Finland provides 3 important pointers for America’s failing schools

It may surprise many to know that among the countries expected to excel in educating youth is Finland.

Yes, Finland.  That tiny country in Europe’s northern corner best known for…well, not much really.  But according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Finland ranks in the top 20 nations for its successful education system.

Amid calls for more educational funding and attacks on teacher tenure back in America, debates over how exactly to improve America’s public school system, and whose responsibility this is continue to divide the nation.  Teachers blame administration, while many blame teachers for not being good enough to capture young audiences.

The underlying truth is that America’s students are not excelling.  The question is: why?

Are America’s schools in a state of emergency?

Dr. Stephenson poses with her student at  graduation  (photograph by KG Brown)
Dr. Stephenson poses with her student at graduation
(photograph by KG Brown)

Dr. Tivika Stephenson said there is no simple answer to this question.  And she should know.

The Hampton University graduate, who recently obtained her Ph.d in Educational Leadership, has been a Virginia teacher for almost a decade.  Though she maintains that test scores are not the only measurement of success, she recognizes that state tests are important.

“If we measure by what the [data] says,” she said, “definitely, yes.”

According to the Virginia Department of Education’s school report card, districts are making slow strides in closing achievement gaps, and are not producing enough graduating seniors to satisfy the federal requirement.

The 2013 school year produced less than half the number of advanced students in reading and writing than it did on the previous year’s assessment.

And Virginia is not lonely.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which documents student academic progress across the nation, boasts of some progress, yet the following is evident:

  • Students are not achieving advanced levels on any test.
  • Since 1992, reading scores have increased by only a point each year, 8 points overall.
  • Though mathematics shows the largest percentage of growth, the years of greatest increase came only when accommodations to the test were allowed.
  • Many states saw what the NAEP reported as “no significant change” in reading scores.

Finnish school solutions: Pointer#1- few standardized tests
Finland is unique in a number of ways that are remarkably different from American standards.  One most important issue is that of standardized testing, which Finland uses very little of.

Dr. Stephenson agrees that percentages do not definitively reflect the public school success rate.

“We get measured on AYP (Annual Yearly Progress] and being fully accredited. But there are factors that aren’t considered,” Stephenson explained.  “Whenever they change the [Standards of Learning] test we get hit because it’s a new test. There is no turnaround time.”

Though they use only one standardized test, taken when students are in their teen years, they do believe in early and strict intervention for learners who appear to be falling behind.  About 30% of Finland’s students receive extra help with studies within their first nine years.

All for one and one for all: Pointer #2- a unified curriculum
Of the most pressing issues facing American schooling, said Stephenson are the various sects of student population that exist in any given school.

“We forget to ask, ‘are the socioeconomically disadvantaged students getting what they need?” she noted.  “Are the special education students getting what they need?’”

Finland’s answer to this possible problem is to teach every student the same thing, at every school.  The concept is not so outlandish; this would eliminate placement testing and student setbacks if students are forced to move from one state to another.   It might also negate the constant debate over what to teach and how to teach it, especially for hot topics such as slavery and religion.

In fact, on a smaller scale, a new initiative in York County Public Schools called the Balanced Literacy Approach took this very idea and centralized it across the subject areas in order to boost reading success.

“[York County] noticed a disconnect between when students leave elementary school and the middle school level,” Stephenson explained.

The Balanced Literacy Approach, begun as a model of curriculum used in elementary schools, “presents a balanced and integrated approach to reading and language” by using reading and writing skills in every subject.

“In every subject, across every grade level, reading, writing and communication skills are being addressed,” Stephenson said. “In doing that, when I go to math class, and math gives me that passage to read which contains a problem for me to solve, I’m still critically thinking.”

Meditation: Pointer #3-the importance of self reflection
The success of Finnish students is even more remarkable given that students there begin at age seven, two years after American Students.  Even more shocking: Finland’s preschool program emphasizes self-reflection and socializing, not academics.  In fact, grades are not given until high school, and class rankings are not compiled at all.

That self-reflection equates to students being more involved and invested in exactly what they learn and perhaps, because they are not being compared to their peers, more motivated.

“One of the things I think is important is student selected work,” Stephenson said of the need for American students to be more involved in the educational process. “If you tell them they can read fiction, non-fiction, sports, if that’s what they like, it gets them to read because they are interested.”

Rising 9th grader Alexis Fabila agrees.

Alexis Fabila, left, poses with friend, Akira. photograph by KG Brown
Alexis Fabila, left, poses with friend, Akira.
(photograph by KG Brown)

“Some of the books [teachers] wanted us to read were books that they read when they were our age,” said the Newport News teen. “No kid wants to read old books.”

Is the American public school system in a state of emergency?

But, if so, it is not because the system is totally useless—on the contrary, Americans still believe in their system of education.

Rather, it seems that the state of emergency in American education today is the acceptance of a data driven average to measure individual success.

In other words, “We spend a lot of time measuring student academic success by their scores, but rarely do we celebrate progress,” said Stephenson. “It takes time to move in the right direction.  We forget to look at what we have done right. That class that scored 70%, but had to struggle and really did their best to actually improved, that’s what we forget to celebrate.”

Given the fact that America’s mid-range ranking on the global report card is not new, America’s greatest failure might be a lack of humility-the kind that would allow those in charge to stand back and do what is expected of students.

To Learn.


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