February 2012, Week 4


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Wed, 22 Feb 2012 23:02:51 -0500
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Schools We Can Envy

Diane Ravitch

MARCH 8, 2012

Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational
Change in Finland?
by Pasi Sahlberg, with a foreword by Andy Hargreaves 
Teachers College Press, 167 pp., $34.95 (paper)                                                  

Tuomas Uusheimo
The Kirkkojaervi School in Espoo, Finland, which
accommodates about 770 students aged seven to sixteen and
also includes a preschool for six-year-olds; from the
Museum of Finnish Architecture's exhibition 'The Best
School in the World: Seven Finnish Examples from the 21st
Century,' which will be on view at the American Institute
of Architects' Center for Architecture in New York City
this fall

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.

Nothing is said about holding accountable the district
leadership or the elected officials who determine such
crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource
allocation. The reformers say that our economy is in
jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income
inequality or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, but
because of bad teachers. These bad teachers must be found
out and thrown out. Any laws, regulations, or contracts
that protect these pedagogical malefactors must be
eliminated so that they can be quickly removed without
regard to experience, seniority, or due process.

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.2 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. 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.
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.

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

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

read the rest of this review at 


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