat by those who presume to know best how to improve academic learning, though they may be furthest removed from the educational enterprise, what I call the crucial interface between teacher and pupil. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg offers us the latest initiative, one designed to weed out under-performing teachers. Here’s the headline from this morning’s New York Times:
Many New York City Teachers Denied Tenure in Policy Shift
The accompanying article begins:
Nearly half of New York City teachers reaching the end of their probations were denied tenure this year, the Education Department said on Friday, marking the culmination of years of efforts toward Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s goal to end “tenure as we know it.”
To many of us, such measures, however draconian, seem reasonable. After all, very few of us are guaranteed employment security. We may think ourselves fortunate to land a job and even more so if we retain it over time. Why should teachers enjoy the same privilege as Supreme Court judges?
Yet, this is certainly not the Finnish way. Nor will Bloomberg’s harsh strategy improve academic performance. And the reason is as simple as it may appear impossible: successful reform is all about preparing teachers before they enter the classroom and not afterwards. But that’s not all.
What is the purpose of education? That should be first and foremost in any effort to change the system. Here is Sahlberg’s suggested answer:
Create a community of learners that provides the conditions that allow all young people to discover their talent.
Huh? No accountability? No high stakes testing? No rewards and punishment? No consequences for underperformance? Nope. Finland has none of the above.
To understand why requires a completely different mindset. The Finns have established a selection and training process that yields that only the best and the brightest teach their children. Once successful candidates enter the classroom they are judged professional, with all the prestige and respect accorded doctors and lawyers and architects, if not more so.
But as I mentioned above, the Finnish educational system exists within a broader context, one that is clearly and intensely social democratic. The Finns believe in equality and willingly tax themselves for generous public services. Again, so un-American. Oh, and I should add that nearly one hundred percent of Finnish teachers belong to a labor union, one that is part of the solution and not the problem.
The Finnish Way of educational change should be encouraging to those who have found the path of competition, choice, test-based accountability, and performance-based pay to be a dead end. The future of Finnish education described above can moreover offer an alternative means to customized learning. For the Finns, personalization is not about having students work independently at computer terminals. The Finnish Way is to tailor the needs of each child with flexible arrangements and different learning paths. Technology is not a substitute but merely a tool to complement interaction with teachers and fellow students.
As a countervailing force against the global educational-reform movement driving school systems around the world, the Finnish Way reveals that creative curricula, autonomous teachers, courageous leadership and high performance go together. The Finnish Way furthermore makes plain that collaboration, not conflict, with teacher unions leads to better results. The evidence is clear and so should be the road ahead. [pg. 144 of Finnish Lessons]
Ironically, the modern Finnish education system draws its intellectual foundations from an American philosopher, John Dewey. Fancy that. Sahlberg invited a U.S. professor, Seymour Sarason to visit Finnish schools and universities. This was a few years ago. At the end of his of his observations and interviews, Sarason told Sahlberg:
Why did you bring me here? Your school system to me looks very close to what John Dewey had in mind and what I’ve been writing about teaching and schools for the last three decades.
Arne Duncan, Mayor Bloomberg, G.W. Bush, Barack Obama, and a host of governors and other politicians offer nothing of value when it comes to reforming our schools. The solution, it seems, is on our library shelves under Dewey.
* Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland, by Pasi Sahlberg (p. 132)