Wednesday, January 18, 2012

We should adopt Finland's educational system

This week's Dan Rather Reports on HDNet dealt with why America should adopt Finland's educational system.

Both the Republican and Democratic leaderships would reject this without even considering the reasons.

The Republicans have to reject it because so-called "American Exceptionalism"--a central pillar of the GOP Ministry of Propaganda's tenets--states that America is better than every single other country on Earth in every single aspect, and anyone who says otherwise isn't a loyal American and thus his arguments can and should be ignored.

The only exception to American Exceptionalism is Israel, whose policies are apparently the best on Earth--even better than ours--because another Republican MOP tenet is that America must support every single thing Israel does without question (and pay for it), and anyone who demurs hates Jews and should never be allowed to hold public office--and of course his reasons for demurring can and should be ignored.

The Democratic leadership, meanwhile, bristles at the very idea of holding up a foreign country's educational system as a standard because it might threaten the jobs of today's American teachers and administrators if you did so.

Not that they say that. Instead they advance a cloudy, dystopian version of the GOP MOP's "American Exceptionalism:" most other countries are too small to compare with America, they lack our diversity, or poverty, or....the reasons offered take more time to deal with than if you just looked at the other country's system.

Let's look at Finland anyway.

First, Finland because it tests in the top three of the world's nations consistently across the spectrum of standardized testing.

Second, Finland because it does this while spending vastly less on education than America does--about $8K per student vs. around $11K here.

Third, because the argument of scale is complete nonsense. Finland has a larger population than 32 of America's states, and in America education is done at the state level--so even without considering the larger states, Finland's lessons are applicable to nearly 2/3 of American states.

Fourth, because the diversity argument is also nonsense: many heartland states like Iowa, for example, have less diversity than Finland, yet Finland produces better-educated students for way less money than all of them, singly or in any combination. And Finland's students do better than those of all the other Nordic nations, all with comparable demographics. And it isn't monolithic. The country speaks three official languages and has 5% foreign-born people--and the schools with the largest immigrant populations do just as well as the homogeneous ones.

Amazingly, unlike the other countries at the top of the testing, Finnish students finish first without being grinds, and the teachers finish first without being paid much more than American teachers. But they're more highly trained than American teachers, and their jobs are vastly more enjoyable--less regimented, with smaller classes (average 20), shorter hours for both students and teachers, and far more scope of authority about what and how to teach. Students also get less homework BTW.

Nor are the "secrets" very exotic--they're actually much closer to what American educational reformers like John Dewey advocated than the principles American schooling goes by.

Secret number one: put the schools budget into the classrooms. Dan Rather cited a damning statistic: the entire Finnish educational bureaucracy numbers 600 administrators for 1,140,000 students nationwide, from primary school through university (which is, of course, free to students whose test scores qualify them for admission). That's a ratio of 1,900 students per administrator.

By contrast, Rather said that the Los Angeles Unified School district employs 3,685 administrations to oversee the education of 664,233 students. That's a ratio of 180 students per administrator.

Adopting Finland's approach would put 91% of America's educational administration bureaucracy into the classroom (or out on the street). In fact even school principals teach several classes a week.

But it would probably involve replacing many of America's teachers. In Finland you have to have a master's degree in education to be considered for classroom teaching. Despite the pay not being that high, being a teacher is prestigious. Teachers are considered cool when male and female Finns are polled about the most desirable profession for a spouse to have. So the idiot teachers you remember having--I sure do--wouldn't be there.

Another secret to Finland's educational system being so cost effective is that they spend next to nothing on special ed, nothing on standardized testing, and nothing on school sports. Special ed kids are mainstreamed, with extra teachers in classrooms giving help right there to kids who need more assistance. Teachers create their own tests. And kids' athletics are handled by the towns and cities, after school (and school days are shorter than ours), with just as much participation in athletics as you see here. It's just not considered a function of the schools.

Also, there are virtually no private schools in Finland, or home schooling. Public schools are esteemed by adults and considered both safe and fulfilling by students. Bullying is nipped in the bud. Arts are taught. A lot of class time is hands-on and individuated.

Teachers and students enjoy themselves and look forward to school.

Imagine that. You'd think conservatives would love an educational system that costs so much less and teaches the basics so much better. You'd think liberals would love an educational system that is just as good in the inner cities as it is in the affluent suburbs and takes individual needs into account.

Yet we just steam along, oblivious to the lessons we could learn if we didn't assume that the world consists of "America" and "here there be dragons."

You can read a lengthy description of how Finnish education works here or here. Or you can get the book on it from Finland's top educator on Amazon.

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