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Winning The Future for Our Children: What Americans Keep Ignoring

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School houseWhile American voters are thoroughly engaged in the GOP nomination process and heatedly debating who should lead the GOP against President Obama in the next election, other subjects need to be discussed. Like education.

According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan in his presentation about OECD PISA (which ranks education results in OECD countries) results,

Overall, the U.S. comes out as an average performer in reading (rank 14 in OECD) and science (rank 17) but the U.S. drops below the OECD average in mathematics (rank 25). Also, there is a very wide gap between the top 10% and the bottom 10% of 15-year olds in the U.S, similar to that observed between top and bottom performing PISA countries.

What that means is that, for the money we’re investing, we’re only getting average results with Shanghai, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, Canada, Japan and New Zealand well ahead of the US. As PIMCO’s CEO Bill Gross recently said, American workers are too expensive and too poorly educated to compete globally. In other words, American workers don’t have the educational skills for the price they are demanding for their labor. Consequently, companies are looking elsewhere in the world for skilled, educated workers to fill their jobs needs.

How can the US continue to be an exceptional country and a global leader in business and innovation if our children are only receiving middling educations – educations that fail to prepare them to compete – and think creatively – in a highly competitive global environment?

The Dec. 29 online issue of The Atlantic featured an article that brought home the issue of education in a most unusual way. The Director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, Pasi Sahlberg, visited the US to discuss what Finland has done to reform its educational system which has resulted in the country now being amongst the leaders in educational quality. Pay attention to what he says:

From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: 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?
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.

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.” [emphasis mine]

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.

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, 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.”

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, 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.

[…] In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, 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.

What Sahlberg emphasizes are two-fold: First, that teachers in Finland are highly educated professionals, just a much as engineers or Wall St. traders, and receive all the benefits of being accepted as professionals, thereby drawing from among the brightest minds in Finland. Second, that all students, regardless of family wealth or living circumstances, receive the same quality of education. Moreover, there is equity for all students, regardless of socio-economic class structures. Thus, it is a system that negates economic class while encouraging each student to fulfill his or her own individual potential.

As America moves further into the 21st Century, it is no longer enough to rest on the laurels of the past. The past is not coming back, regardless of the rhetoric of politicians. If America is going to win the future, it will have to change. As that old saying goes, nothing in life is immutable except death and taxes. If the US does not change its educational system to accept the need for equity for all students, the US will get left behind in economic growth and become a declining society.

Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

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Written by Valerie Curl

January 9, 2012 at 9:30 AM

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