Education in America has become an issue of justice. Just spend an hour in an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood, and you’ll see the teachers are overworked, have huge class sizes, and a huge lack of resources. My friend who was a teacher in a local elementary school did not have access to even pencils for her students. She was expected to provide basics for her students out of her own money.
There are a lot of recent movies and documentaries (such as The Lottery by Madeleine Sackler and Waiting For Superman) that are presenting the problem and showing the flock of parents sending their students to “lottery” schools, where families place their hope in a lottery to be chosen for enrollment in a school with better class sizes and higher excellence in academics.
My main issue with this is that families are placing their hope in a system that determines by chance whether students have the chance to be successful. If they don’t get in, the common attitude is then “I have no hope for my son or daughter to do well in school or have the opportunity to go to college.”
Public schools get a bad rap. When I was growing up, I loved public school and didn’t see anything wrong with it. But I also didn’t grow up in a low-income neighborhood where the resources were so lacking for schools as well.
I recently read an article that talked about the philosophy behind education and how America is viewing it in regard to Finland…
The Fins Are On To Something…
What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success - The Atlantic
To quote the article, the main questions Americans seem to be obsessed with in order to make education better are:
• How can you keep track of students' 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?
Finland differs in their perspective on education reform in the following ways:
First of all, Finland has no standardized tests.
The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to do.
For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what's called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.
Instead, the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.
Secondly, it’s all about responsibility, not accountability.
As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish," he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."
For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal's responsibility to notice and deal with it.
Thirdly, Fins focus on cooperation, not competition.
And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: "Real winners do not compete." It's hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland's success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
Finally, school choice is not a priority.
Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg's comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don't exist in Finland.
"Here in America," Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, "parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It's the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same."
Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.
Education reform is definitely needed in America, but I wonder if we are asking the right questions. What if we started to ask, “How can we make school opportunities more equal” instead of creating schools that are better and more excellent than what is currently being offered. Of course, our whole American culture of competition would need to change for that to happen. So who knows where to start? We’ll have to start somewhere, and soon, because education is the major stepping-stone to “fullness of life” in our American culture and history.