MAKING THE GRADE: Education the Finnish way

By Daily News • Last Updated 1:05 pm on Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

A copy of “Michigan’s Top-To-Bottom Ranking,” published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy” arrived in my mail recently.

The report begins by asking “Why Grade Schools?” It goes on to say that despite an increase in public school options, enrollment in conventional public schools is still largely determined by the students who happen to live within the boundaries of a school district. It adds that those schools are, therefore, “assured a level of enrollment, regardless of their actual performance.”

It is here that I take issue. I submit that what this trend may show is that many parents prefer to have their students attend schools in their neighborhood where they can be part of a community. I frankly think this assumption is insulting to parents and suggests that they do not care about the quality of education their children receive.

Let me be clear. I absolutely believe that all schools should be quality schools with excellent teachers and a program that meets the needs of all students. I do believe that there are many issues including poverty that are a factor in student success. I believe there are places where there are huge challenges to schools to show high performance. All of these issues need to be addressed.

However, I also find it interesting that Finland, which was once at the lower end of international comparisons several decades ago, has soared to the top and no one seems to be eager to investigate how they did it. Assuming that we value international test scores, why aren’t we studying their success?

An article titled “The Finnish Way” appeared in Phi Delta Kappan, a journal I read faithfully. I can only include a few of the points the author made about how they did it in this space, but one comment was, “A miracle it is not.”

The following are a few points that caught my attention.

Finland has moved from a highly centralized system to more local governance. The country eliminated national approval of textbooks and annual school inspections.

They wanted the same target and the same aims in every subject regardless of student background. The thin national curriculum offers guidance, but relies on teachers to flesh it out.

They ramped up the knowledge and skills of teachers. They wanted to drive responsibility down to the school level. That required leaders to develop a system that would ensure the public would trust decisions made by teachers and heads.

They upgraded the standards for becoming a teacher. Admission to a teacher preparation program includes a national entrance exam and a personal interview. Only one out of every 10 applicants is accepted.

Preparation is important because they do not have teacher evaluation and they do not want it.

Finnish teachers are on their own to develop assessments. There is only one test, the National Matriculation Exam that all students must pass before high school graduation.

There is no formal ranking of schools based on scores. They are not interested in competition.

They believe that schools are the best judged by the parents of the students.

Trust permeates the system. A student is quoted in the article, “Trust goes both ways. Teachers trust us, and we trust that our teachers are the best that they can be.”

This system has evolved over several decades. The Finns took a hard look at their educational system, found it deficient and set out to improve it. They set their vision on a comprehensive school system in which they would strive to educate everybody. They focused on a culture of diversity, trust and respect.

It sometimes feels like there are those in this country who are more interested in destroying our public schools than improving them. I submit that only when we follow the Finnish approach and work together in a systematic way will we create the schools we want and students need.

Next week I plan to talk about what we can learn from Chinese schools.

 Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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