Education for whom?

Consider this statement from today’s New York Times editorial on federal education law:

For example, one of the early proposals circulating in the Senate would have allowed states to end annual testing altogether, which would leave the country no way of knowing whether students were learning anything or not.

Aside from the semantic problems, the phrase “would leave the country no way of knowing…[my emphasis]” serves as an exemplar of what’s wrong with educational policy in America. We should not begin with “the country” and work our way down to the individual student. Indeed, the focus should be completely reversed.

On these pages (here and here, for example) I have contrasted the U.S. approach to education and that of Finland. Finnish students perform exceedingly well on international tests, even though high-stakes tests are virtually non-existent. Ironically, the reform of Finnish schools, which began in the 1970s following dismal assessments of student learning, relied heavily on the words and wisdom of our own John Dewey.

Dewey believed that education should be all about the child and his or her interests. Learning, he reasoned, was a product of the child’s experience and that it was incumbent on schools to provide and enhance opportunities for student exploration. A curriculum should be “organic” with the child and his experience and not outside or certainly counter to the child’s experience.

This need [or intellectual “craving”] supplies motive for the learning. An end which is the child’s own carries him on to possess the means of its accomplishment. But when material is directly supplied in the form of a lesson to be learned as a lesson, the connecting links of need and aim are conspicuous for their absence. What we mean by the mechanical and dead in instruction is a result of this lack of motivation. The organic and vital mean interaction—they mean play of mental demand and material supply. (Excerpt from The Child and the Curriculum)

While recent congressional efforts to change both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are supported by the New York Times editors, we will not get anywhere close to meaningful educational reform unless we open our eyes to successful experiences from abroad. And I think Finland is a good place to start.

Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons and himself a key player in Finland’s educational reform, wrote:

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…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.

Sahlberg visited Seattle some time ago. Linda Shaw, education writer of the Seattle Times, wrote:

Sahlberg’s message, although he is too polite to put it so bluntly: Stop testing so much. Trust teachers more. Give less homework. Shorten the school day.

Finland, in other words, has become an education star by doing the opposite of what’s happening in many U.S. schools and school districts, including many in Washington state.