David Shearer used Finland as an example of successful small country economic development. The main focus in a very good speech yesterday was on education. Finland has a lot to offer on education as well – few tests and excellent teachers. This article by Dianne Ravitch in the New York Review of Books is well worth a read.
Ravitch is a critic of the so-called education reformers, who she describes thus:
The new breed of school reformers consists mainly of Wall Street hedge fund managers, foundation officials, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and policymakers, but few experienced educators. The reformers’ detachment from the realities of schooling and their indifference to research allow them to ignore the important influence of families and poverty. The schools can achieve miracles, the reformers assert, by relying on competition, deregulation, and management by data—strategies similar to the ones that helped produce the economic crash of 2008.
We’ve got our very own Wall Street refugee in John Key, with a fanatical adherence to management by data aka “national standards”. Also teachers are the enemy; Ravitch says:
The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.
Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation. The reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, but because of bad teachers. These bad teachers must be found out and thrown out. Any laws, regulations, or contracts that protect these pedagogical malefactors must be eliminated so that they can be quickly removed without regard to experience, seniority, or due process.
Ravitch gives these three reasons why Finland’s education programme is so successful.
First, Finland has one of the highest-performing school systems in the world, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses reading, mathematical literacy, and scientific literacy of fifteen-year-old students in all thirty-four nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United States. Unlike our domestic tests, there are no consequences attached to the tests administered by the PISA. No individual or school learns its score. No one is rewarded or punished because of these tests. No one can prepare for them, nor is there any incentive to cheat.
Second, from an American perspective, Finland is an alternative universe. It rejects all of the “reforms” currently popular in the United States, such as testing, charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, competition, and evaluating teachers in relation to the test scores of their students.
Third, among the OECD nations, Finnish schools have the least variation in quality, meaning that they come closest to achieving equality of educational opportunity—an American ideal.
Ravitch quotes a book by Finnish author Pasi Sahlberg, who attributes the improvement of Finnish schools to bold decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s. Sahlberg says Finland’s story is important “because it gives hope to those who are losing their faith in public education.” Ravitch writes:
Sahlberg speaks directly to the sense of crisis about educational achievement in the United States and many other nations. US policymakers have turned to market-based solutions such as “tougher competition, more data, abolishing teacher unions, opening more charter schools, or employing corporate-world management models.” By contrast, Finland has spent the past forty years developing a different education system, one that is focused on
improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals.
To an American observer, the most remarkable fact about Finnish education is that students do not take any standardized tests until the end of high school. They do take tests, but the tests are drawn up by their own teachers, not by a multinational testing corporation. The Finnish nine-year comprehensive school is a “standardized testing-free zone,” where children are encouraged “to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity.”
Ravitch describes teacher education in Finland. It’s fantastic; Finnish teachers are valued because their selection and training are rigorous and comprehensive. Read it and weep. I thought the focus in Shearer’s speech on education was excellent, apart from the jarring note about bad teachers.
We need to value teachers. We need every teacher in our classroom to be a good one. The vast majority are. But the truth is some are not. We will work with teachers to develop their professional skills, but ultimately we can’t afford to have bad teachers in our classrooms. As a parent, I want to put badly run schools on notice.
That’s not a fresh approach.
Ravitch’s final paragraphs are also worth quoting in full:
Sahlberg recognizes that Finland stands outside what he refers to as the “Global Education Reform Movement,” to which he appends the apt acronym “GERM.” GERM, he notes, is a virus that has infected not only the United States, but the United Kingdom, Australia, and many other nations. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program are examples of the global education reform movement. Both promote standardized testing as the most reliable measure of success for students, teachers, and schools; privatization in the form of schools being transferred to private management; standardization of curriculum; and test-based accountability such as merit pay for high scores, closing schools with low scores, and firing educators for low scores.
In contrast, the central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish education is cooperation, not competition.
I’ll send a copy of the full article to David Shearer. It’s way over time we got rid of the GERMs; we’re forty years behind already.