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Liberals like to point out the ways that conservatives ignore reality in favor of ideology. The educational reform promised Missourians by their Republican legislature offers one more instance where that belief holds true. The Missouri GOP packed all their best ideas into one big education bill that is, because it is an omnibus bill crammed with the good, the bad and the ugly, very likely to fail. Which is probably a very good thing, given that the bad and the ugly tend to predominate in its provisions – of which some, to be fair, are supported by Democrats. The bill is heavy on ways to:

— Gut teacher protections such as tenure and enact punitive efforts to beat teachers into “good” performance, such as merit pay tied to test scores, etc. while doing little to address teacher training, credentialing, or potentially more effective incentives than merit pay. This approach fails to recognize that teachers are only part of a very complex equation.

— Continue adherence to a data-driven evaluative process that emphases standardized testing as the sole measure of student, teacher and individual school success. Not only are such tests an imperfect measure, but when they become too consequential, they invite fraud. For example, the seeming success of Washington D.C.’s former Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s tenure as measured by such tests has been marred by allegations of cheating which have also surfaced in the St. Louis school system.

— Expand charter schools, although the evidence that is now filtering in suggests that charters perform no better and often perform at a lower level than well-funded public counterparts. The fact that many inner city liberals also pin their hopes on charter schools is not only testimony to their desperation, but to the current prevalence of magical thinking in the field of educational reform.

— Transfer public funds to private and religious schools – seems like the recent brouhaha about the nature of insurance coverage that publicly funded Catholic nonprofits must provide their employees doesn’t suggest to any of our august pols that keeping religion and publicly funded education separate is a really good idea for a diverse society like ours.

In spite of the fact that they are offered as new and radical approaches to our educational dilemma, there’s nothing in the list above that conservatives haven’t been yammering about for the past thirty years – the only difference is that the noise level is much higher, and many despairing liberals, faced with a seemingly intractable situation, have thrown in their cards for new ones much like those the anti-public education right-wing have been waving in their faces all these years.

Instead of grasping at stale ideas that have not proved out, why aren’t our legislators, right and left, looking at successful foreign educational models. Finland, for instance, which in the 1970s was faililng badly at educating its children, has since built one of the most effective educational systems in the world; it consistently ranks at the top of all international measures. In the process Finland realized one of the main goals of the No Child Left Behind Act: Finnish schools significantly reduced the gap between rich and low achieving, poor students – and they did it by rejecting everyone of the solutions outlined above.

A new book, Finnish Lessions: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg, describes the educational system that produces these results. Follow me over the break for a summary of the details:


1. First and foremost is the emphasis on teacher training. Finnish teacher training programs are very selective – only 15% of applicants are accepted, although once accepted, tuition is free. As Dianne Ravitch summarizes it in the New York Review of Books,* the program requires that:

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.

2. Teacher autonomy:  In return, for completing this rigorous program, teachers with more than fifteen years experience can expect to earn somewhat more than similarly experienced American teachers. The real motivators, apart from the prestige that successful graduates of the highly selective system enjoy, is the autonomy and respect that they are granted in the classrooms and the infrastructure that is in place to support and insure their continued success. There is little or no centralized meddling in individual classrooms.

3. Teacher Support: Various specialists, tutors, and counselors are available to assist teachers. Almost 50% of Finnish students work with one of these affiliated educational professionals at some point. Teachers themselves spend at least half their time in continuing education classes or in cooperative activities with their colleagues.

4. Infrastructure: The Finnish government has invested the necessary funds to insure that the architectural and physical environment supports the educational mission.

5. Educational specialization: Students follow a common path until the ninth grade when they will choose to pursue an academic or a vocational path. Both courses are well-supported.

6. Student support: he Finnish government realizes that children can only do their best in school when their more basic needs have been addressed. As Ravitch notes:

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.

7. Measures of success. Testing is used as a tool, not a mechanism to determine success or failure of teachers or schools. Comprehensive tests are administered at the end of each child’s schooling. Success is measured individually by teachers working cooperatively with other teachers and specialists.

Is this model applicable to the U.S.? Many claim that the Finnish model won’t work here because we are “too diverse” and too many. However, it seems to me that the issue of diversity actually boils down to one of haves and have-nots – something that the Finnish government realizes must be addressed outside the schools if schools are to be successful. I would suggest that this issue will have to be addressed extra-scholastically in the U.S. as well if we are ever to achieve equality of results in our system.

As for the differences in population, Ravitch points out that in at least thirty states in the U.S., the population is similar to that of Finland. Last time I looked the states are still the main educational administrative unit in the U.S. and there would be nothing stopping a state like Missouri from taking up, for instance, issues of teacher training and provisions for school support specialists.

Nothing that is, apart from the aversion to a fair tax system that our conservative legislature exhi
bits. Certainly, our legislators would have to stop giving huge tax breaks to corporate cronies and address ways to generate revenue in order to insure adequate educational funding. Because the approach now under consideration in Missouri – and elsewhere – is certainly not going to address the issues that have dogged many of our schools over the past decades, but will, instead, only make the situation worse. Finnland, on the other hand, shows us what can be done by people who are able to recognize reality.

* The New York Review of Books, March 8, 2012.  “Schools We can Envy,” by Diane Ravitch. Available online by subscription only.