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.
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:
- Finland does not give their kids standardized tests.
- Individual schools have curriculum autonomy; individual teachers have classroom autonomy.
- It is not mandatory to give students grades until they are in the 8th grade.
- All teachers are required to have a master’s degree.
- 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.
- 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.
- Finland has no private schools.
- Education emphasis is “equal opportunity to all.” They value equality over excellence.
- 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.
- 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.
- Finnish schools don’t assign homework, because it is assumed that mastery is attained in the classroom.
- Finnish schools have sports, but no sports teams. Competition is not valued.
- 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.
- Partanen correlated the methods and success of their public schools to US private schools. We already have a model right here at home.
- 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.