3-2-1 For 12-4-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Still thinking about Cuba. This story of a filmmaker who created a documentary in the country without permission is a reminder that the steps to restore relations with the US over the past two years are only a small start. The Cuban people still have no right to speak freely and live in fear of their government if they try. (about 4 minutes)

What happens when a Finnish teacher takes a job in an American school? This article in The Atlantic received a lot of notice on social media but in case you missed it, the story is a good contrast between national educational philosophies. Bottom line is that Finland trusts their teachers to make instructional decisions, unlike most districts in the US. (about 6 minutes)

In a wonderful post, Chris Lehmann reflects on a recent trip and suggests that we are often “tourists of our ideas”, spending too little time and effort to “fully and intentionally plan for change”. “And over and over again, we are shocked when the ideas don’t fully take hold.” (4 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

The US exports all kinds of products all over the world, including cowboy culture to Russia. This Planet Money segment is an interesting story of how that country is trying to develop a cattle business by bringing in American consultants, complete with a traditional rodeo. (18:16)

And one final item about Cuba (promise!). In these two segments about the country, On The Media talks to an author about New York Times coverage from 1957 that shaped the world image of Castro before the revolution, and then looks at how media covers Cuba today, complete with the usual cliches. (13:00)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

The movies of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and my favorite The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) are definitely an acquired taste. Enjoy a free sample of his style in a sweet, funny, and very quirky holiday short film. Ignore the sponsor splash pages at the start and end. (3:52)

The Finnish Difference

In his weekly email message to our principals, the deputy superintendent for our overly-large school district opened with this quote from Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons and keynote speaker at last week’s Leadership Conference.

The true Finnish difference is that teachers in Finland may exercise their professional knowledge and judgment both widely and freely in their schools. They control curriculum, student assessment, school improvement and community involvement.

I found it an interesting choice since…

Teachers here can’t control the curriculum. It is extremely prescribed, heavily scripted and, in most cases, laser focused on the state standardized tests.

In many schools teachers don’t have much to say about assessment due to the growing clamor for data and a push to use the online testing system on which we’ve spent a lot of time and money to create “common assessments”.

Some might be involved in school improvement but goals for those plans often come from district administration and offer schools very little flexibility.

As for community involvement, that varies widely depending on many factors, most of which are not something over which teachers are allowed much influence.

All of this is not to say that our schools couldn’t change to move closer to Sahlberg’s Finnish difference.

It will only require a seismic shift in the beliefs and attitudes of administrators, principals, support staff, students, parents – not to mention the entire American society, especially many politicians and other educational “experts” – to one that trusts the “professional knowledge and judgement” of teachers. 

US vs. Finland… Again

This month’s edition of the Smithsonian Magazine has an article that asks the questions Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful? Of course, the major theme of the piece is not just a profile of that country’s educational system but also comparing it with schools and students in the US, and especially our continuing efforts at “reform”.

Such international comparisons are pretty much meaningless for a variety of reasons but we seem to wallow in them anyway. So, if we’re going to play that game, what are some factors that make Finland’s schools “better”?

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”

It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians.

The article has much more and is worth a read.

However, if you really want to compare Finland and the US when it comes to the education of our children, for me the main take-away from this article is not about curriculum or testing or school competition or how teachers are paid or any of the other crap that forms the core of discussions about improving our education system.

No, it’s that Finland has a society and government that genuinely cares about and supports the well-being of all kids and their families.

And the US, not so much and getting worse.

A Little Homework Wouldn’t Hurt

In her Answer Sheet education blog at the Washington Post site, Valerie Strauss* tells Tom Friedman a few of the things he got wrong in a recent column about the importance of education.

Starting with Arne Duncan’s big money game show, praised as energizing reform by Friedman.

First of all, Race to the Top funding didn’t go to states with the most innovative reforms to achieve the highest standards. It went to the states that promised to make the reforms that the Education Department liked most. A comprehensive analysis of who won the money concluded that winners in the first round (and the same process was used in the second) were chosen through “arbitrary criteria” rather than through a scientific process.

Besides, the “reforms” aren’t exactly innovative. Education historian Diane Ravitch has written that merit pay schemes have been tried repeatedly since the 1920s but never worked very well.

And then there’s the matter of Finland and Denmark, the countries whose teachers and education systems Friedman (and others) write so glowingly about as a point of comparison with the US.

But on that topic, he also manages to miss one glaring point of disparity.

Friedman never mentions the issue of poverty, which today’s education “reformers” see as an excuse for poor teaching even though the research on what living in poverty does to children and their ability to learn is overwhelming.

Finland, it should be noted, has a poverty rate among children of under 3 percent; the United States, 21 percent.

Anybody who doesn’t think that doesn’t affect student academic performance in a big way is deluding themselves, as is anybody who thinks teachers alone can make up for the effects of hunger and violence and sleep deprivation and little early exposure to literacy.

So, does anything Friedman says, right or wrong, in his column or on his appearances on the talking heads channels, really matter?

Yes.  Because many readers of the so-called “paper of record” take him seriously, and have the right to expect opinion/analysis based on research.

In this case, Friedman didn’t do his homework.


*Why doesn’t the Post retire Jay Mathews as their lead education writer and put Strauss in that position?

Helsinki

The third port on our big trip was recently listed as one of the world’s most livable, and the country of Finland appeared on another rated as one of the world’s most peaceful.

After our far too short visit, I completely understand both rankings.  Helsinki seems to have a great positive energy to it, unlike the negative, even aggressive energy of many cities I’ve visited.

People, even those dressed for business, were very friendly and never seemed to be in any particular hurry.  On this sunny day, one our mid-Atlantic US-tuned bodies found a little chilly, people were out in parks and on the water enjoying a nice summer day.

Sibelius Monument

The shore excursion we selected was a little more bus ride than I would have liked but it give us a good overview of the city and the guide offered some wonderful insights to the history and culture of the area.

On the down side, I didn’t take nearly as many pictures as in the other places we visited.

Finland is very much tied to Sweden having been ruled by that country for 600 years until the Russians took over in 1809. Even today, both Swedish and Finnish are official languages with both being used for street signs and government documents.

They are very wary of the Russians, however, both as a result of fighting the Soviet Union during World War II and tensions during the Cold War.

Anyway, beyond seeing a part of the world new to us, one of the main reasons for taking this trip and for this particular itinerary is my wife’s love of Scandinavian music and design.

So, one of the stops on the tour paid homage to the Finnish national composer Jean Sebelius, a composer whose compositions she has performed many times. The picture above is the monument to him set in a very peaceful park.

Me? In my head I’m hearing Eric Idle singing “Finland, Finland, Finland. The place where I quite want to be.” :-)

After getting off the bus, we spent the rest of our afternoon in Helsinki wandering around an open air market at the harbor and through some of the downtown stores getting a small glimpse into daily living.

I’m probably repeating myself but, as with our previous two stops on the cruise, one day was not enough and this is definitely one more city I’d like to return to someday.

But for this trip, we were off to our next stop, St. Petersburg, Russia.