Enough About Finland, What About Canada?

According to data released last week, students in Shanghai are the best in the world when it comes to math, reading and science.  This is no surprise.  For years, Americans have conceded that Asian nations such as China, Japan and South Korea simply do a better job of educating their students.  This concession is typically accompanied by references to the cultural differences that we feel result in an unhealthy dose of over-education. Otherwise stated, we are quick to dismiss applying the successful education strategies of many Asian nations on the grounds that they are simply too different from us. 

On the other hand, injecting Finland into any conversation about fixing American education is now the trendy thing to do.  Finland fascinates because it is more similar to the United States than the aforementioned Asian countries. Nonetheless, its lack of socio-economic and racial diversity makes Finland an easy target for naysayers who wish to explain away its success and avoid generalizing its strategies in a global context.  But what about Canada? 

As a nation, Canada spends less money on education than the United States (in terms of both portion of GDP and percentage of total government spending), yet it has managed to routinely place itself as the other top non-Asian country ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) through their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) - the same organization that ranked students in Shanghai as first in the world.  Furthermore, Canada is just as diverse as the United States, according to a study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Economic Research.  So why isn’t anyone talking about the Canadian education system as we search for solutions to the flaws in our own? 

 To be clear, Canada is a relative newcomer to the top of the international rankings.  It arrived only after taking two very specific steps to ensure that its populace is among the best educated in the world.

First, Canada has adopted a high degree of selectivity in choosing and credentialing teachers; becoming a teacher in Canada is relatively difficult.  It is, therefore, no surprise that this selectivity has yielded a unique culture around the education field, wherein teaching is among the most desirable and revered of occupations.  Widely cited scholarship on Canadian education notes that applicants to teachers colleges are usually in the top thirty-percent of their university cohorts.  Ironically, those who are not granted admittance to a Canadian teachers college often seek their training in America, where seemingly anyone can get credentialed in an a field that is haunted by the philosophy, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”.

 Second, Canadian success in education is very much a function of equalized and equitable funding. The OECD notes that Canadian provinces retain a certain amount of money to equalize funding in poorer districts with insufficient tax bases. Furthermore, equitable funding from provinces to districts also comes in the form of grants provided to meet district-specific challenges in special education. This is the opposite of many states in America, where unequal and inequitable funding schemes are the norm.  For example, in the United States, the spending on students at predominantly white, wealthy schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by students of color from low income families.

So enough about Finland, why isn’t anyone talking about Canada?  We are separated from Finland by a great expanse of water, and our socio-cultural differences seem to further divide us – both of which make it easy to  explain-away their educational gains as inapplicable in the United States, just like many of the previously discussed Asian nations.  Canada is much harder to explain away; America is arguably more similar to it than any other country in the world.  Yet implementing the strategies utilized in Canada would require a cultural shift regarding the status of teaching as a profession in this country, as well as a significant reorganization of priorities. This is why no one seems to be talking about Canada.  This is also why we should be.


Something a bit different...

While conversations with Fulbright Scholars and award winning writers from the Washington Post have found their way onto this blog, I recently discovered that Hall of Fame football player Mike Singletary also has something to say that is worth sharing on the topics of teaching and education.  I had the chance to speak with Mike for about an hour on February 6th, 2014.  Some of our discussion was one-on-one while some of it came during a Q & A session with students from the school at which I teach.  Most of our conversation centered on what it means to be a male student in the 21st century. The audio of that conversation is here:

In a subsequent conversation on the same day, I also had the chance to ask Mike, “What is one thing that every good teacher does?”  This may seem odd to ask a football player, but keep in mind that he is also a coach - which makes him a teacher.  With that said, I think his response is worth hearing.  He shared a story of an English teacher from his college days – a teacher that everyone disliked.  After submitting his very first assignment,  this particular teacher called Mike out in front of the entire class by demanding aloud, “You will never turn in something this poor again.” For most students, this would have been humiliating. But not for Mike – instead, it propelled him forward in a very powerful way.  In reflecting on this experience, Mike says, “I realized that great teachers do three things. They don’t let you off the hook.  They set high standards. And they walk alongside you as you seek to reach those standards."

My conversation with Mike got me thinking about the relationship between standards and success.  The debate on standards (who should set them, what they should include and how they should be used) has been raging in recent years.  Some argue that standards suffocate the teacher, while others argue that standards are necessary to insure equity in our schools.  Some argue that the states should be autonomous in their setting of standards, and others point to those states with very low and poorly written standards as evidence that the state-model is broken.  Whatever one thinks about standards, I wonder if we could agree on this: As Mike alluded to, the "alongside" relationship (teacher-student or parent-student) that develops in the pursuit of meeting a standard needs more of the spotlight, for it is likely more powerful than any state or federal mandate could ever be.


Oh, What Might Have Been (In Praise of President Kennedy and His Vision for American Education)

In both 1961 and 1962, President John F. Kennedy sought to pass a general aid package for schools, which included federal subsidization of teacher salaries and building construction.  At the heart of this legislation was Kennedy’s desire to provide money for urban students affected by poverty in under-resourced American schools. 

Kennedy took a keen interest in solving the problem of inadequate preparation and unequal funding for economically deprived students in urban areas.  As previously mentioned, he twice sought to push legislation through Congress to fund these programs and address the disparity of resources between urban and suburban districts.  Relative to the disbursement of this aid, Kennedy wanted to steer it directly to municipal governments and away from state agencies that tended to allow federal resources to flow disproportionately to suburban areas. This mounting emphasis on poor students in urban areas reflected not only the Kennedy administration's pursuit of urban renewal, but also the growing influence of the civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Unfortunately, the legislation was defeated by southern democrats who feared that Kennedy’s push for urban renewal and educational equality might hasten the desegregation of schools in their states.  And when Kennedy died on that fateful day in November of 1963, so too did his vision for providing federal aid to municipal governments with the expressed purpose of addressing the opportunity gap in poor urban districts.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, made a deliberate effort to carry this banner of equity by way of his “Great Society” domestic policies.  However, the legislation that made its way through Congress during Johnson’s time in office (specifically, Title I) was easily manipulated by suburban districts and used to fund already affluent and successful schools.  This was because, in order to win congressional approval, Johnson’s legislation was written in such a way that nearly ninety percent of all schools in America qualified for the aid.  Title I distributions, therefore, became the antithesis of Kennedy’s vision for addressing the opportunity gap in urban schools.

Fifty years later, we are still greatly in need of the broad implementation of Kennedy’s vision.  One need only look at the manner in which twenty-first century education dollars are spent in America in order to justify this conclusion. Just as it was in the 1960s, those with less money still have fewer tax dollars spent on their public education than those with more money.  In fact, spending on students at predominantly white, wealthy schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by students of color from low-income families. This is because many states operate under the notion that while a basic level of funding is a fundamental right of all students, that right does not require equality of spending among districts.  Therefore, wealthier districts with significant amounts of money (much of it derived from property taxes) have better schools while students in poorer areas helplessly find themselves in under-resourced districts. Inequality has become an acceptable component of our country’s policy for funding education.

Had Kennedy been given more time to cast his vision and see it through to reality, the American educational landscape may be far different today. Instead, we are having conversations about educational equity in under-resourced schools that should have ended in the 1960s.  Kennedy knew that allowing the states to determine their own educational funding schemes was a recipe for inequity and sought to address the issue by bypassing the states altogether.  Oh, what might have been if his dream had not been permanently bound in eternal sleep?

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.