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Unpacking Mom Congress 2012

on May 5, 2012

It’s been a fabulous week in DC, and I am grateful to Parenting Magazine for hosting all of us and providing a wonderful environment to find learning and inspiration. I’m talking about the Parenting Magazine Mom Congress of Education and Learning 2012 conference, held in Washington, D.C. Parenting selected one delegate from each state and flew us in, hosted and fed us, and introduced us to some of the most dedicated and intelligent folks in the country who are busting their butts to make a positive difference in their community’s education practices. I am honored to have been a part.

Lots of Important People were there, including education correspondent for NBC Rehema Ellis, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, White House chef Sam Kass (he spoke on nutrition), and CEOs and founders of several fabulous national and international programs that support the education and well-being of children. Salman Khan even produced and shared a video introduction to his work specifically for this conference. You know how I love me some Khan Academy. It was full and amazing, and I was refreshed to see how many positive efforts were going around me every day. I forget that sometimes.

Anu Partanen talks to us about Finnish schools

The speaker who I found most fascinating, however, was Anu Partanen, a journalist and author of “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.” If you haven’t read this article, it’s worth taking the time. Finland is outpacing the US in education success, and their model is quite different from our own. Many of their practices are easy to digest for me; they are what I regularly advocate. But some are frankly more uncomfortable. Although no model will fit every culture, there are points to consider and examine, and I will share some of the more intriguing ones here:

  1. Finland does not give their kids standardized tests.
  2. Individual schools have curriculum autonomy; individual teachers have classroom autonomy.
  3. It is not mandatory to give students grades until they are in the 8th grade.
  4. All teachers are required to have a master’s degree.
  5. Finland does not have a culture of negative accountability for their teachers. According to Partanen, “bad” teachers receive more professional development; they are not threatened with being fired.
  6. Finland has a culture of collaboration between schools, not competition. Most schools, according to Partanen, perform at the same level, so there is no status in attending a particular facility.
  7. Finland has no private schools.
  8. Education emphasis is “equal opportunity to all.” They value equality over excellence.
  9. A much higher percentage of Finland’s educational budget goes directly into the classroom than it does in the US, as administrators make approximately the same salary as teachers. This also makes Finland’s education more affordable than it is in the US.
  10. Finnish culture values childhood independence; one example: children mostly get themselves to school on their own, by walking or bicycling, etc. Helicopter parenting isn’t really in their vocabulary.
  11. Finnish schools don’t assign homework, because it is assumed that mastery is attained in the classroom.
  12. Finnish schools have sports, but no sports teams. Competition is not valued.
  13. The focus is on the individual child. If a child is falling behind, the highly trained teaching staff recognizes this need and immediately creates a plan to address the child’s individual needs. Likewise, if a child is soaring ahead and bored, the staff is trained and prepared to appropriately address this as well.
  14. Partanen correlated the methods and success of their public schools to US private schools. We already have a model right here at home.
  15. Compulsory school in Finland doesn’t begin until children are 7 years old.

Holy cats, folks. There’s some meaty stuff there, and some of it makes me squirm. Yea for higher expectations and the resulting broadening autonomy of teachers. Yea for equality in wages between administrators and highly trained faculty. Yea for individualized, child-centered learning. Yea for no sports teams (sorry, but there it is). And yea for the lack of grades and homework and standardized testing. But ok. I’ll admit: no compulsory education until 7? Wow. That one is a tough one for me. And I value excellence – not in the form of competition, but within the umbrella of equal opportunity. And although I value and honor and advocate for teachers, I do not  believe that anyone should be above being fired, especially when they are in a position of power. Those are my personal hangups. But perhaps those hangups are a result of living in our current educational system. Those three points wouldn’t work in our landscape, but perhaps if the model itself was turned on its head like Finland, they would make more sense. Or perhaps the model would need to be altered slightly to accommodate different cultures. I would be willing to be open-minded and consider the options.

What do you think? Is this a model worth pursuing? Could the US ever transform its culture and values this drastically and finally put the genuine, open-hearted well-being of its children first? Would love to hear your thoughts. It’s time for a change, my friends.

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15 responses to “Unpacking Mom Congress 2012

  1. Meghan Lynch says:

    I have to tell you this made me squirm less than I expected. The concept of paying administrators and teachers similarly is smart. We need more balance. I love the idea of giving schools and teachers more autonomy. But I am hung up as well on the idea of no compulsory education until 7. This might not make sense for our system. Although kindergarten is not mandated here in NJ, so it’s not that far off (majority of people do K & Pre-K despite this). I’m curious about their preschool system. Does it exist? Are children home with a parent until age 7? This is not practical here in the US.

    I wasn’t able to attend Mom Congress this year. This is a speaker I would have loved to hear. I’m going to share it on my blog and facebook. I’m so curious to hear from my teacher friends what they think. Thanks for posting this!!!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Meghan. There were so many more questions I wanted to ask too, like how they prioritize the arts, etc. I had the feeling she’s pretty accessible, and I imagine she would respond to you if you sent her an email (easily found on the ‘net, I’m sure). She’s also working on a book about this, which will hopefully answer more questions.

  2. dloitz says:

    The part she left out is that school doesn’t happen til 7 because all kids are “school” until then by their parents. They allow one parent to stay home with thier children. Reading and writing can be learned before that, but often comes more organically at age 7 than age 5. Waldorf and others have practice this for years. Would it work in our culture, probably not. I hate to say it but we value material goods and “stress” more than we do family and community at this point. Though as you pointed out, we already have people doing that the US, but right now it is all in the private or independent schools. I think for me the most important though is the automony of every school to customize thier schools to thier community without having to be “Chartered” or “alternative schools”… there are a lot of good ideas already in the US!

    I think this would be a good discussion to bring to the Cooperative Catalyst if you like.

    David

    • Hi David! I was just thinking of tweaking this a bit for the Coop Catalyst – I’m glad you suggested it too.

      Thank you for your insights. I of course second your belief in autonomy. It struck me this week (thinking specifically of teachers here) how absurd it is that we require teachers who instruct college freshmen to have PhDs, but to teach kids just a year younger it’s fine to only have a bachelor’s! That seems crazy to me. Value the profession, expect teachers to really take the time and know their stuff, and then trust them to carry out their expertise.

      I’m curious about the at-home parenting norm through those early years too. I wonder what it means that they “allow” one parent to stay home. Is this a professional requirement like a longer paternity leave, or a cultural norm, or what? And I wonder about the affordability of such an arrangement. Lots to investigate here.

      I’ll saunter on over to the Coop Catalyst later this weekend- :)

  3. Renee Boss says:

    Gwyn,
    Thanks for this post and for sharing all you learned from your trip to Mom on Congress. You are just the energetic, take action type of person who needed to be there.

    I’ve been following Finnish education for a while now and find it informative. The biggest take away I get is all the information we get on Finnish schools is just that, informative, but not necessarily replicable, because the contexts are different. It’s all political and that’s why our public education system in the US is lacking. If we really cared about ALL children, we would structure our system, our calendars, our schools differently; we would stop catering to corporate and economic concerns and make decisions based on the needs of children.

    There are a few common points between KY schools and Finnish schools. All teachers in KY are required to have master’s degrees, and all schools have school based committees (including teachers, parents, administrators) who make curricular decisions. No matter the country or the system, I really like the idea of critical pedagogy. If we had more people with critical mindsets passing the laws that impact public education, we might be in better shape. Here’s a link you might appreciate. http://www.freireproject.org/content/important-figures-emergence-critical-pedagogy

    Your passion for making a difference in education is inspiring! Keep it going…

    • Thanks for the insightful response Renee! I had no idea that masters degrees were required in KY. I find that amazing. Do you know how many other states do this? And talk more about why you don’t think it’s replicable here. I know our economies are somewhat different – the US is simply more diverse in that sense – but you mention this on a political scale. Do you simply feel that we could never get there because the priorities are just too aligned with corporate interests? I mean, they are – that’s true – but do you feel that this point alone will make this kind of model impossible here?

      • Robyn says:

        Just a quick note: France has just made it a requirement for its high school teachers to have master’s degrees. I think it’s a good change even though, for the moment, the degree focuses more on literary and cultural studies than on teaching standards. After the master’s degree, teachers have a year of teacher training while teaching 18hours in the classroom. I guess that’s where the balance between theory and practice is meant to be found.

        Thanks to all of you for your great comments!
        Robyn

  4. Robyn says:

    ps/oops, my comment should have stated that my experiences were for becoming an English teacher in France (other subjects may have found another balance between theory and practice).

  5. Renee Boss says:

    So, first–I do have hope! I have to have hope or going to work everyday would be very painful.

    The Finnish approach for valuing teachers by placing them on the same pay scale as administrators is very compelling as is the approach for dealing with “bad” teachers by providing more support and professional development without fear of losing their jobs.

    Corporate alignment in and of itself may or may not be what makes the U.S. system troubling, but the issue is that in the U.S. we value leadership above expertise and we run the system based on a business model. We need to determine the real problem with the system before trying out solutions based on a corporate business model where the leader makes all the important decisions. Think about how this happens in American colleges and universities, too. The leader makes the decisions that impact academics and scholarship. Same thing often happens in K-12. Important decisions are made by someone with power who may or may not have the requisite expertise.

    Master’s degrees. Not sure how many states require them, but I could probably find out. Interesting to note though–Arne Duncan doesn’t believe it’s a necessary requirement for teachers, nor does he hold a master’s degree.

    We need to look at highly effective education systems and ask not only what’s working but why it’s working.

    • “in the U.S. we value leadership above expertise” Man, Renee, I lost some sleep over that comment, which is true, and it’s not like I didn’t know that already. But somehow your phrasing of it just unsettled me – again. It is also unfathomable to me that Duncan doesn’t have an advanced degree. I know I’m no policy nor pedagogy expert, but I don’t claim the responsibility that (to me anyway) should be dependent on such expertise. I find that crazy. But then again, it’s crazy to me that no US president has ever had a PhD. Sigh. We really do seem to be anti-intellectual in this country, and that is so distressing.

      Ok. Looking for positive things to say now, because I hate to whine. Hmm. I’m going to hit on your last line: “we need to… ask not only what’s working but why it’s working.” There are so many pieces to a well-functioning system, and I believe that highly trained and autonomous teachers are an essential part.

      But I also will happily fall back here to what I intrinsically know to be true: children will function at a higher level when their education is 1) individualized, and 2) invests the student beyond the assignment level. Tell kids that they get to help decide what and how they learn, and they will learn to care about their education. Show them that we will take the time to make sure their unique education will address their unique interests and needs, and they will learn to value the process, the teachers, the administration, and education as a whole. They will learn to self-educate, and this will serve them all of their lives. This is why good systems work – because we empower and trust the people involved.

      Thanks for all your great comments Renee!

  6. Robyn says:

    Hello again, I agree with you that master’s degrees are not necessarily the solution. The key is surely to attract competent individuals and give them the necessary time (and money) and training necessary to make them valuable teachers. That is, such degrees should not only be open to those already completing their bachelor’s with time (and money) to spare. Good teacher training courses throughout the year are probably the best solution…. and pay scales that reward dedication and skill rather than just years on the job (France has an interesting 3 tiered pay scale.. and you only advance as fast as your inspector decides (and that decision is based on your last ‘assessed class visit’). I’m not saying it’s a ‘perfect’ model but, as a newcomer to the game, I find it at least interesting to see how things are done.
    ps/ Richard Haynes and Donald Chalker’s World Class Schools books make for good reads: http://www.amazon.com/World-Class-Schools-Donald-Chalker/dp/1566761441/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336319787&sr=1-1

    • I don’t know, Robyn. Of course no one thing is “the” solution, so in that respect, teachers having master’s degrees isn’t the answer on its own. But I would say that it is an essential component, along with the other suggestions you make: adequate time and money and training. I find it refreshing that in some areas of the world anyway, this is an expectation. Thank you for sharing the French perspective!

  7. Johanna says:

    A Finnish mom of two school-aged kids piping in. :-) Yes, there is a pre-school system in Finland and almost all kids attend. There are kindergartens too, of course! And they *do* get home work from school but perhaps less than in U.S.?

    There are also Steiner schools and some (but very few) other sort of semi-private schools here. The right-wing politicians want more, no surprise…?

    One parent is “allowed to stay home” until the youngest kid is three, I think (at least that was the situation when my kids were younger). Basically it means s/he gets a small monthly amount of money and cannot be fired from his/her workplace during the leave.

    My 10-year-old is a “special” kid. She doesn’t go to the nearest school since the best available special education class is a bit farther away. A school taxi takes her there and back. Both of my kids get free lunch at school, yearly health examinations and dentists’, school psychologists’, speech therapists’ etc services if needed. For no cost to us. I love my taxes.

    • Hi Johanna! Thanks for giving your at-home perspective. It really sounds like you have a wonderful system. I love the fabulous benefits you receive from your tax revenue. A dentist visit for us runs in the neighborhood of $150-$200 – per kid! It’s hard to imagine living in a place where those basic needs (ie: medical care) are not a financial hardship. And the idea that you can get a monthly allowance to stay home for the first three years is wonderful, as is the idea of a school taxi. There are many kids who attend more than one school here; for example, a middle school student may be taking one or more high school classes. I’ve sat in many parking lots with other “taxi moms” who are responsible for getting their child to the appropriate building for class; this of course is impossible if you work, unless you can drop the money for a daily private taxi (which I’ve also seen). Your country is an inspiration! Thanks for sharing!

      • Johanna, I’m reading back over this, and realize you were commenting also on my report that there is no compulsory school until age 7. That wasn’t to imply that there were no preschools or kindergartens, but that they weren’t mandatory. That’s how we do preschool here in the US too; it’s available, and most kids attend, but it’s not required. Is that how it works for you as well?

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