Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum
Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to view three films that address public education in the United States:
(Still on my list is The Cartel: “Teachers punished for speaking out. Principals fired for trying to do the right thing. Union leaders defending the indefensible. Bureaucrats blocking new charter schools. … The film also introduces us to teens who can’t read, parents desperate for change, and teachers struggling to launch stable alternative schools for inner city kids who want to learn. … Together, these people and their stories offer an unforgettable look at how a widespread national crisis manifests itself in the educational failures and frustrations of individual communities. They also underscore what happens when our schools don’t do their job.”)
Here’s my brief take on Superman and Race, and a lengthier discussion of Finland.
Waiting for Superman
Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim (of Inconvenient Truth fame), follows a handful of students and their families through the process of applying for precious few positions in charter schools. The film in large part frames teacher unions as the problem and charter schools as the solution. Of the three movies, I enjoyed this one the least, and that was by a fair margin. My dislike was not so much because I disagree with the union-charter hypothesis (which in large part I do), but because it struck me as offering no hope.
Race to Nowhere
The message underlying Race is that we overstress our students, with a significant fraction of that stress resulting from homework that often fails to help deliver the educational results we all desire. I came away from this movie much more optimistic, primarily because so much of the proposed remedy (less homework, but more thoughtfully crafted) could be undertaken at the local level. For instance, a teacher, or a principal, or even a superintendent might designate maximum hours per night or week or even “no homework” weekends.
The Finland Phenomenon
Like Race, I enjoyed Finland, although the latter offered less in the way of an achievable solution path. The film examines Finland‘s historically top-rated outcomes on the PISA test (the OECD’s “Programme for International Student Assessment”), which measures student knowledge at age 15 in reading, math, and science. The United States, by comparison, ranks on the order of 20th.
To be sure, Finland as a nation differs dramatically from the United States. With a population less than 5 million, it compares more readily to Minnesota (4th in the US in math, 2nd in reading) in scale while achieving better results than this Scandinavian-settled state. Demographically and socioeconomically, Finland is much less diverse than the US (although “Finnish Language Learners” make up over 16% of the population), and those differences no doubt make the task of education easier. And while MANY in the US VALUE education, EVERYONE in Finland appears to TREASURE it.
Finland began to overhaul its school system in the 1970s when it recognized that its agrarian economy wasn’t sustainable. A major emphasis of this overhaul was on teacher capability. Today, prospective Finnish teachers must pass a rigorous test to gain admittance to their teaching colleges–9 of 10 are turned away. The few who accepted into highly coveted slots then complete a five-year program that yields a master’s degree.
Once employed in a school (and embraced by their strong union), new teachers find themselves both challenged and supported by master teachers. Administrative oversight is light and formal evaluation is nearly non-existent. The result is an environment of “trust through professionalism” that might seem completely foreign to many educators in the US.
Beyond the teacher, Finland has developed a core curriculum at the national level while providing local schools with flexibility in how they implement it. Traditional textbooks are an important part of Finnish schooling, as is educational technology. On the curriculum front, Finland sees as its next task the incorporation of “21st Century skills:” critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and the like.
Relative to the US, Finland schools (which are smaller) …
- Provide all students an equivalent educational experience
- Start their students older (age 7)
- Have students spend less time in school each year
- Begin the school day later
- Offer smaller classes
- Teach in longer lessons
- Provide more talking time for students in class (60% vs. 20%)
- Give less homework (3-4 hours per week)
- Test their students less
- Value vocational education more highly (45% of students after age 15)
- Spend less per student each year ($7,500 vs. $8,700)
- Pay their teachers only slightly more
- Do little teacher evaluation
As I see it, two differences result in Finland‘s great results: a relatively homogeneous population nearly devoid of poverty and a corps of highly qualified teachers. The US doesn’t appear ready to embrace the former.
As to the latter, following the screening, I asked Harvard researcher Dr. Tony Wagner (the on-screen presence who narrated the story and interviewed numerous educators and students) the following question: “If US schools could offer a ‘trust through professionalism’ environment for educators (a tall task), and if US teaching colleges could offer Finland‘s curriculum (an arguably taller task), would these teaching colleges be able to turn away all but the best 10% of prospective teachers?
Dr. Wagner’s answer was a quick (and expected, and somewhat disheartening) “No.” He elaborated that while Finnish educators earn only somewhat more than their US counterparts, the “best and brightest” in that country aren’t tempted by dramatically higher-paying careers in such fields as law or medicine (pay in Finland for those professions is much closer to that of teachers).
In my opinion, many strong prospective teachers enter the field in the US. Unfortunately, we don’t teach them well in college and we don’t support them well when they go out into K-12 schools. As a result, too many of them burn out, and the most capable of them have options in careers other than teaching.
Finland didn’t show me a clear route to improving education in the United States. But it provides at least some hope by showing that strong outcomes are achievable. Our collective task is to find a path–likely a hybrid of our own ideas and those of other nations–to get us there.