I'm not Finnish'ed Yet

I think we need a service that helps the public read between the lines of education-related articles (and highlights the incredible jumps in logic that appear so frequently). Maybe Google can develop a new "translation" app: you could just paste in any article, hit send, and a new version would appear with what the writer is REALLY saying. Red flashing lights would reveal statements that contradict each other (or reality), and links would magically appear to take you to what the research actually says.

One of the recent articles I've read that I would test in my fancy new translator service would be this article by Diane Ravitch, which is truly asking for a good dose of dissection.

Ask yourself, do all "education reformers" you know (or know of) believe in privatizing education (as the author would have you believe)? Of course not. Do all "education reformers" think standardized tests are fabulous and flawless? No (does anybody?!). Do "education reformers" think all teachers are bad, or the only ones in the system that need to be held accountable? So ridiculous. Many of us have been teachers ourselves, hence the passion for improving the system.

This whole notion of lumping together everyone who is fighting for change and equality in the system as one cohesive "education reform" group with one agenda (to destroy public education!). Well, folks, that's called PROPAGANDA. Don't buy it.

I find it fascinating that the term "education reformer" is being used in such a pejorative way by Ravitch and others (though the strategy is obvious: lump together everyone fighting to change the status quo in hopes of getting the public to dismiss them en masse. Sadly, it appears to be working rather well). I also find it fascinating that education philanthropists like Bill Gates have become such targets of antipathy. I mean, this is the same man (couple, really, his wife is right there with him in all of their massive philanthropic activity) working to eradicate malaria and AIDS, provide vaccines to poor children and microloans to women and families. But he's a "corporate" reformer when it comes to education in America? If he was providing funding to improve schools and teacher quality in a developing country, instead of our own, no one would get away with this ridiculous rhetoric.

But to the point of this blog: the FINLAND obsession.

Here is the diversity of Finland (from Wikipedia, feel free to challenge if you have better data):

  • Finn 93.4%
  • Swede 5.6%
  • Russian 0.5%
  • Estonian 0.3%
  • Sami 0.1% (Hi Masha!)

Are Finland's education answers really going to solve OUR education problems? Finland did do very well in the most recent PISA reading test. You know who did better? White and Asian American girls (and white and Asian American boys were very close). The U.S. as a whole performs below Finland because we are not educating ALL American students well. 

Notice that you don't hear the same pundits who talk up Finland putting Australia or Canada or New Zealand on the marquee, and these countries all did better than the U.S. on PISA too. Ravitch actually mentions Australia as a negative example of a nation plagued by the "global education reform movement". Why?

Australia provides significant government funding to independent schools in addition to their traditional public schools; the idea is that all parents should get to choose what kind of school their children attend (and they do, so Australia has a huge independent school sector). This has been ongoing for decades in Australia. I believe New Zealand provides government funding to independent and semi-independent schools too (correct me if I'm wrong).

Australia (where I lived and studied the education system for a year) or Canada or New Zealand seem to me to be culturally more similar to the U.S. (more diversity/immigration) than Finland. And they are doing better than we are on PISA too. (Meanwhile, I think we all can agree that Singapore and Korea are quite dissimilar, yes?). So why is Finland getting all the love over these countries?

Nonnie and Papa Jake.jpg

(By the way and for the record, I am part Finnish and have been to Finland. My grandmother-- who was a public school teacher -was Finnish. So my new joke is: just as Sarah Palin was an expert on foreign policy because she could see Russia from her back porch, I am an expert on Finnish education because my Nonnie was a Finnish educator. See photo of my awesome grandparents to the left.) My "Nonnie" & Papa Jake

One thing I do agree with in this Ravitch article is that the U.S. is unparalleled in its success; we are still, for now, the world's only "superpower." But that success, I would argue, is mostly a reflection of our enterpreneurial spirit and democratic values (better than most, but we've still got work to do). We are also the world's most prolific jailer, with more people (most of whom have low literacy skills) in prison than any other country on the planet. We have a higher percentage of black citizens in prison right now than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. (Read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.)

The massive incarceration (and crime leading up to it) will continue -- and our status as the world's "leader" will end --  if our education system doesn't catch up to the 21st century AND hold everyone in that system accountable for teaching EVERY SINGLE CHILD that walks into a school. That's right Diane: NO excuses. Whether the child is poor, whether the child's parents are working two jobs or whether the child's parents are in jail, there is NO EXCUSE not to provide that child with the same high expectations for learning and access to quality teachers that children lucky enough to be born into better circumstances enjoy. 

There are lessons to be learned from other education systems, sure, but I don't think the nearly all-white, tiny nation of Finland is going to provide much guidance in how to solve our nation's biggest education problem, which is inequity. We need to BECOME the model that shows how a truly democratic, incredibly diverse and relatively large country gives everyone a chance to achieve their potential and thereby fulfills its own.