Strengthen Standards, Raise Requirements and Then Get Out of the Way: What I’ve Learned From the Finnish School Model

Dr. Jean Jordan is a former elementary school principle turned Fulbright Scholar; she utilized the grant money received from the Fulbright program to spend six weeks in Finland studying its education system.  Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Jean regarding her experience in Finland - a country that has become the worldwide poster child for school improvement and educational excellence.

Finland has routinely topped the international rankings for education in recent years, despite the fact that it was once one of the most poorly ranked countries among those categorized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) through their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  How was this accomplished?  Jordan and others site very specific strategies that fundamentally changed the educational paradigm in Finland.

First, the bar for teacher qualification was raised.  In a world where organizations like Teach For America embrace the notion that teacher training and certification are secondary to content knowledge, Finland has taken the opposite approach.  According to educational researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, those who become teachers in Finland are selected from a large pool of hopeful students, of whom approximately fifteen percent are granted admittance to a teacher licensure program.  Those individuals receive post-graduate training for three years, which includes extensive coursework on research-based practice and at least a full year of clinical experience.  Otherwise stated, every educator in Finland has the equivalent of a Master’s degree and is well trained in the art of teaching, in addition to content knowledge.

Second, Finnish education was standardized.  These standards are created by a Parliament that, in turn, fully expects them to be met at the local level.  However, those standards do not change as frequently as they do in the United States, according to Jordan.  She also notes that standards are deeply ingrained in Finnish teachers throughout their training, ensuring that each of them is conversant in the country’s robust and dynamic expectations for students. 

Finally, a bloated and congested bureaucratic system surrounding education was dismantled in the 1970s.  This may seem inconsistent with the previous paragraph on standardization, for how can less bureaucracy accompany standards doled out to municipalities from a central authority?  The answer lies in the notion of trust.  Because the Finnish government believes it has trained its teachers well, and because the Finnish government believes that its standards are rigorous and effective, teachers are fully trusted to execute standards on the local level, in their own way.  As Jordan notes, “The question of measuring college readiness is nonsensical to the Finns.”  The Finnish government does not feel like it needs more tools in place to measure the meeting of standards - well-trained teachers and spelled-out expectations are the only necessity.

So what can Americans learn from the Finnish approach to education?  Simply put, we need to impose centralized standards in place of impotent state standards, elevate teacher requirements, and then get out of the way.

I have discussed the creation of federal standards in previous blog posts. Those who oppose the centralization of standards often argue that doing so will result in a severe degradation of school quality, insofar as centralization resembles a monopoly and, as such, there is no incentive for improvement.  To those people, I simply respond, “See Finland.”  Individuals who oppose centralization also argue that the expansion of some of our most promising reforms (such as charter schools) would cease under a standards movement dictated by the federal government.  To those people, I simply say again, “See Finland.” Charter schools are only necessary when the traditional public school option is not meeting expectations and standards.  We should rejoice on the day that charter schools are no longer deemed necessary.  Is it possible that the roadmap to seeing that day arrive is simply to raise teacher requirements, provide centralized standards and then get out of the way?  Again I say, “See Finland.”

Dialogue regarding the elevation of teacher requirements is often met with just as much vitriol as is the conversation on centralization.  Teachers are fiercely defensive of their practice and the preparation it involves.  However, many teachers enter into the workforce ill prepared by their undergraduate degree programs.  Furthermore, top candidates are often shunted away from the profession because of the low pay and low appreciation associated with it.  What would happen if teacher requirements were elevated, both through the credentials required as well as through a stronger emphasis on rewarding excellent teachers with commensurate pay?  The result may be similar to that experienced in Finland, wherein teaching is a revered, and well rewarded, occupation.

To be clear, the Finnish education model should not go uncriticized.  Increasing immigration is threatening the homogeneity that has served as the foundation for its educational philosophy.  Furthermore, its small size is an asset in its fight for educational excellence.  As a much, much larger country, the United States faces a far more diverse set of variables in executing a plan for making its student population college and employment ready.  That does not mean that the lessons learned from the Finnish model should be ignored.  Finland provides an excellent reference for what happens when a country creates a trustworthy set of standards and equips teachers with the tools necessary to execute them with excellence. Let’s start seeing Finland, shall we?

(Special thanks to Dr. Jordan for taking her Saturday afternoon to discuss her experience in Finland) 


Voting Equality as an Analogue for Education Equality: A Conversation with Jay Mathews from the Washington Post

While you may not recognize his name, you likely know his work: Jay Mathews authored the book on which the film “Stand and Deliver” would later be based. Additionally, Jay has been employed by the Washington Post for over 40 years and has won several awards for his education writing.  Needless to say, Jay has a deep and rich understanding of American schooling.

Recently, after he took the time to read one of my blog posts, I began corresponding with Jay; I greatly admire his ability to synthesize the ongoing, sometimes disparate dialogue about education in this country into a coherent narrative.

However, in one of our recent exchanges, Jay wrote something that I found questionable.  I asked Jay, “Why do you believe that education is so cemented as a state’s rights issue?”  He responded, “Education [is] not a federal responsibility.  And I don’t think it has done us much harm.”

Respectfully, I would like to push back on the notion that the absence of education as a federal responsibility hasn’t done us any harm.

Like education, the framers of the Constitution also left the power to set suffrage requirements and voting qualifications to the states.  Yet because of injustice and inequality, the federal government had to step in at a certain point - primarily with amendments to the Constitution, but also with legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Is education any different?  Left to states and the democratic processes employed therein, inequality abounds.  One need only compare the amount of money spent in certain districts in poor communities in Maryland or California (compared to their wealthier counterparts with higher property tax bases) to see the inequality firsthand.  Much like the right to vote, don't we suffer when the federal government is restricted in their ability to step in, level out, and dare I say outlaw those practices (much like literacy tests and poll taxes) that create disparity in American education?

If voting equality is an appropriate analogue, relative to education equality, then I see it this way: Putting our hope in state-based and market-based education reforms is akin to hoping that Mississippi and Alabama would outlaw literacy tests or poll taxes without federal pressure and national support. 

Though I very much respect his work, I have to disagree with Jay’s views on this topic.  It seems clear that we have suffered much by leaving the states to set their own standards and funding schemes.  Doing so has been an open invitation to inequality.


Who is it For? Shining a Light on the History of Educational Inequality in America

One might argue that there is nothing more enlightening than the study of history.  If that is true, then the history of American education may illuminate the way toward solutions to modern day academic ills as much as it may explain the very existence of any perceived scholastic anemia.  To be clear, the educational foundations of the United States rest on one very basic yet difficult question: Who is it for?  The answer to this question has dictated the course and consequence of public schooling in America and should, therefore, be regarded as the fundamental gateway to any and all conversations that seek to lay bare the historical roots of education in this country, as well as diagnose the malady that has left the tree of American education in a state of questionable health.

Before investigating the aforementioned question, however, it is important to first make note of the fact that public schools were virtually non-existent in the United States prior to the beginning of the nineteenth century (because women were charged with educating their children at home).  Those tax supported schools that did exist were scarce because such institutions had the odor of pauperism about them.  Otherwise stated, the wealthy did not need the assistance of public schools, and therefore their necessity was debatable. 

However, a shift occurred in the early nineteenth century as middle and upper class Americans realized that if the poor were not educated, they might become a dangerous, ignorant rabble, armed with the vote. Quickly, taxation for the purpose of education became an insurance premium that the wealthy paid for stability.  Young women, considered uniquely disposed to teaching because of their innate tendencies toward appropriate behavior were employed in one-room schoolhouses across the country to inspire virtue and morality in the youth, lest they turn into the unstable horde that the wealthy so feared. Additionally, considering the significant influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe at that time, many people saw a desperate need to instill "civilized" values in these alien newcomers in order to preserve American democracy and morals.

With all of this said, for some groups of people the end goal of public education seems to have been, historically speaking, to produce a subservient lower class. Arguably, this brief summary of the origins of American public education ignores the valiant efforts of many well-intentioned pioneers and reformers.  Nonetheless, this summary is indeed rooted in history, and therefore must be seriously considered as an explanation for the all-important question, “For whom was public education in America created?”

As illustrated above, recent years have seen historians seek to remind us of the embarrassing and shameful nature of the origins of public education in America, as well as the unhealthy fruit that it has borne.  This movement has been met by serious opposition, specifically from individuals such as Diane Ravitch (2010) who argue “that the public schools [were not] devised by scheming capitalists to impose ‘social control’ on an unwilling proletariat or to reproduce social inequality.”  Instead, Ravitch and her counterparts adopt a much more idealistic and romantic perspective, positing that public education is “a primary mechanism through which a democratic society gives its citizens the opportunity to attain literacy and social mobility.”

While historians might disagree, such disagreement illustrates the first of three ideological paradigms fundamental to understanding the foundations of education in the United States.  Specifically, education will consistently teeter on the precipice of failure when it does not define its stakeholders in such a way that engenders equality.  When a question such as “Whose history should be taught?” are both legitimate and necessary, and when systemic reform is stunted because textbook and exam publishers are considered primary stakeholders, then one might justifiably conclude that the foundations of education are eroding; indeed, they were not firm to begin with.

This conclusion is not shared by the now infamous report, A Nation at Risk (ANAR).  On the contrary, in its opening lines, ANAR claims that the integrity of America’s public education system is the product of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”  While the attribution of failure as a product of mediocrity is an interesting (albeit semi-circular) argument, the more fascinating claim is the connection that A Nation at Risk makes between a healthy educational system and the health of our nation. As previously noted, from the beginning of public education in America, pioneers and reformers in the field of academics implied a significant connection between democracy and education, citing such foundational ideologies as “a free vote cries aloud for free education.”  This is perhaps one area in which many historians and educators would agree – education certainly must prepare individuals for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship in a complex society.  From the beginning, American education sought to spread uniform cultural values and combat ignorance, especially ignorance that would stall the political process.  This serves as the second of three noteworthy points regarding the foundations of American academia: Insofar as education is so closely connected to citizenship in a democratic society, the discussing of education will forever be a political endeavor.

Considering the historical proposition that education has, in the past, been a tool of the upper class used for controlling the American proletariat and is therefore inherently political, one final significant conclusion regarding the nature of educational foundations in the United States seems appropriate: Standards are now a necessity of the highest order.  Federal standards can strive to create the egalitarian movement this country has historically lacked, yet so desperately needs.  Leaving such a task to the individual states is a confederate notion rooted in semi-ancient ideology, wherein individual states feared the tyranny of a strong central government.  Such a confederate approach has engendered inequality and therefore degenerated into a situation where standardized test based accountability (not standards) has become our educational policy. 

As it now stands, individual states determine their own benchmarks for proficiency.  In turn, each state has been left to determine what classroom content is valuable and not valuable, resulting in incredible discrepancies and deficits in learning from state to state within the union.  Particularly, the study of American History has been at the center of this ongoing debate.  It seems critical, therefore, that each state voluntarily submits to national standards.  Only then is it possible that the politicizing of education fall prostrate to the goal of equality.  Only then is it possible for the answer to the question, “Who is it for?” be answered with a resounding, “Everyone!” And it seems appropriate that history teachers lead the way.


Did the Framers of the Constitution Lack Vision for American Education?

Is fighting a declared war in a foreign country more important than fighting domestic illiteracy? Is the creation of post offices more important than the creation of schools? Is funding interstate highway projects more important than funding a national education system?

In each of the previous examples, the former represents an enumerated power granted to the national government by the Constitution.  All told, there are twenty-seven enumerated powers – none of them involving education. 

Early proponents of a strong central government (the 'Federalists') argued for a system of shared power and dual lawmaking between the national and state governments, all to avoid the tyranny experienced under British rule.  The point was to place limits on central authority in order to ensure individual and state's rights.  

The number of powers given to the national government in the Constitution pales in comparison to the number of powers reserved for the states, per the 10th Amendment. This is as it should be, and is in keeping with the goal of avoiding autocracy and dictatorship.  It is worth noting that the powers given to the national government each involve something of national concern, yet the creation and regulation of schools is not found on that list. Why?  

Public schools were virtually non-existent in the US prior to the nineteenth century.  At the time of the crafting of the Constitution, education was taking place in the home, not in school buildings.  As embodied by the philosophy of "Republican Motherhood", it was viewed as the mother's job to educate her children. Therefore, funding education was simply not necessary - which is why we see no mention of education in the Constitution.  Doing so would have been as absurd as discussing the regulation of flying machines or wireless communication devices.  

Leaving education to be regulated by the states (and therefore subject to the democratic processes by which most states do business) was a mistake on the part of the framers of the Constitution.  Most people would agree that educating our children is just as important as the other enumerated powers. As one of my more perceptive students recently questioned, "Doesn't 'Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness' inherently guarantee the right to an equal education?"  I think so.  For this reason, I support pushes to place education in the hands of the national government - specifically, national standards accompanied by national funding.

The quality of the education one receives should not be determined by the location of their birth.  Nonetheless, individuals born and raised in states such as Minnesota are far more likely to receive an adequate education compared to their peers in states like Mississippi, where ACT scores and graduation rates between comparable demographics are considerably lower.

The discrepancy between higher performing and lower performing states is almost exclusively a function of spending – on teacher salaries and teacher training, specifically.  In fact, a relatively recent study conducted by respected researcher Ronald Ferguson found that the most important measurable cause of increased student achievement is teacher experience. For many states, offering competitive salaries simply isn’t in the budget; low-performing states are funding their education systems at levels well below those of high-performing states. This disparity is so great, and the numbers so outrageous, that the federal and state courts have been asked (on many occasions) to decide on the legality of such unequal funding. 

In total, thirty-one states have seen lawsuits filed to challenge the Constitutionality of their funding schemes – those suits arguing that the inequality of long-standing funding mechanisms constitutes a denial of the equal protection clause of the Constitution (per the 14th Amendment).  The courts have ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in ten of those cases. 

If money does indeed make a difference, then it seems logical that monies be distributed equally in order to ensure that every student born in this country, regardless of the location of their birth, receives an education of adequate quality.  I believe that the only way to accomplish this is through the pursuit of national standards accompanied by national funding.

That’s not to say that states should be discouraged from designing unique programs and interventions to meet the standards established by the national government.  Certainly, one could argue (as Darling-Hammond has) that leveling the funding playing field is a precondition for genuine state and local control.  Nonetheless, states should not be left to determine how their schools are funded by way of democratic processes that almost guarantee that those in the minority are left with the dregs (see previous post, Why Democracy is the Source of Our Educational Inequality).


Why Democracy is the Source of Our Educational Inequality

When he emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin was asked by an anxious citizen, "Sir, what kind of government have you given us?" His reply is not what you might think - it did not include any mention of democracy. Instead, he simply remarked, "A republic, if you can keep it.”  The authors of the Constitution feared democracy, primarily because they knew it usually failed. Of democracy, John Adams said, "It never lasts long - it soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself."  Ben Franklin was even more graphic in his description, saying that democracy is akin to "two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner."

Needless to say, the framers of the Constitution did everything they could to keep us from destroying ourselves through democracy. Instead, they sought to design a government wherein the rule of law prevailed, rather than the will of the mob. To some, this sounds anti-American. Did our founding fathers really desire for the influence of the people to be absent from political decision-making processes? On some level, that is exactly right. Allow me to explain.

In a democracy, the majority rules (even if the minority is almost numerically equal to the majority). Therefore, the voice of the minority is silenced and subjugated to the voice of the majority. While this may not initially seem important, let me ask a simple question: Have you ever been a part of the minority (because of race, economic status, or some other socio-political characteristic)? If so, you know that when you are in the minority, you "lose” - what you and the others in the minority want is not going to become reality, at least in the present moment.

The good news is that humans are fickle; our opinions can change quickly based on new information, trends and fads, or even something as simple as waking up on the wrong side of the bed. The minority can become the majority, and then the minority again, all in a very short span of time.  Yet those at the Constitutional Convention wanted something better for us; they wanted more for us than being subject to the fickleness of our human nature. They sought consistency, and the system created in the Constitution provided just that. As a gift, we were given a republic, wherein the rule of law prevails, and not the ever changing will of the majority. In this sense, the purpose of the republic is to save us from ourselves.

Yet many people, even politicians, continue to run away from this model and into the outstretched arms of self-destructive democratic processes. Insofar as the education system in America is no different, I would argue that democracy itself is the source of educational inequality in America.

When the democratic model of decision-making is applied to education, Benjamin Franklin's aforementioned quote becomes all the more graphic. When the democratic method is being employed, the minority becomes the lamb led to slaughter. It should, therefore, be no surprise that the needs of the minority are silenced, for that is the very nature of democracy.

Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman argues that the accident of ones birth is the primary source of inequality in America. I agree. If you are born into a racial or socio-economic minority, research shows that your educational fate is likely sealed.  For example, statistics on reading trends from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) - which measures reading achievement in public schools - show that between 1994 and 2007, significant gaps between white and non-white students were consistently demonstrated, despite a whole host of government driven interventions at that time. A gap in math ability also exists, and has been widening in recent years.

The amount of money spent on education in America further demonstrates the correlative relationship between democracy and inequality. Those in the minority, regardless of where they reside in this country, have less tax dollars spent on their education than the majority.  Authors such as Jonathan Kozol and Linda Darling-Hammond have made note of this, citing that in certain circumstances, the spending on students at predominantly white schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by minority students.  Truly, the opportunity gap precedes the achievement gap.

Recent court cases support this conclusion. In Skeen vs. State of Minnesota (1993), the Minnesota Supreme Court held that while there is a “fundamental right to a basic level of funding,” for schools, that right does not require equality of spending among districts.  Otherwise stated, those in the majority - who therefore have the loudest voice (and often the greater resources) - are openly welcome to advocate for, and contribute dollars to, educational inequality. This is certainly democratic. It is also sounds a lot like justification for inequality.

Some will argue that this is simply the American way. I can hear the naysayers now. They will say, "This is democracy. It's the way things are.  If people don't like it, they should just leave." To those people, I simply say this: You may be right, but at least I've got John Adams and Ben Franklin on my side. And I believe, as they did, that it wasn't supposed to be this way. Instead, the freedom and equality that are written into our US Constitution should extend into the classroom.

Freedom and democracy are not necessarily synonyms.  To the authors of the Constitution, the notion of a republic was a far better approximation in the sense that within a republic, all people are to be treated equally under the law and the freedoms of all people are to be protected, rather than simply those who have the privilege of residing in the majority.  One could, therefore, argue that democratic behavior and processes have the power to isolate the freedom and privileges of the minority. For example, we hail referendum voting as the ultimate in democratic inclusion instead of seeing it for what it also is - the opportunity for the majority to subjugate the rights and privileges of others to their own.  The question of equity and equitable spending in education should not be one that is subject to democratic processes.

As evidence, consider the most recent international assessments in math and science conducted by the Program in International Student Assessment (PISA), on which the US Ranked 25th (math) and 21st (science) out of 30, respectively. Many of the countries that have surpassed the United States in the areas of math and science are fully subsidizing the education of their students. This commitment to equality is built into their law, and also honored in practice; questions regarding the equal funding of education are not subject to a democratic debate, discussion or vote. Those in the majority are not welcome to sabotage the fight for equality for personal gain, let alone for preference or because of prejudice.

These countries are not allowing democratic processes to determine the variety of education their citizenry receives. Like the framers of the Constitution, these countries also want to save the people from themselves; they want to protect the minority from the majority. Perhaps this is anti-American. If that is the case, then this America is not what our founding fathers desired for us.  Perhaps this is why Ben Franklin remarked that we have been given a republic, "If [we] can keep it".