What Finland and Asia tell us about real education reform

There has been much publicity in recent years about how for more than a decade, Finnish students have excelled in the international comparisons called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), exams given each three years in reading, math, and science to samples of 15-year-olds globally. In the current issue of the New Republic, Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, explains what Finland did to turn around its education system, starting in the 1970’s:

Finland’s schools weren’t always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master’s program.

They also banned all standardized testing, as they figured out this takes too much time and too much money out of learning; and now they only give standardized exams to statistical samples of students to diagnose and assess school progress.

According to Abrams, the “only point at which all Finnish students take standardized exams is as high school seniors if they wish to go to university.” The Finns “trust teachers” and allow them to “design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide.”

Abrams is writing a book on school reform for Harvard University Press and has researched the Finnish educational system extensively. I contacted him by email to thank him for his article, and this is what he told me about class size:

  • Average class size in 1st and 2nd grades is 19; in grades 3 through 9, it is 21.
  • These reductions in class size were won by Finland’s teachers’ union (Opestusalan Ammattijarjesto, or OAJ) as a concession from the government when education authorities nullified tracking. In 1972, authorities postponed tracking from fifth grade to seventh. In 1985, authorities postponed tracking from seventh grade to tenth. The response from the OAJ was acceptance of the termination of tracking as wise but only if class sizes were reduced, as it would be too difficult for teachers to teach heterogeneous groups if classes remained large.
  • In addition to science classes, all classes that involve any machinery or lab equipment are capped at 16. This includes cooking (which all seventh-graders are required to take), textiles (or sewing), carpentry, and metal shop.

Abrams’ article concludes:

The Finns have made clear that, in any country, no matter its size or composition, there is much wisdom to minimizing testing and instead investing in broader curricula, smaller classes, and better training, pay, and treatment of teachers. The United States should take heed.

Also, see this recent interview with Pasi Sahlberg, another expert on the Finnish educational system. Sahlberg was asked about the current push towards test-based teacher evaluation systems in our country:

If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away. Finns don’t believe you can reliably measure the essence of learning. You know, one big difference in thinking about education and the whole discourse is that in the U.S. it’s based on a belief in competition. In my country, we are in education because we believe in cooperation and sharing. Cooperation is a core starting point for growth.

Recently, McKinsey consultants estimated that if the achievement levels of American students matched those in Finland, our economy would be 9 to 16 percent larger – with the nation’s GDP enlarged by $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion.

And yet what lesson have the Obama administration and its allies in the DC think thanks and corporate and foundation world taken from the PISA results? That there needs to be even more high-stakes testing, based on uniform core standards, that teachers should be evaluated and laid off primarily on the basis of their student test scores, and that it’s fine if class sizes are increased.

In a speech, Duncan recently said that “Many high-performing education systems, especially in Asia,” Duncan says, “have substantially larger classes than the United States.”

What he did not mention is that Finland based its success largely upon smaller class sizes; nor the way in which many experts in Asian education recognize the heavy costs of their test-based accountability systems, and the way in which their schools undermine the ability ofstudents to develop as creative and innovate thinkers — which their future economic growth will depend upon.

As Jiang Xueqin, the director of the International Division of Peking University High School, wrote in the Wall St. Journal:

According to research on education, using tests to structure schooling is a mistake. Students lose their innate inquisitiveness and imagination, and become insecure and amoral in the pursuit of high scores. Even Shanghai educators admit they’re merely producing competent mediocrity. …This is seen as a deep crisis… A consensus is growing that instead of vaulting the country past the West, China’s schools are holding it back.

Nor do Duncan and his allies discuss the fact that many Asian education experts are calling for the need to reduce class size in their own countries. For example, a study from the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation revealed that South Korean students are highly disengaged from their classes compared to those in other nations. Their students also scored the lowest in respect or tolerance for others. The answer, according to the authors of the study? “To …raise their interest in class, much improvement needs to be made including reducing the number of students per class.”

Many of the ideas of the Obama administration are based on a competitive business model, first developed by the right wing of the Republican party, leading conservative commentator George Will to call Arne Duncan and his policies “the Obama administration’s redeeming feature.”

The fear that many of us have is that these corporate-style concepts will be even more firmly imposed on schools, by means of a bipartisan consensus of the administration and the GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

In the current issue of Education Week, Amy Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College, bemoans the destructive group think reflected in this prevailing notion of education reform. She points out how it is “often difficult to distinguish Republicans from Democrats on key education issues, ” and that:

“the most agreed-upon solutions—testing, privatization, deregulation, stringent accountability systems, and placement of blame on unions for all that is wrong—are doing more harm than good. Achievement overall has not improved, and the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged has widened…”

She points out how states now spend five to six times the funds on testing than before NCLB — with more than 90% of this going to private testing companies.

Yet she also holds out hope, based upon the fact that parents are increasingly pushing back against these misguided, market-driven notions, and mentions the leadership of Chicago’s PURE, headed by Julie Woestehoff, one of the founding members of Parents Across America.

It’s time that parents provided that third force, to put forward ea positive and progressive vision of education reform, based on small classes, experienced teachers, a well-rounded curriculum, and evaluation systems that go beyond test scores. Check out what Parents Across America believe will improve our schools here and join us.

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