"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Look at Finnish Schools and Teacher Preparation

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has an excellent piece on the Finnish system, including the video that you see below.  As you watch the short video, listen for how the special education teacher in the poor Finnish school talks about the basic skills that all their children get--it's a very different conception of what is "basic" when compared to  endless test-prep worksheets that non-privileged American children get:

Below is a chunk of the article by Erin Richards. Do go the Journal-Sentinel and have a look at the charts and searchable database:
. . . .Wisconsin's government and demographics differ from Finland in some important respects, but there are still lessons to be learned from the steps this northern European nation has taken to better serve all students and educators, including:

Improving teacher recruitment and training at colleges of education.
Offering a high-quality curriculum with pathways to high-quality vocational training at younger grades.
Emphasizing play and the arts in education.

In the current political environment, it's easy to fixate on the most tenuous aspects of Wisconsin's educational landscape: reduced budgets, teachers who feel like they're under attack, layoffs, larger class sizes, recall efforts.
But outside Wisconsin, there's growing evidence that American education as a whole has stagnated. Recent studies have shown the educational attainment of U.S. students has remained about the same while other countries' students have improved.

Several recent studies have sought to slice international achievement data in new ways. Adjusting for the differences in state, national and international tests, one report shows 56% of Finland's students perform at or above a level considered to be proficient in math, compared with 36% of the students in Wisconsin and 32% of U.S. students on average.
What is referenced just above is the NAEP test.  Note the ridiculousness of the norming of this test--even Finnish children, tops in the world on PISA (see below), just over half would be proficient on the NAEP.  Since the early 90s, the NAEP has been normed in such a way as to use scores to bludgeon teachers and public schools (click here for a recent example from the head of Chamber of Commerce in Knoxville). 
Finland has attracted attention largely because of its students' results on a respected exam known as the Programme for International Student Assessment. Also known as PISA, the test is given to a representative sample of 15-year-olds in participating developed countries every three years. In 2009, Finland's students scored third in reading, sixth in math and second in science out of 65 countries that participated in the exam.

American students scored 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math.

But looking at the Finnish system comes with caveats - some characteristics of the country head in the opposite direction from the way things are moving in American education.

For example, Finnish education and government leaders downplay standardized testing. They place more value on developing creativity and independent thought, and don't believe in judging schools by test scores. The country's internal testing of students is so light that the PISA scores came as a surprise for most; many teachers say they knew their students were doing well, just not that well.

Finland has a relatively homogenous population; the country is predominantly white and Lutheran. The U.S. has a diverse population of people from different cultures, with different values and priorities, especially when it comes to education.

Strong believers in equality, the Finns have long supported a system where wealth is distributed more evenly, making it nearly impossible to live in abject poverty. The income ladder ranges more greatly in the U.S., with intense wealth at the top and intense poverty at the bottom.

Some schools in Finland do serve a predominantly low-income population, and the pace of instruction at those schools is indeed slower than at the schools in middle-income areas. But the low-income schools are supported in other ways to try to give all students the tools needed to reach a basic level of education by the end of ninth grade.

Teacher training

Finland has been praised for the way in which it attracts, and subsequently develops, future teachers.

Education at the university level is funded by the government, but the openings are limited, which creates competition. Teacher-studies programs set a particularly high bar for applicants: At the University of Helsinki, a mere 6.7% of those who applied to be primary school teachers were admitted this year to the education school.

That's a lower acceptance rate than the 10% of applicants admitted to the University of Helsinki's schools of law and medicine.

By comparison, the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee accepted 96% of undergraduate students who applied for the 2011 year, and 88% of post-baccalaureate applicants.

Gail Schneider, associate dean of academic affairs at UWM's education school, said there's more going on behind the numbers.
"While our admission numbers may appear relatively high compared to Finland," she said, "considerable levels of self-determination and advising occurs prior to the application process to ensure that applicants hold high promise of becoming committed, exemplary teachers."

At Marquette University, the College of Education accepts only freshman students who rank in the top third of their high school class, Dean Bill Henk said. The college's three-year average shows an acceptance rate of 63%.

Henk is a proponent of making it more difficult to become a teacher. But he worries about whether the current teaching climate in Wisconsin would attract any of the best and brightest to the profession.

Being a teacher in Finland, by contrast, comes with a status of prestige - though not necessarily high pay. Adjusting for currency conversions, teachers in Finland make less in gross salary and pay more in taxes than the average American teacher.

Part of what raises the status of the profession is the rigorous training they have to undergo. Teachers who plan to teach seventh through 12th grade in a specific area, such as math or history or English, need a master's degree in that subject. Classroom teachers - the educators in the younger grades - need a master's degree in a general education field.

"Every teacher has to be a master of something," Nordberg said one afternoon in September in his office after class at the Normal Lyceum of Helsinki.

Nordberg got his master's degree in English. His thesis focused on the way English core modals (can, must, may, etc.) are portrayed in Finnish upper secondary school textbooks. He also had to do a thesis for his bachelor's degree. And another specifically for teacher training.

"It was agony," he recalls of his master's thesis. "But I did it."

Like other applicants to teacher-studies programs, Nordberg had to have high academic marks, pass an entrance exam and pass an in-person interview before he was accepted to the program.

Once in the profession, teachers have a lot of autonomy over their classroom. A national curriculum set by the local government - with input from the national teachers union - explains what should be learned but not how to teach it.
Teachers have control over that part.

"In Finland it's very common for us to write our own textbooks or choose the methods and curriculum or textbooks we want to buy," said Sepoo Nyyssönen, a philosophy teacher at Sibelius High School, an arts-based school in Helsinki.

"I think that's why I feel that teaching is good - you are like the king or queen of your own classroom," Nyyssönen said.


In the 1970s and '80s, Finland sought to eliminate a tracking system that divided students after fourth grade, at age 10. Children who seemed college-bound were offered a more rigorous curriculum, while others were ushered to less academic classes. The Finns instead implemented a comprehensive nine-year system of schooling that goes from age 7 to 16. At that point, students can decide for themselves if they want to go to the college-prep lukio to complete upper secondary school, or if they want to spend the next three years in the vocational high schools, where they can start to learn a trade.

Students can switch between the high school options, however, and choosing the vocational track does not preclude a student from getting into a university.

Recently, there's been more discussion in Wisconsin of breathing new life into vocational training options for high school students, and acknowledging that not all students need or want to pursue an expensive four-year bachelor's degree.

A bill batted around in Madison this legislative session called for more flexibility in substituting vocational classes for certain academic high school credits.

Local advocates of vocational education, such as Tim Sullivan, the former CEO of Bucyrus International Inc., have said that Wisconsin manufacturers have jobs to fill, but can't find qualified local graduates.

Play, social development

Just about everyone believes in the importance of getting children off to a good start in life from birth, but the Finnish government offers resources to make that happen. Taxes are high in Finland as a result: Income taxes are assessed on a progressive scale depending on income and range from 6.5% to 30%. Municipal taxes can range from 16% to 21% of a payer's income.

The trade-off: Parents can take up to about 17 weeks of paid maternity leave, and up to three years of unpaid leave if they wish to care for their children at home in the first years of their child's life.

There's a tradition of women working in Finland, encouraged by the fact that the government pays for day care from infancy to kindergarten. If parents decide to not enroll their child in day care, they receive an additional monthly child home-care allowance.

The government grants parents an allotment of child support money each month until the child turns 18, because it believes that raising children shouldn't be an undue financial burden for families.

Real academic learning doesn't take place until compulsory schooling starts in first grade. And even then, days for students include an emphasis on social skills and development. Being outside is also important - many schools in Finland are flanked by vast playgrounds and forests that allow children to spread out and play before, during and after school.

"If children don't have a good home background, we think they need sports and arts and other activities to help them feel good about themselves," said Irmeli Halinen, head of curriculum development of general education for the Finnish National Board of Education.

"If a child feels good, he learns better," she said.

Halinen said it's not just the education system in Finland, it's the whole support system that makes it happen.

"During the '72 through '77 reforms, there were parents who wanted their kids to have a better education," she said. "It was the time after the wars with Russia, and we were building and investing in technology and industry. We needed people to have a good education and knowledge."

The system is not perfect. Parents still complain about less-than-stellar teachers. School leadership still matters. High-flying students might get neglected in a system set up to improve the bottom and the middle.
But if steady overall improvement is the intent, the country is accomplishing it.

"It doesn't matter where you live here," Nordberg said. "You're going to get a good education."

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