Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ravitch: Lessons from Finland that America won't learn

Every time I read Diane Ravitch -- who takes on Louisiana's governor and ALEC in her most recent blog post -- I learn something new and useful. Last month, I learned a new acronym thanks to her: GERM, which stands for Global Education Reform Movement. Poetic, isn't it?

For the New York Times Book Review, Ravitch reviewed "Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?" by Pasi Sahlberg. Ravitch knows the author and the nation, and she treated her review assignment as a bit of a travelogue. Ravitch assures us that the book is worth reading; the review too is worth reading for its lessons and insights from Ravitch.

In recent years, elected officials and policymakers such as former president George W. Bush, former schools chancellor Joel Klein in New York City, former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have agreed that there should be “no excuses” for schools with low test scores. 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.

You can count on Ravitch to cut to the chase.

The belief that schools alone can overcome the effects of poverty may be traced back many decades but its most recent manifestation was a short book published in 2000 by the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., titled No Excuses. In this book, Samuel Casey Carter identified twenty-one high-poverty schools with high test scores. Over the past decade, influential figures in public life have decreed that school reform is the key to fixing poverty. Bill Gates told the National Urban League, “Let’s end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education. I say it’s more the other way around: improving education is the best way to solve poverty.” Gates never explains why a rich and powerful society like our own cannot address both poverty and school improvement at the same time.

For a while, the Gates Foundation thought that small high schools were the answer, but Gates now believes that teacher evaluation is the primary ingredient of school reform. The Gates Foundation has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to school districts to develop new teacher evaluation systems. In 2009, the nation’s chief reformer, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, launched a $4.35 billion competitive program called Race to the Top, which required states to evaluate teachers by student test scores and to remove the limits on privately managed charter schools.

The main mechanism of school reform today is to identify teachers who can raise their students’ test scores every year. If the scores go up, reformers assume, then the students will enroll in college and poverty will eventually disappear. This will happen, the reformers believe, if there is a “great teacher” in every classroom and if more schools are handed over to private managers, even for-profit corporations.

The reformers don’t care that standardized tests are prone to measurement error, sampling error, and other statistical errors.1 They don’t seem to care that experts like Robert L. Linn at the University of Colorado, Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford, and Helen F. Ladd at Duke, as well as a commission of the National Research Council, have warned about misuse of standardized tests to hold individual teachers accountable with rewards or sanctions. Nor do they see the absurdity of gauging the quality of a teacher by the results of a multiple-choice test given to students on one day of the year.

Testing can provide useful information, showing students and teachers what is and is not being learned, and scores can be used to diagnose learning problems. But bad things happen when tests become too consequential for students, teachers, and schools, such as narrowing the curriculum only to what is tested or cheating or lowering standards to inflate scores. In response to the federal and state pressure to raise test scores, school districts across the nation have been reducing the time available for the arts, physical education, history, civics, and other nontested subjects. This will not improve education and is certain to damage its quality.

No nation in the world has eliminated poverty by firing teachers or by handing its public schools over to private managers; nor does research support either strategy.

Read that again: No nation in the world has eliminated poverty by firing teachers or by handing its public schools over to private managers; nor does research support either strategy.

Yet our lawmakers believe -- they certainly say it aloud -- these very things.

But these inconvenient facts do not reduce the reformers’ zeal. 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.

Wonder why "few experienced educators" are on the fire-bad-teachers bandwagon? Maybe it's because they are far fewer "bad" teachers than everyone likes to speculate, though the "bad" ones certainly get all the publicity.

Or maybe it's because experienced educators recognize that it takes a lot more than the experienced educator to turn around a societal culture.

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.

Great observation. By dismantling and privatizing public education, we might as well be setting in motion the great educational crash of 2018, or 2022, or 2030.

In view of the reformers’ penchant for these strategies, educators tend to call them “corporate reformers,” to distinguish them from those who understand the complexities of school improvement.

The corporate reformers’ well-funded public relations campaign has succeeded in persuading elected officials that American public education needs shock therapy. One is tempted to forget that the United States is the largest and one of the most successful economies in the world, and that some part of this success must be attributed to the institutions that educated 90 percent of the people in this nation.

Faced with the relentless campaign against teachers and public education, educators have sought a different narrative, one free of the stigmatization by test scores and punishment favored by the corporate reformers. They have found it in Finland. Even the corporate reformers admire Finland, apparently not recognizing that Finland disproves every part of their agenda.

I've heard Ravitch deliver this part before, but it tickles me to read her breakdown again.

Pay close attention:

It is not unusual for Americans to hold up another nation as a model for school reform. In the mid-nineteenth century, American education leaders hailed the Prussian system for its professionalism and structure. In the 1960s, Americans flocked to England to marvel at its progressive schools. In the 1980s, envious Americans attributed the Japanese economic success to its school system. Now the most favored nation is Finland, and for four good reasons.

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.

Fourth, Finland borrowed many of its most valued ideas from the United States, such as equality of educational opportunity, individualized instruction, portfolio assessment, and cooperative learning. Most of its borrowing derives from the work of the philosopher John Dewey.

Ah, John Dewey, the educator's educator, whose "My Pedagogic Creed" is education Scripture and whose "Democracy and Education" should rank among the nation's most important civic documents. I'll post more on him later, but I'm pleased that Ravitch points out Dewey's influence on Finnish education.

In Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, Pasi Sahlberg explains how his nation’s schools became successful. A government official, researcher, and former mathematics and science teacher, Sahlberg attributes the improvement of Finnish schools to bold decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s. Finland’s story is important, he writes, because “it gives hope to those who are losing their faith in public education.”

Detractors say that Finland performs well academically because it is ethnically homogeneous, but Sahlberg responds that “the same holds true for Japan, Shanghai or Korea,” which are admired by corporate reformers for their emphasis on testing. To detractors who say that Finland, with its population of 5.5 million people, is too small to serve as a model, Sahlberg responds that “about 30 states of the United States have a population close to or less than Finland.”

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.”

Can you believe this?

Finland -- the nation that America's education reformers use as the gold standard, for its student achievement -- invested in teacher quality, doesn't impose any standardized testing until the end of high school, and lets education professionals run their schools.

These are three things that American educators have advocated for generations -- and they are the very three things that our corporate owners will never let happen, because they cost too much, they measure too little, and they remove the profit motive from education.

At an event in New York City, Sahlberg explained to Ravitch and others that "Finnish educators don’t care about standardized test scores and welcomed the international results only because they protected the schools against conservative demands for testing and accountability."

Imagine that: Right-wingers demanded testing and accountability, and educators -- supported by Finnish parents -- said no. And there flourished a fantastic system of public education that is now the envy of the world, or, the envy of the United States' education reformers.

Finnish teachers, Sahlberg said, are well educated, well prepared, and highly respected. They are paid about the same as teachers in the United States in comparison to other college graduates, but Finnish teachers with fifteen years’ experience in the classroom are paid more than their American counterparts.

I asked Sahlberg how it was possible to hold teachers or schools accountable when there were no standardized tests. He replied that Finnish educators speak not of accountability, but of responsibility. He said, “Our teachers are very responsible; they are professionals.”

When asked what happens to incompetent teachers, Sahlberg insisted that they would never be appointed; once qualified teachers are appointed, it is very difficult to remove them. When asked how Finnish teachers would react if they were told they would be judged by their students’ test scores, he replied, “They would walk out and they wouldn’t return until the authorities stopped this crazy idea.”

Look at that: A place where educators organized, and educators and their students win.

To be sure, Finland is an unusual nation. Its schools are carefully designed to address the academic, social, emotional, and physical needs of children, beginning at an early age. Free preschool programs are not compulsory, but they enroll 98 percent of children. Compulsory education begins at the age of seven. Finnish educators take care not to hold students back or label them as “failing,” since such actions would cause student failure, lessen student motivation, and increase social inequality. After nine years of comprehensive schooling, during which there is no tracking by ability, Finnish students choose whether to enroll in an academic or a vocational high school. About 42 percent choose the latter. The graduation rate is 93 percent, compared to about 80 percent in the US.

Finland’s highly developed teacher preparation program is the centerpiece of its school reform strategy. Only eight universities are permitted to prepare teachers, and admission to these elite teacher education programs is highly competitive: only one of every ten applicants is accepted. There are no alternative ways to earn a teaching license.

Did you catch that? "There are no alternative ways to earn a teaching license." Here in South Carolina, leaders have poked so many holes in the criteria to become qualified to teach that almost any Tom, Dick or Harry can walk into a school off the street and be hired.

In fact, our leaders brag about establishing public education as a fallback opportunity for private-sector professionals who have an epiphany, a change of heart, and suddenly want to do something productive with their lives.

It sounds like, in Finland, such individuals have to go to the back of the line and apply for teacher education programs like everyone else. And guess what? Finland's outpacing the planet in education outcomes. How 'bout that!

Those who are accepted have already taken required high school courses in physics, chemistry, philosophy, music, and at least two foreign languages. Future teachers have a strong academic education for three years, then enter a two-year master’s degree program. Subject-matter teachers earn their master’s degree from the university’s academic departments, not—in contrast to the US—the department of teacher education, or in special schools for teacher education. Every candidate prepares to teach all kinds of students, including students with disabilities and other special needs. Every teacher must complete an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in education.

Every teacher has a master's degree.

Because entry into teaching is difficult and the training is rigorous, teaching is a respected and prestigious profession in Finland. So selective and demanding is the process that virtually every teacher is well prepared.

Sahlberg writes that teachers enter the profession with a sense of moral mission and the only reasons they might leave would be “if they were to lose their professional autonomy” or if “a merit-based compensation policy [tied to test scores] were imposed.”

Meanwhile, the United States is now doing to its teachers what Finnish teachers would find professionally reprehensible: judging their worth by the test scores of their students.

Here in America, our leaders are champing at the bit to do the very opposite of all the things Finland has done to achieve the same results, knowing that what they're trying to do won't work.

This very afternoon, our state lawmakers are weighing passage of a voucher plan, knowing it will harm public education, but holding it up as the silver bullet to solve our education problems because it's a way to dismantle our public school system.

We know what we don't know; we know what we do wrong; we know what it takes to do better; yet we reject every good and useful idea and seize every bad one, to spite those we want to keep constrained, either for profit or from hate.

Guess what else Finland does that we don't -- won't ever -- do:

The children of Finland enjoy certain important advantages over our own children. The nation has a strong social welfare safety net, for which it pays with high taxes. More than 20 percent of our children live in poverty, while fewer than 4 percent of Finnish children do. Many children in the United States do not have access to regular medical care, but all Finnish children receive comprehensive health services and a free lunch every day. Higher education is tuition-free.

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.

GERM: a virus.

Finland: the antidote.

Ravitch: the physician.

But in America, we refuse to seek treatment because it'll cost too much.

In my fervor for this topic, I emphasized a point -- that Finland offers no alternative paths to certification, and that South Carolina's solons have so weakened the criteria that there may as well be none -- and in so doing, I offended at least one reader, a veteran educator who came to an education career after spending time in the private sector. Re-reading that text, I'm sure it may have offended other great educators who came to teaching likewise.

Rather than simply approve the comment and move on, I need to address it: In this case, I am chagrined and regret having offended.

Perhaps my sensitivity on this matter arises from the denigrating old saw -- "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" -- and from hearing of the education profession being used as a "fall-back" position, an option to keep open in case of emergency.

In haste, I called to mind more examples from my experience of those who came ill-advised, ill-prepared and questionably-motivated to the task than those who brought the traits necessary to succeed in the classroom.

Indeed, among my many fine teachers in public schools was one who came to his profession after a career of military service, and who provided inspiration that influenced the course of my own education and career choices.

My correspondent appropriately reminded me, "There are MANY of us who have taken this route, and while I am sure there are those who weren't ready for the rigors, I can assure you that we, too, are professionals."

"...[Y]ou must realize that I am also a TEACHER. I love and take great pride in what I do. I KNOW I have made an impact on the young lives with which I have been lucky enough to be associated."

Point taken and certainly appreciated; I have utmost respect for educators who give voice to this sentiment. Thank you for what you continue to do, for your profession and your students.

1 comment:

  1. A great read!! Thanks for this informative and well-written blog.