Why ed reforms are doomed: U.S. can't become Finland through piecemeal change

A year ago, I asked a veteran educator why all American schools aren’t International Baccalaureate programs because the program so brilliantly cultivates holistic, creative thinking. She responded that few American teachers are capable of teaching higher-order thinking.

There are, sadly, no quick fixes for U.S. education, but what would a great system look like? Just look at Finland’s. Finland has the world’s top school system, according to Newsweek. (Maybe Finland’s cheating; Newsweek gives them 102 on education, the only score across all countries in five categories that’s above 100.) Though Finland conducts no other standardized testing at all, Finnish students have dominated the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) international standardized test in reading, math and science since PISA was launched in 2000.

And Finnish kids aren’t bookworms. They’re also well informed about the world around them: “Finnish and Danish eighth-graders tied for first place in a study of civic knowledge conducted in 38 countries by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.”

As I read it, Finland’s success boils down to a simple formula for managing any great organization: 1) Hire great people; 2) Train your great people well; 3) Pay your great employees well and respect them; 4) Give your great employees whatever resources and support they request; 5) Give your great employees excellent working conditions (in education: nice facilities, great colleagues, and small classes); and, 6) Give your great employees general guidance about what you consider “success” and then trust them to deliver.

Factors likely boosting Finnish students' success include:

  • “Prior to the OECD test, the 15-year-old Finnish students who participate in the assessment never experience any standardized testing in school.”
  • “Schools have aroused student interest in reading, and students are interested in and engaged in reading.”
  • “Students read highly diverse materials.”
  • “Finland has a comprehensive network of libraries, which have separate departments for children and youth.”
  • “The math and science curriculum emphasize the use and application of knowledge and problem solving.”
  • “Finland… recruits highly qualified teachers in all schools.”
  • “The comprehensive school is for each child; hence, it has to adjust to the needs of each child.”
  • “The interests and choices of students are taken into account when schools plan and select the curriculum, content, textbooks, learning strategies, and methods of assessment.”
  • “A flexible, school-based and teacher-planned curriculum along with student-centred instruction, counselling, and remedial teaching.”
  • “Class sizes in Finland are among the smallest… Finnish teachers are constantly worried about what they consider too-large class sizes, finding it demanding to look after the individual needs of different students.”
  • “In Finnish culture, teaching is one of the most important professions of society, and substantial resources are invested in teacher education.”
  • “Teachers are trusted to do their best as true professionals of education. They are entrusted with considerable pedagogical independence in the classroom”
  • “Finnish teachers are relied on when it comes to student assessment, which usually draws on students’ class work, projects, teacher-made exams, and portfolios. In Finland, teacher-based assessment is all the more important because at Finnish comprehensive schools students are not assessed by national tests or examinations during the school years or upon completing school.”
  • “Teachers are vested with considerable decision-making authority as concerns school policy and management. They have almost exclusive responsibility for the choice of textbooks and have more say than their counterparts in the OECD countries in determining course content, establishing student assessment policies, deciding which courses the school should offer, and allocating budgets within the school.”
  • “the national curriculum has become flexible, decentralized, and less detailed.”
  • “Finland has established national grading guidelines for performance that allow for student effort and activity to be taken into consideration.”

In Finland, becoming a teacher requires talent and a strong educational track record, and teachers are trained, respected, well paid and given substantial resources and autonomy.

In American education as a whole, we’ve done the opposite of Finland: 1) Hired mostly people who have done relatively poorly in school; 2) Provided little training… and what little training we provide is widely seen as worthless (or worse, because jumping through time-wasting certification hoops scares off potentially good educators); 3) Pay our teachers poorly and disrespect them; 4) Cut funding for art, music, history, etc. and force our teachers to shell out of their own pockets for school supplies and textbooks; 5) Make teaching painful (run-down, dreary buildings with leaks and malfunctioning HVAC and large, unruly classes); and 6) Give our teachers long, detailed lists of specific things they must teach for the frequent standardized tests and little freedom to teach what and how they see fit.

Changing any one or two of these will not have a big positive impact. The system would have to be overhauled to become like Finland. That’s why U.S. educational reforms have been as effective as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and tend to faddishly yo-yo back and forth between flavors of the month (like greater standardized testing vs. less standardized testing).

Until (and unless) we reboot our entire system, we’ll never be able to teach the initiative, creativity and higher-order thinking skills that International Baccalaureate and Finnish schools both stress.

Compare America’s watered-down standardized tests to what Finnish public schools are teaching:

According to the Finnish National Board of Education, the main purpose of assessing students is to guide and encourage students’ own reflection and self-assessment. Teachers give students formative and summative reports both through verbal and narrative feedback. Inquiry is a major focus of learning in Finland, and assessment is used to cultivate students’ active learning skills by asking open-ended questions and helping students address them.

In a Finnish classroom, it is rare to see a teacher standing at the front of a classroom lecturing students for 50 minutes. Instead, students are likely to determine their own weekly targets with their teachers in specific subject areas and choose the tasks they will work on at their own pace. In a typical classroom, students are likely to be walking around, rotating through workshops or gathering information, asking questions of their teacher, and working with other students in small groups. They may be completing independent or group projects or writing articles for their own magazine. The cultivation of independence and active learning allows students to develop metacognitive skills that help them to frame, tackle, and solve problems; evaluate and improve their own work; and guide their learning processes in productive ways….

During the 1990s, the country overhauled preparation once again to focus more on teaching diverse learners higher-order skills like problem-solving and critical thinking in research-based master’s degree programs. Preparing teachers for a research-based profession has been the central idea of teacher education developments in Finland.

Finnish educators practice what they teach. Just as they teach students to be more creative, they also work together to teach more creatively and effectively:

Within these model schools, student teachers participate in problem-solving groups, a common feature in Finnish schools. The problem-solving groups engage in a cycle of planning, action, and reflection/evaluation that is reinforced throughout the teacher education program and is, in fact, a model for what teachers will plan for their own students, who are expected to incorporate similar kinds of research and inquiry in their own studies. Indeed, the entire system is intended to improve through continual reflection, evaluation, and problem-solving at the level of the classroom, school, municipality, and nation.

Teachers learn how to create challenging curriculum and how to develop and evaluate local performance assessments that engage students in research and inquiry on a regular basis. Teacher training emphasizes learning how to teach students who learn in different ways, including those with special needs. It includes a strong emphasis on “multiculturality” and the “prevention of learning difficulties and exclusion,” as well as on the understanding of learning, thoughtful assessment, and curriculum development. The egalitarian Finns reasoned that if teachers learn to help students who struggle, they will be able to teach all students more effectively and, indeed, leave no child behind.

Wow! Sounds like almost every child in Finland is being equipped with strong 21st Century skills.

As if to prove my point, I just realized I’m typing this blog post on my Linux computer, “Linux” being the marvelous operating system invented by Finland’s own Linus Torvalds!

Posted by James on Monday, October 04, 2010