Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Finnish education miracle, unlike the US, it isn't based on choice but on equity

According to "What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success" from The Atlantic.  From the article:

... Sahlberg's new book is partly an attempt to help answer the questions he always gets asked.

From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students' performance if you don't test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to do.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what's called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Instead, the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish," he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal's responsibility to notice and deal with it.

And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: "Real winners do not compete." It's hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland's success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg's comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don't exist in Finland.

"Here in America," Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, "parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It's the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same."

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

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At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

That's always the missing piece of trying to borrow from Japan as well. We look at the testing and relentless competition but we miss a whole bunch of the relentless equity: all schools have the same schedule, teachers move from room to room and not the students (and from school to school, they are well-paid federal employees). Part of the Japanese management model is that no one should get complacent in one position. Students are responsible for upkeep of the classroom -- desks in row, trash thrown out, floors cleaned. It's "their room". Both breakfast and lunch is provided and everyone must take it. Up until the 2000s, Japan had 6 day a week school with no summer vacation as well (although blocks of vacation at other times.) Everyone graduates at the same time, have a few week break and then jobs have their start dates and college classes begin. It's extremely regimented. Oh and there is no PE or Sports. Although more physical education is required, you just have to do in town and bring your slip that you've completed it to school.

Of course all this exactly mirrors the way Japanese corporations are set up as well. So there's no bumpy transition between school and working.

(Oh and almost forgot -- UNIFORMS!)

At 9:01 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Neither Japan nor Finland is really know for their ethnic diversity.

Plenty of research out there that people are more comfortable with equity when there is less racial diversity.

I suspect a future Jane Jacobs may write that Shelly vs. Kraemer (racial covenants unenforceable) and the post Brown civil rights cases (forced integration + busing) destroyed American urbanism for a generation or two. Maybe it was needed medicine for the country set back urban living.

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At 10:49 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I was thinking about homogeneity too. The article and presumably the book mentions it too. They think it's less of a big deal. I don't really agree.

I used to joke about my urban main street work that it is particularly hard in "hetereogeneous" communities like in DC. E.g., the 14th and U Street program broke apart, and within the city it was considered the most likely to succeed. And there were issues with H St. as well.

It's definitely an issue.


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