Friday, January 06, 2012

It's Up To Us To Do It Ourselves

Unless you've been super busy living under your rock, I'm sure you've already heard that Finland has the best schools in the world, at least to the degree that their kids for the past decade have been earning top marks in something called the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey, which is, I guess, a kind of standardized test comparing all the nations on the earth (or something). 

Even if you hadn't heard the news, serious people have, making Finland the hostess with the mostest when it comes to entertaining delegations of education "fact-finders" from the rest of the western world, including the US. Making it particularly intriguing is that unlike their main competitors like China, Singapore and South Korea, Finland is eschewing the long hours of high-stress rote learning and memorization favored in these Asian nations, opting instead for a system that involves less homework and more play. 

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility, has recently authored a book about what they've done and as part of his book promotion was interviewed by Anu Partanan for The Atlantic. The article includes all the usual cool stuff about how the Finn's have gone about building the world's best schools: no standardized tests until high school graduation and highly trained teachers who are permitted a great deal of autonomy in the classroom, along with the aforementioned lighter homework load and more play. But the focus of the article is on the part of Finland's success that seems to befuddle Americans: "the goal was never excellence. It was equity."

Since the 1980's, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality . . . this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance. 

This is the real difference between Finish schools and the rest of us. Contrast this to the questions Sahlberg says he tends to be asked by Americans when they come, ostensibly, to "learn" about what makes the Finish system work:

From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of student's performance if you don't test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice? . . . The answer Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to do.

Of course, anyone who hasn't been living under that rock, won't be surprised that these are the questions he gets asked the most because, after all, these are the cookie-cutter solutions the corporate reformers have in their briefcases. This is the supply side merchandise they've already manufactured. Now they're busy trying to create a market for standardized tests, merit pay, and privatization. There is no natural demand for what they're selling, so it's all about ginning up hysteria about our failing systems and how they are the free market white knights riding in to save the day. (This is how supply-siders always work by the way: they create "products" for which there is no demand like, say, the Iraq War, then go about creating that demand by playing on people's fear, insecurities or patriotism. The pharmaceutical industry has become very, very good at this.) 

Instead of standardized tests created, administered, graded, and "interpreted" by corporate education companies, the Finns rely on professional teachers who use independent tests they create themselves. And I love Sahberg's answer when asked about "accountability":

"There's no word for accountability in Finnish . . . Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

As far as "competition:"

The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

There is no effort made to "engage the private sector."

And there are no private schools: "In Finland parents can also choose, but the options are all the same."

In other words, the Finns have produced the world's top scores on the very standardized tests the corporate reformers are trying to use to scare us into buying their crappy merchandise. Not only that, but from the president on down they keep telling us we need to do what they say in the name of economic competitiveness, yet I don't see Finland, Singapore or even South Korea on anyone's lists of world economic juggernauts. Sure, test crazy China's an economic superpower, but they're a Johnny-come-lately to the testing game, only recently surging to the top of the list, long after they'd made their dramatic economic gains. In other words, there doesn't seem to be much correlation between high test scores and a nation's economic might (or anything else for that matter).

Honestly, from what I know about Finland's system, there are many points to quibble about. It hardly represents what I would consider the best-of-all-possible-worlds school system of my dreams, but it's a whole hell of a lot closer to the kind of rational, progressive approach I think children deserve.

And, oh, how I love the stick in the eye of the corporate reformers, who seem either unable or unwilling to hear it:

Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity . . . The problem facing education in America isn't the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed.

I can hear them shouting, "socialism!" from here, but it just goes to show how much they've twisted that term through using it to fear-monger. It's about equal opportunity, which used to be the most American thing in the world. It seems to me the Finns have identified a basic demand within its citizenry, a demand for equality, then set about satisfying that demand like good capitalists should. Right now in America, we have corporations running amuck and an income gap between rich and poor that is ever-widening. Nearly one in four children live in poverty today. People are loudly demanding a more equitable society. The Finns have a product that seems to satisfy that demand, but it's clear that these so-called capitalists have no intention of bringing it to market.

I guess it's up to us to do it ourselves. Anyone want to start a cooperative?

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RobynHeud said...

I think it's important to know that while China, Singapore and South Korea are doing better than us, and some would say it's due to the amount ot time they spend in school and on homework, they also have some of the highest levels of childhood and teen depression, anxiety and suicides. Not exactly the product I want for our children.

marcie jan bronstein said...

A cooperative? I'm in.

Hsiao-Ling said...

Teacher Tom,

I have been reading your blog since last summer, and your passage is like daily meditation for me--it keeps me grounded, and gives me a set of glasses that I see the world through.

i am interested in cooperative school, like the one you are running. I live in Dallas, TX, and wondering is you know anyone here I can visit, and talk with?

I have also contacted you via email about my book project. Would you mind I include some of your articles in my book?

Me said...

A brilliant post Teacher Tom! The situation is very similar in the UK (I came across Finland's philosophy and success when researching how to teach 'real world' maths).

The say in the UK that you can look at a 2 year old child in terms of their social/economic background and predict their exam results when they leave school. Recent research has shown that children who don't have firm boundaries set in their early years, perform badly in the education system.

Seems like a self-perpetuating system to me. Stop making them conform all the time, and let them play...equally!

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

Amen brother Tom! Great synopsis, I'll be passing this post on.