Thursday, September 30, 2010

Is "Superman" Really Finnish?

Waiting for Superman” and NBC's Education Nation has everyone comparing once again our system of K-12 public education with other so-called high-achieving western nations. But is anyone examining whether or not we are comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges?

According to a report by BBC World News America: Why do Finland's schools get the best results? by Tom Burridge, Helskinki, 7 April 2010, there are at least eleven significant factors that affect the overall achievement levels of Finnish students as compared to American students. Once you read them over, there's really no mystery at all as to why Finland's education system is excelling.  Here's my take on each:


  • The Finnish philosophy with education is that everyone has something to contribute and those who struggle in certain subjects should not be left behind.


While American educators hold the same tenet regarding success for every student, our system of an over-extended curriculum and high-stakes testing forces classroom teachers to “cover the material” regardless of whether or not every student gets it. We are on a strict time schedule to prepare for our NCLB-mandated state tests and promote every student at the end of the school year, regardless if they learned or not. As a result, each year teachers welcome students into their respective classrooms who have not learned but that teacher will still be required to meet the same cycle deadlines. And so, it repeats itself.


  • A tactic used in virtually every lesson is the provision of an additional teacher who helps those who struggle in a particular subject.


In most American public schools, especially urban schools struggling just to fund basic programs, you will likely see one classroom with one teacher who has very limited resources and 35 students struggling to create a good learning environment. There may be a special education teacher who appears now and then to co-teach or pull out a small group of students. Rarely will you find a classroom where two or more teachers are working together for an extended period of time. In Finland, multiple teachers in a single classroom is the norm.


  • The Finnish system supports very much those pupils who have learning difficulties but we have to pay more attention also to those pupils who are very talented.


At the beginning of this decade, the Finland was a poor country economically. Since then, technology industries led by Nokia and others have led to a dramatic change in their education system that has mainly addressed bringing up the bottom students. They have focused all of their resources on this problem and ignored the students at the top end of the academic scale. Not so in America. Our system is designed primarily to address high achieving students at the expense of those struggling at the bottom. Funding at the local and state levels favors the more affluent districts while urban districts which face far more obstacles to student achievement continue to struggle financially. Yet we expect the teachers and administrators in our under-resourced schools to reach the same results.


  • Finnish children spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom in the developed world.


American schools are constantly under attack based on a persistent perception that our school year is shorter than western countries who achieve higher scores on international assessments, despite the fact that a number of investigations show this to be false. Other countries value the learning that takes place outside of school and communities provide opportunities for experiential learning as well as learning through farming and other work experiences suitable for youth. Parents in those countries also take ownership for learning and school readiness. In America, we tend to make excuses for our communities (poor economy closes museums, libraries, etc.) and our parents (too busy earning a living), letting them off the hook and requiring our schools to do more with less. Increasing non-academic and administrative requirements placed on American schools by bureaucrats and politicians also tend to rob real learning time during our traditional 180-day school calendar.


  • Primary and secondary schooling is combined, so the pupils don't have to change schools at age 13. They avoid a potentially disruptive transition from one school to another.


In most communities, especially in large cities, the American school system chose long ago to create separate schools for elementary, middle and secondary students. One reason was a fear of influence by those “bad” older kids on the younger ones. Another has been the sheer, rapid growth in students due to immigration and other population growth factors. Most school facilities are the result of student growth combined with the ability and limits of raising funds for expansion or construction. There definitely are upsides to combining K-12 under one roof but its inconceivable to think we are going to reconstruct all of our school facilities to achieve this.


  • Children in Finland only start main school at age seven. The idea is that before then they learn best when they're playing and by the time they finally get to school they are keen to start learning.


Herein lies the number one problem with the American education system, at least as far as I can perceive. Over the past 20-30 years, we have decided as a nation that the best thing for young children is to be in school, even if it robs them of the critical opportunities to develop social skills and explore the world around them. We have children going to school on a regular basis as young as 3 and we continue to push the academic curriculum down to an age where they are not ready to learn it. My number one cry is, “What happened to the American kindergarten experience?” Consequently, children are being rushed through an educational system with inadequate social learning skills which leads to problems down the road and additional barriers to learning. But, once again, our progressive American attitude is to excuse our parents and our communities from their obligations to provide early learning and play experiences for kids, placing ever-greater demands on our school systems without adequate resources.


  • There is a culture of reading with the kids at home and families have regular contact with their children's teachers.


I've said enough about American parents abdicating their responsibilities to be the child's first teacher. No, actually, I haven't said enough nor will I stop pointing a finger at the generations of parents who do not value providing educational experiences at home, but instead cry and whine about how busy they are and how they don't have enough money to do these kind of things, or just plain aren't interested in reading to their kids or helping them with their school work. But, they certainly had the time and the resources to bring children into the world, just don't expect them to raise their kids in the responsible manner that previous generations did. That's the government's responsibility as far as they're concerned. Their job now is mostly to complain about the schools and argue with everything the teacher tries to do to instill a little bit of responsibility and self-discipline in their child.


  • Teaching is a prestigious career in Finland. Teachers are highly valued and teaching standards are high.


Ha! America has so vilified the teaching profession that it's hard for me to believe we are still able to find anyone willing to enter a teaching career. From generalizations about the teacher unions to allegedly handing out condoms to any elementary student who asks for one (I've yet to find one of these schools, elementary or secondary), American public school teachers are often considered one of the lowest white-collar occupations available. And we prove it with our wallets! Teachers, especially at the entry level, are severely under-compensated for what we ask them to do and in the current economy, we are eroding that compensation at a remarkable pace. This is why we are unable to attract a high percentage of top graduates from our universities into the teaching profession. In fact, we don't even consider it a profession along the same lines as the medical, legal, or other similar careers. We expect teachers to consider it a “public service” with no regard for their own economic welfare or that of their respective families. We've even had conversations as a nation as to whether or not a teacher with a masters degree is any more capable than one without, while in Finland, all teachers have a masters degree. If the bulk of American teachers come from the bottom 35% of their graduating classes, it's only because we got what we asked for.


  • The educational system's success in Finland seems to be part cultural. Pupils study in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.


Not so in America. As I stated before, the American system of education, especially in the past 30 years, has eroded in concert with the demand for high-stakes testing and the pressure-packed school year focused on covering the test material. Interestingly, in 1903 a commission of British scholars examined our educational system at the time and found it to be much superior to their test-oriented system which was producing far inferior results. Guess one of our intellectual weaknesses as a nation is the inability to learn from the past.


  • Finland also has low levels of immigration. So when pupils start school the majority have Finnish as their native language, eliminating an obstacle that other societies often face.


America prides itself on being a diverse nation built on immigration and we should continue to do so. However, our educational system was originally developed in homogenous communities where there was little diversity at the time and we continue to operate the same structure using band-aids where needed to address cultural and language differences. We truly must examine our current public education system and decide what learning structures will best meet the needs of our diverse communities, and then provide the necessary resources to achieve the desired results.


  • The system's success is built on the idea of less can be more. There is an emphasis on relaxed schools, free from political prescriptions.


I believe I've addressed this in the previous points. Our American educational system, designed to be community-based, locally-controlled schools must be freed from the morass of state and federal bureaucracy and unfunded mandates to allow us to once again become lean, capable learning institutions focused on the needs of our students, not the needs of elected politicians. The state should set the learning standards but leave it up to the parents and the voters in the communities to hold their elected boards and school administrators accountable. The average parent and the classroom teacher don't need the governor or the president to tell them their kid isn't learning. They see their children everyday and they experience in real life, not through some paper with test scores on it, whether or not those children are going to be successful in college and career. Unbind the schools and eliminate the political BS, and then watch how our public schools can once again be among the best in the world.

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