Thursday, February 16, 2012

Too sane for us?

Busy week, not much time for blogging. In the meantime, check out Diane Ravitch on Finland’s sane, humane educational system, and on the determination of American “reformers” (including both major parties) to learn exactly nothing from it.


FedUpMom said...

I wish articles like these would discuss curriculum. It's not just about good/bad teachers; we need to look at what kids actually do in school. Unfortunately, most of what they do is a waste of everyone's time.

Chris said...

I wondered about that, too, though it sounds like it might be hard to generalize, if it's true that "Teachers have wide latitude at each school in deciding what to teach, how to teach, and how to gauge their pupils’ progress." I tend to think you're more likely to get decent curricular decisions under that kind of system, even though there would be more variation.

Given the concerns about discipline that I've been posting about here recently, I also wondered about that aspect of Finnish schools. I wonder what "systematic methods for addressing problems in the lives of students" means.

Still, overall, I'd trade our system in for that one in a heartbeat.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure trading out our school system for the Finish system would do any good unless we also traded out our culture for the Finish mono-culture that values education so highly.

Karen W said...

The schools pictured look like wonderful places to spend the school day.

I just don't think I see how exactly we get from where we are now to where they are now. If Diane Ravitch knows, I wish she'd explain the path more clearly.

Chris said...

Billy -- Agreed. But it's strange: our culture claims to value education highly, and politicians certainly seem to think that mouthing support for education will get them votes. It just seems that a lot of people have some very different ideas about what education means, and how people learn. I do wonder whether our culture would ever be able to support a system like the one Ravitch describes -- especially if it meant raising taxes and spending actual money.

Chris said...

Karen -- That's a good question, especially, for example, when you read her description of how there are a very limited number of very selective teacher-training programs. That would require a major transformation of our current institutional framework for training teachers.

On the other hand, I think I read that Finland's system is very different from what it was even thirty or forty years ago. It would be interesting to hear how different it was, and how the changes came about.

I'm glad that big names like Ravitch are pushing the Finnish model. But I do wonder how much the story is being simplified to create a persuasive narrative.

Chris said...

Here are some resources for finding out more about the Finnish education system. As I understand it, the system was more like the current US system a few years ago and the Finns decided changes needed to be made due to the country’s performance on the international PISA exam. They took the exact opposite route of the US: instead of turning all the decision making over to business people with a political agenda they involved all stakeholders and listened to actual teachers and decided to keep politics out of the decisionmaking.

Here is a recently published book by the Director of the Finnish Education Ministry:

Here is an article from The Atlantic:

And here is a documentary film about the Finnish education system:

Chris said...

Thanks, Chris, for all of that information. (Just to clarify: we now have two different people named Chris in this thread!)

Here are clickable links:

The book

The Atlantic article

The film

The big question is: why was Finland such fertile ground for these sensible ideas, while America seems to resist them? Is it something about the Finnish culture? Something about their political institutions? Something else?

Chris said...

Just spent a little time reading about Finnish politics on that source of sources, Wikipedia. Specifically, I was reading about its three major parties. It's hard to tell too much from Wikipedia's brief descriptions, but what seems notable is the absence of any major "conservative" party, as that term would be used in the U.S.A. It doesn't sound like there is any major party reflecting (or generating) widespread hostility to the idea of social spending.

If that's true, that would certainly be a major difference between Finland and America (though that still doesn't explain why Finland is different in that way).

This is one of the reasons I'm drawn to the idea of decentralization. It might be a long time before America as a whole has the kind of values that would support Finnish-like school policies. But if the federal government would give the states more freedom to pursue their own educational policies, there might at least be some states where those values might be more widespread. (The same principal applies to decentralization within states.) Under a decentralized system, almost by definition, more people would have schools whose policies reflect their own values.

Karen W said...

Chris--I have been wondering if there is relatively uniform, widespread agreement in Finland about the purposes, goals, content, and methods of a "good" education. It is easier leave decision making to the professionals if you are confident the professionals share your values.

I think it is evident that there is widespread disagreement about education values here that might preclude us from taking the same approach (math wars, reading wars, heavy use of tech vs low tech, class size etc.). In other words, if we want Finnish style schools as a result, we might have to find a different process to get there and we might have to accept diversity rather than uniformity.

Chris said...

Karen -- Yes, there seems to be an inherent tension between the decentralization that Ravitch describes, and the apparent uniformity that enables her to make the generalizations she makes. Maybe that's possible in a society where there is a relatively broad consensus about certain values. But in our country, it would sure seem like any meaningful decentralization would lead to very different schools in different places. I still think that would be an improvement over a nationally uniform conception of education like the one imposed by No Child Left Behind.

Thanks, also, for the update to your post on the education bills in the legislature.

Mandy said...

One of the the things that stands out to me that I've read out the Finnish educational system is that they didn't try to be "the best" when they reformed their system, they worked to have equality among their schools.
One of the the other striking things I've read is that there are no private schools in Finland, not all kids are on track for University, there are various vocational school options and they are not considered "second class" or looked down upon as failure. They treat non native Finnish speakers differently as well, they receive most instruction in their native language in the early years and gradually adding more Finnish. (I'm not sure they do this with EVERY language, but with Swedish speakers I pretty sure)
The Finnish systems seems to be working really well, and far better than in countries of similar size and make up who tend to follow the US model of more and more testing. (Norway, Japan spring to mind)
Billy, I agree it would take a pretty big cultural shift, in our country to implement many of the Finnish models and I don't see happening. EVERY kid gets free lunch, free heath care etc and I think although there is some poverty in Finland, I think people don't fall so far because of the social policies. Like Chris, I would trade our system in a heart beat.
Karen I read the update after I saw Chris' comment. I was going to participate in a conference call about the NCLB waiver. They were looking for input particularly from parents of kids with special needs. I just couldn't bring myself to do it since I believe the waiver only offers more of the same. I do have links to some videos from the Iowa DOE about the waiver request if anyone is interested.