Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Finland's Model: Do the Opposite of What We're Doing

There has been a lot of talk about using Finland's education system as a model for our own. Their highly successful and much lauded system is the result of carefully planned and executed reform efforts in the '70s and '80s. This brief Atlantic article by Anu Partanen highlights the key principles that Finland decided were important, as detailed in the writing, speeches, and other tireless communication efforts of Pasi Sahlberg, the director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility. It's a pretty telling series of things, because they are all things the U.S. summarily ignores or outrightly rejects. To whit:

  • The driving force behind Finland's reform efforts was, and remains, equity, not excellence. Therefore all schools from kindergarten through university are public, and all children receive health care and adequate nutritious meals.
  • Teachers are embued with responsibility, not held to accountability. Correspondingly, teachers are highly educated and highly trained. teaching is a prestigious and well-paid profession, and teachers assess students when and how they see fit. They also have ample time to collaborate with their colleagues, as described (along with a ton of other well-researched information) here.

Partanen summarizes how others have addressed concerns about the difference in our country's size--we have local and state school control, not federal--and in demographics--not as large a difference as one might think. As an aside, while the local-control thing is true, I don't think it is fruitful to minimize our
astounding ethnic and cultural diversity, nor our country's unique and powerful history of multiculturalism and immigration. That said, though, I feel we face a far greater challenge to developing and executing Finnish-inspired change: our insane attachment to signposts of individuality, to the point that we fear baseline health and nutrition provisions and prefer to cultivate our own ignorance rather than accept others' knowledge.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The "R" Word: Summing it up and Breaking it Down

This review, from way back in 2010, of Diane Ravitch's book is the best summary thus far of the lessons learned from recent education initiatives.

This Edweek blog is the best breakdown I've read yet of where we should go from here (though I'd add to his list of ideas to discuss a no-b.s. look at funding sources for schools, and an intelligent and serious look at teacher training and pay).

11/28/12 Update: I fixed the link to the EdWeek blog; it should point to the correct article now.

Friday, November 9, 2012

After the Election, a Welcome Complexity

As outlined here and here, Tuesday's election results make clear just how much the education currents are churning. Republican states voted down Republican sponsored bills related to imposing stringent evaluation systems on teachers and limiting collective bargaining and other rights, but charter schools generally did well, too. Folks seem to not know which way they're supposed to stand on Common Core; and, in Indiana, voters elected a Democrat to the office of state superintendent over the incumbent Republican--a Republican who has been a supporter of our Democratic president's education initiatives. Dogs and cats, living together...mass hysteria.

But maybe not. Could it be relatively non-partisan consideration of issues and viewpoints? That would be a refreshing switch from the angry hunkering-down that has characterized the last ten years of politics and the last zillion years of education.

Am I being naive? Is it too much to hope that these issues can be talked about outside of our silos? The force of If You Think This You Must Also Think This Sweeping Array Of Other Things is so terribly tiresome and energy-sucking.

On a sort of related note, I am realizing and accept that I must give in and leave behind the term "reform." I must call what I want something else. The term is too loaded. The co-opting has been complete and successful. This is unfortunate. Diane Ravitch is a harsh critic of "reformers" but calls for real ingenuity and creativity. Well, yes, please; that would be awesome. Can I be a part of that? What word shall we use?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Instead of "No," how about "Yes And."

It's been a long time. I've been winding down my curriculum work and trying to prepare my home and myself for this edu-switch. But I've also hit pause a bit on the blogging as I process the Chicago teacher's strike and speak to teacher-friends about policy and politics, charters and parents--and my  interest in school reform.

It is unfortunate that "reform" and "innovation" and "improvement" have become dirty words among many educators. When I mention my interest in K–12 education reform to my teacher-friends, a tense, expressionless curtain drops over their features (and how many of you either shivered or snarled when you read that phrase?) But I think most people who feel dedication to and passion for  public education have similar goals. It's disappointing that phrases become slogans or buzzwords and eliminate, rather than encourage, communication.

I think excellent teachers are the key to excellent learning outcomes, but it's nonsense to hold them solely responsible for making changes--they are within a system and a paradigm that requires dramatic change and over which  they have little control. Evaluating the hell out of them won't help, and is mostly a way for policy-makers to avoid the hard decisions and for politicians to look like they care about their constituents' children.

That said, I think there's nothing wrong with setting up accountability structures to track performance and growth. All places of employment should have this. It's just that doing so without setting up sensible, thoughtful support structures, and without providing the time needed within the workday and throughout the school year, is unfair and will not work.

I think teachers' ideas, opinions, and efforts are essential, monumentally important components in real change--but they're not the only components. Bigger-picture observations and considerations related to conditions outside of the school building are also essential, and there are systemic things that have to happen to support, replicate, and institutionalize the sort of success individual schools have built.

I think teachers are treated horribly. I think they are not regarded as or paid as professionals or as practitioners of one of the most important arts in a society. But I also think the union does not protect teachers from indignities. The union fights hand-to-hand combat, beating out tiny victories while the whole ship on which those battles are taking place is sinking.

I think the whole model needs to change. Teaching should be a highly competitive profession, but equally highly paid and respected. Teachers should spend many years in a residency learning to teach with excellence, artistry, and rigor, and be coached regularly there--and, once they make it through the residency, they should be trusted with their students like the professionals they are. They should be provided with the resources they need and the time for research, study, collaboration, and grading outside of the classroom.

The immediate response to this Finland model idea is often that it could never work in a country like ours, a gigantic, sprawling place with an unbelievable richness of demographic texture. First of all,  we haven't tried it, so we don't know; of course we will need to make it our own, but there must be many valuable concepts and processes we can take form that model. And secondly--okay. Great. I'm game: so what ARE  you thinking? Let's do it. Let's not just stop at saying No. Can we take a note from improv artists? Instead of "No," let's try "Yes, and."