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With the publication of Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons, the education reform debate in the U.S. is moving into a second round of Finnish envy—the first being the corporate reformers' distorted claims about international comparisons and the new being calls to examine the full and complex picture of why Finland has achieved both social and education reform that has pushed them to the forefront of education quality.

This second round, however, appears to be exposing a nonpartisan failure among all concerned with public education moreso than the needed turn away from corporate education agendas and toward democratic ideals seeking social justice and human agency.

Education Week recently reprinted Erin Richards' piece (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) addressing Finland's education system, titled, "Better Teachers, Common Curriculum Are Hallmarks of Finnish Schools." While such coverage should signal the shift needed in discourse about international comparisons and what the U.S. should gain from Finland's social and educational commitments, the headline alone shows that we persist in seeing not what the evidence shows, but what we already assume about schools and reform.

Solutions Must Be Based on Identified Problems, Not Corporate Agendas

Once we take the time to read Richards' article, we discover that the EdWeek headline frames the Finish school system within the two current corporate mantras about reform—teacher quality and common standards—that simply are not represented in the social and educational commitments found in Finland.

Unlike the historical and persistent bureaucratic and corporate paradigms for running and reforming schools (and the parallel failure to address social reform that would result in stronger educational outcomes), Finland, in fact, reveals patterns completely antithetical to the headline:

• Finland has a social commitment to low childhood and social poverty that is contrasted by the relatively high childhood poverty rate in the U.S. as well as the U.S. failure to recognize the power of social programs to address income equity.

• Finland has a social and educational commitment to teacher autonomy and professionalism that is contrasted by a growing move in the U.S. to reduce teaching to a service industry and to de-professionalize teaching by implementing scripted curriculum and test-based accountability.

• Finland has rejected detailed and scripted national curriculum guides, punitive standardized testing, and relentless ranking and stratifying of students—all of which are central to the corporate agenda now being proposed and perpetuated all across the political spectrum and media.

• Finland embraces in the wider society and the schools commitments to social justice and kindness, while leaders, the media, and the public in the U.S. speak almost exclusively about the role of schools to create a workforce.

Still, however, looking at the continual misrepresentation of Finland misses the key part of addressing education reform in the U.S.: Just what are the essential problems we are trying to address and what are our goals once we address those hurdles?

Reaching back to the roots of universal public education in the fledgling U.S. democracy, we must recall that education was promoted as essential to the growth of democracy—not the consumer economy. As well, nearly two and a half centuries later, we must recognize the role of education to insure individual empowerment and autonomy to all people regardless of the accident of any person's birth.

Instead, public schools have gradually and then increasingly over the past three decades become the tool of the state, a state nearly entirely merged with corporate America. We are close to having completely abdicated our public schools and our democratic state and federal governments due to the power of corporate America to turn their staggering and imbalanced wealth into proxies for votes: The 1% has a stockpile of wealth that frames all social discourse, sways all political campaigns, and seeks to claim all public institutions (including schools) in order to maintain the status quo of inequity that is the domain of that 1%.

The education problem is actually that our schools are powerful reflections of our society. Schools are not the mechanism of reform that they could be—or that many of the corporate reformers claim they want (which, of course, they don't since schools as revolutionary would overturn their status).

Our public schools reflect our corrosive inequity; our manic obsession with measuring, labeling, and ranking; our cultural commitment to humans as worker; and our blind faith in rugged individualism.

None of these can be found in the Finnish cultural ethos or school system.

In a rare moment of confronting and rejecting the blinders worn by most media in the U.S., Judith Warner has offered a foundational conclusion that could serve to give us enough pause to change our direction as a society and as educational reformers:

"Thinking structurally about social ills, rejecting excessive individualism for community-based, it-takes-a-village-style responsibility, has been out of favor in America for a long time. In education reform, what’s been in style instead is vilifying teachers and their unions. For some schools, making the grade has meant cooking the books to show results. Let’s hope that the time to reform this business-modeled mindset has finally come."

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Comment Preferences

  •  Developing the minds of children is (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slapshoe, houyhnhnm

    not a business model.  Our culture has been corrupted by the corporate thinking.

  •  In a nut shell (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sunny skies
    The education problem is actually that our schools are powerful reflections of our society.

    Light is seen through a small hole.

    by houyhnhnm on Sun Dec 11, 2011 at 09:18:18 AM PST

  •  I get hand me down copies of the (3+ / 0-)

    Smithsonian Magazine. The September issues featured this article, Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?

    Interesting tidbit.

    The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive.

    In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots, according to Sahlberg.

    "Nonviolent in the face of police brutality." Scott Olsen's email signature

    by BOHICA on Sun Dec 11, 2011 at 09:51:30 AM PST

    •  Bingo (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Flaming Liberal for Jesus

      "Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive."

      accountability without autonomy is tyrrany

    •  "The Finnish system is different." (0+ / 0-)
      Like the German system, their students spend more years in high school.( This is similar to first year at University in the US. Students then do something similar to the British A-level exam. This is very comprehensive. Few of our students would be able to pass these exams
      In Finland, students then must pass University admittance exams before being accepted to a program of study. These exams are grueling and few pass on the first try. Many students spend years studying just to get into University. No one helps the students. Students read books and take exams. Period. You can’t take a course like we do for GMAT or LSAT. There are no lectures. You read books and take the exam. Once admitted, students study subjects like law, education, medicine, etc. There is no time limit and since education is free most students take as long as they want to get their first degree. The courses add up to roughly four years if one were to go straight through. So, the MA that students have in Finland is a first degree
      All in all, saying Finnish teachers have an MA is not exactly correct. They have a first degree they call an MA. It produces very fine lawyers and doctors and scientists so I am inclined not to argue with this over simplification. But they have not spent 4 years undergraduate and 2 years graduate school as anyone in the US must do to receive an MA in education. Our system becomes progressively more difficult and focused. Their system is always focused.
      Another issue that always bothers me is people point to the fact that children start school at age 7 in Finland as a factor in their success. People suggest we should leave our kids on their own and scrap our preschool system. Finns don’t start teaching subjects until age 7 that is true but the majority of women work in Finland and they have universal daycare. Most children have been in a system that encourages orderly behavior from birth. If you question this, go to Finland during the coldest and darkest months. It can be 40 below zero and people still stand and wait for lights to change. No one walks against the light. No one drinks and drives. People do not speak in public places like trams. Children in universal daycare also learn things like English or Swedish or other second language basics that prepare them for a rigorous system that starts at age 7. Seven year old children in Finland have few behavior issues because they have been treated equally since birth–they have been loved and encouraged by a system that values children.
      They don’t keep re-inventing the wheel the way we do. They also do not have the influence of book companies who sell fads. They don’t pay millions for education research and they don’t force un-natural practices on teachers.
      Kids don’t carry huge backpacks with fat books–they are presented with less information but they all learn everything that is taught.

      National Core Curricula and Qualification Requirements

    •  Finnish teacher salaries (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Flaming Liberal for Jesus
      A member of the National Education Association on the CoSN trip inquired about the teacher salaries, no doubt expecting that Finnish counterparts would be better paid. But it wasn’t the case. Salaries are roughly comparable, and in total Finland spends about $1,200 less per student than the United States’ $8,700 per-pupil average.

  •  "The 1% has a stockpile of wealth" (0+ / 0-)

    It is more like a stream of money.

    Let's us say Drug Company A nets $5 billion/year in profit.

    Over twenty years of a drug patent that might equate to $100 billion total.

    Since it might develop another drug because its researchers are smart, it might be worth more, say $150 billion.

    The stock market may place a value of $150 billion on Drug Company A.

    However, if you were to invade its headquarters and turn over its executives to American prison guards who served time for nasty deeds in Iraq, you would not be able to get $150 billion.

    The company executives might be able to lay their hands on $7 billion or $20 billion if pressed hard.

    It gets that $5 billion/year revenue stream because state laws require insurance companies to pay for its drugs. Its customers wouldn't and often couldn't pay anywhere near close to $5 billion/year.

    Drug Company A is not a stockpile of $150 billion, it is a stream of $5 billion/year and maybe $7 billion to $20 billion in liquid assets.

  •  Imagine a bank (0+ / 0-)

    Its credit card division might be worth $8 billion.

    It gets maybe $800 million/year in net profit through the foul means of usury and excessive late charges. It grosses maybe $1.2 billion in profits and pays maybe $400 million/year in taxes on credit card profits.

    Only because the laws allow people who once fell on bad times to be exploited is the bank able to net that $800 million/year.

    If fair dealing came to the land, the bank might only net $100 million year and governments get $50 million/year in taxes from its credit card business.

    If enraged citizens charged up to the executive offices with baseball bats, they could not lay their hands on $8 billion of the bank's money. The net profit rolls in at roughly $65 million/month.

    There might be computers in the building with the names and addresses and account balances of the victims of usury.

    Only by continued exploitation by usury could the bank continue to generate those credit card profits (and tax payments).

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