Does Finland Hold the Answers?

We hear so much talk of Finland’s education system these days, and as always, I am curious as to if what is being said is truth or fiction. I found an article in Educational Researcher, Vol. 41, No. 7., by Gaea Leinhart from the University of Pittsburgh in which she discusses Pasi Sahlberg’s, 2011, book Finnish Lessons:  What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?  I now understand Finland’s education system and what makes it so different from the U.S. educational system.

Finland is small, about the size of Massachusetts or Puerto Rico and has a more homogeneous population than the United States, but it is more ethnically diverse than Minnesota. It should also be mentioned that Finland is very similar to Norway in both size and ethnic diversity, and even history – with one exception. After War World II, Norway decided to adopt a system of education similar to the United States (with respect to dividing curriculum into small, measurable units, instructional competition between schools and teachers, frequent high stakes testing, public accountability, and longer school days and years); Finland did not. The achievement results of Norwegian students are similar to those of students in the U.S., while the Finnish students score at the top of the heap. It is also important to note that Norway has a higher standard of living than Finland and Finland has a rapidly growing immigrant population that does not speak their native language.

Finland has a national curriculum, so perhaps the United States is on the right track in that area, but besides that, how did they create such brilliant system of education? They started by developing a 25 year plan and they stuck to it. In fact, they stuck with it for 35 years before they saw the results they wanted.  It has been my experience that in the U.S., educational decisions are made quickly and then abandoned quickly…phonics, whole language, saxon math, Singapore math, balanced literacy, total quality schools, head start…you get my point. Therefore, first and foremost, the U.S. needs to made a long-term plan and STICK WITH IT!

In addition to the long-term plan, standardized testing is used infrequently in Finland and students are not ranked. Students go to school for 9 years and then are given the choice of their track – either vocational/trade or academics. Per pupil expenditures in Finland are lower in than in the United States and the school year and week is shorter in Finland. One of the most important differences between Finnish education and U.S. education is in regards to teachers. Teachers in Finland have a tremendously high status and are selected from the top 10 percent of all applicants. They all have research-based master’s degrees (Let us be real here – some of the teachers you work with today would not be teachers under this kind of system. It hurts to say that, but the Finns clearly take only the best and brightest into the field). Finnish teachers are trusted by their administrators and the parents of their students, and this is a guess, I have not researched it, students are probably better behaved in school.

We all know there needs to be changes in the U.S. Educational System, and I think we need to start by making a long-term plan. The plan needs to be made by educational experts, not politicians. Maybe we do need to have better teachers, but accountability and Charlotte Danielson is not the way – we need to move the teacher up the food chain and place the career on level with doctors and attorneys. It will probably take 10 years to see the results of this effort, but it is a price we should be willing to pay for our children. We need to stop the continuous testing and ranking of our students and let them enjoy their educational experience – maybe by giving them back recess and some funding for the extra-curricular classes they enjoy.

We can have a world class education system in the U.S., but we need to put the system back in the hands of educators who have the experience and the background to make the kind of decisions that need to be made.

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High Stakes Testing and Dropping Out of School

An interesting article written by John Tyler looks at high stakes testing and the success rate of different groups of students   He actually uses GED information, but he is using it as a representative of all high stakes tests. His data comes from 1992, when the Department of Adult Education at the University of Georgia conducted 55 studies examining the various outcomes of GED graduates.

After taking the test the first time, the passing rate for white students is 78.1% and for blacks it is 52.2%. However, the gaps between white students and black students closes significantly after students are allowed to retest. Upon retesting, the passing rate for whites increased from 78% to 90%, for blacks it increased from 52% to 73%, which closes the gap from 26% to 17%.

What this show us is that it may be important for students, especially black students, to be able to retake high stakes exams. Many of the exams given to students in grades 3 to 10 are end of the year assessments and students only get one chance to take them. Their success on these exams drives their schedule for the following school year, and is more than likely an indicator of how they relate to their overall school experience. One of the arguments against standardized testing is that a student’s academic progress is being represented by a single test and Tyler’s research shows that this could be a very big mistake, not just in theory, but in actual practice, by allowing only one attempt at each test.

Of course, tests are expensive and it would cost a great deal of money to allow the tests to be retaken. This is where politics will enter the arena. However, the money spent to retest students could alleviate some the feelings of failure and disenfranchisement with the educational system and perhaps keep more students in school until graduation. We have to look at the cost-benefit ratio to society; the cost of a second test vs. the cost of a high school dropout.

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Am I Smart or Just Well Trained?

A favorite research piece is a 2012, article written by Beth Hatt, Smartness as a Cultural Practice in Schools. In this research, Hatt, looks at the notion of intelligence as a cultural idea rather than a biological aptitude. Students enter school as products of their social environment and whether they fit in to the teacher’s definition of proper school behavior can determine how they begin to perceive their own intelligence and their future relationship to education. The results of her research were fascinating. 

Hatt observed a Kindergarten class of 25 students for about a school year. In the class, the teacher used a system of behavior modification similar to those that are used in classes all over the country. When interviewed, all 25 students in the class defined being “smart” as someone who can keep their cars on green all day without going to yellow or red. Therefore, smartness in kindergarten is defined by behavior. You are “smart” if you can sit still, not make noises, follow directions, etc. In addition, in kindergarten, “smart” students are sought after by other students. They are the ones that the other students want to sit next to during lunch and play with at recess. Whereas students seen as “not smart,” are often ostracized by the other students. The issue of self-esteem in relation to school is easily perceived when seen from this viewpoint.


In addition to the green, yellow, red behavior modification system, the teacher also rewarded students who learned to tie their shoes prior to beginning school. They were allowed to be in a special “shoe-tying club” and were given extra privileges. This is a clear advantage to those students who had parents or nannies at home with them all day long, and an obvious disadvantage to those students from a single parent home or from homes with larger numbers of young siblings. Right from the very beginning, class distinction plays a role in education.


Hatt made some other interesting observations. For instance, Natalie, a middle-class, white, female student who never had to move her car to yellow, was given special jobs in the classroom by the teacher and revered for being smart. Sadia, a black female from a low socioeconomic household, also never moved her car to yellow, but she was completely overlooked by the teacher. The rest of the class considered Natalie to be the smartest student in class while Jackson, a black male from a low-income family, was identified as “not smart.” Jackson had to move his car to yellow and red often and on the first day of school he was the only student who did not earn a sticker.


The teacher’s perceptions did not help the situation. She knew from a very early time that Jackson was going to be a problem for her and she had her eye on him. Hatt observed that Jackson was given no leeway; if he made the tiniest error, the teacher was chastising him. Yet, there were two middle class, white boys in the room who were continuously misbehaving and were never caught. I do not believe that Hatt is implying the teacher was not good at her job, but  is simply showing that teachers need to be very careful about forming concrete opinions about whether students are “good” or “bad.” The teacher’s perception of smartness has consequences when it comes to her expectations. Hatt looks at how being identified as “smart” can shape a student’s self-perception of “efficacy, ability, and success in relation to academic potential, performance, and achievement.” In other words, how we are perceived in school can shape who we think we can become and therefore it is a cultural practice of social control that tends to assign social power along class and race lines.

As Hatt concluded, “Smartness is culturally produced…but made real through discourse and tangible artifacts such as grades, standardized test scores, entrée to gifted programs, and academic credentials. Such artifacts become connected to and underlie students’ academic identities, influencing students’ perceptions of themselves and their own abilities over time (p. 455).


Simply put, a student’s entire academic career is very much tied to how closely the student’s parents trained the student to match the views of intelligence their first teachers have. I know I cannot help thinking about Jackson. I wonder how many years will it take before he believes that he is not “smart” and he learns to hate school? Another high school dropout in the making, for sure, and at such a young age.

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Who are the Movers and Shakers in Education Today?

Always a fascinating subject to me – who are the people directing educational policy in this country. Do you know? Let’s take a look, shall we?

A favorite among the media is Michelle Rhee. Rhee despises public schools and the way things are done. She adamantly believes she knows how to fix the problems of the educational system, so much so that she was, for a short time, the chancellor of Education in Washington D.C., and she has formed an organization that creates “better teachers” than the ones being produced by the educational institutions throughout the nation: The New Teacher Project. Where does Rhee’s expertise come from?

  • ·         Rhee graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in government
  • ·         She has a master’s degree from public policy from Harvard
  • ·         She taught for THREE WHOLE YEARS in the inner city school

Obviously, this would make anyone an expert in all things education.

What about Arnie Duncan, our Secretary of Education for the United States? What makes him qualified for the job?

  • ·         Duncan has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in sociology
  • ·         He has NO teaching experience

It is easy to see why someone with a background in education would not be appointed to the job, right? (RIGHT???)

Dennis M. Walcott is the Chancellor of Education in the nation’s largest school district, New York City. What are his unique qualifications?

  • ·         Walcott has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Bridgeport
  • ·         He has a master’s in social work from Fordham University
  • ·         He was a guidance counselor at a private pre-k school for 1.5 years

How about the Assistant Secretary of Education in the United States, Peter Cunningham.

  • ·         Cunningham has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Duke University
  • ·         He has a master’s in journalism from Columbia University
  • ·         He has NEVER worked in education.

Wendy Kopp? Founder of Teach for America, another organization politicians love and support which pulls non-education graduates from high quality colleges such as Harvard and asks them to spend one or two years teaching kids in inner city schools (because they can do it so much better than those who graduate from colleges of education).

  • ·         Kopp has a bachelor’s from Princeton in Public Affairs 
  •       That’s it

So, following the same logic, I have worked for 17 years as an educator and an administrator, and when I finish my doctorate degree in educational leadership, I am going to be a dentist. Who wants the first appointment?

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Why Do Students Drop Out of School?

image001In preparation for my dissertation, I have been reviewing the current literature on why students drop out of school and I came across some interesting research. Golden et al., published a qualitative study in 2005 called “A Teacher’s Words are Tremendously Powerful,” which really made me think not only about my career as a teacher, but the time I spent as a student as well.

The article begins by citing that young adults from families with incomes in lowest twenty percent are six times more likely to drop out of school than their peers from families with incomes in the top twenty percent. It seems very clear to me that at-risk strategies need to be geared towards those students in the lowest income brackets. In addition, and this is common sense, family struggles, financial difficulties, illness, and pregnancy are also commonly identified as reasons students drop out. However, what I found extraordinarily interesting was the fact that in nearly every interview with a high school dropout, the authors found a negative experience involving organizational barriers, teachers, guidance counselors, curriculum practices, or instructional approaches that had a strong impact on the student’s decision to drop out of school. It left me asking myself if that single issue had not occurred, would that student have remained in school?

Many of the students interviewed felt that they were “passed along through the system,” with a lack of support from teachers, counselors, or administrators. These were the good kids: the nice, quiet ones that sit in the back and do not bother anyone. They were just passed from grade to grade until they were so far behind there was no way to catch up and pass the tests they needed to graduate.  After reading this, I had to admit to myself that I was guilty of doing this. It was not intentional – I did not set out to hurt any students, but my lack of effort to make sure something was done for the student was probably not forceful enough.

Some of the dropouts could point to a single comment from a teacher that made a difference in their lives. A negative or sarcastic comment at the wrong time in the student’s life could taint their feelings about school forever. Many of the students “yearned for a teacher who would take in an interest in them.” I thought back to when I was in school and I vividly remembered my 5th grade teacher trying to explain something to the class that she could not quite get out correctly. I raised my hand and explained what she was trying to say. Her response to me was so exuberant and excited – she practically yelled, “Yeeeeessss, Jodie!!! That is exactly what I was trying to say!” I felt like the smartest kid on earth at that time and that memory has stayed with me to this day. What if a student never felt that kind of enthusiasm from a teacher? Even worse, what if the comment was a negative one that stayed with them as long as that positive comment stayed with me? Could it make a student hate school?

Many felt that “guidance counselors often saw students as statistics and not well rounded people,” discouraging them from setting goals that seemed too high. When I was the principal of an alternative school, I had many students come to me with stories about frazzled guidance counselors who would not allow them to try to go above and beyond. Instead of encouraging the student’s new enthusiasm for their educational pursuits, they were met with disdain and negativity.  I remember thinking at that time, “what would it have harmed to let them try?” Sometimes students do see the light and want to change the negative past that has followed them to high school; shouldn’t we encourage them instead of denying them the opportunity because in the past they did not shine academically?

Other dropouts thought of school as a competition of sorts, which was more about what the students were wearing, what they were driving, and what kind of houses they lived in. My mother once told me that when she was in elementary school, she could not concentrate on the lessons because she had to remember to keep her feet firmly on the floor. She was afraid of lifting her shoes up and allowing the other students to see that she had holes in the bottom of her soles. As educators, is it not time we did something to alleviate feelings like these? In Japan, all students wear the same uniform to school. When they get to school, they all change into identical slippers, and all the students eat a free lunch that is served in the cafeteria. Sure, it probably eliminates originality in the kids, but to that one really smart kid from the poor family, the one who may develop the cure for cancer in twenty years, that uniform, those slippers, and that free school lunch means he has a fighting chance to receive a quality education and develop positive feelings about school.

Such small things could make a difference in so many lives. As educators, we must remember every day to reach out to that quiet student, to say something kind and encouraging to that student who so often receives negative feedback, and to let the student who wants to try to reach a higher bar do just that. Think of the lives you could change with such little effort – isn’t it at least worth a try?

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Singapore’s Educational System

Last but not least of the top ten:


Singapore values vocational and technical skills highly and sees them as crucial to the country’s economic development. This was not always the case, however. Prior to the early 1990s, vocational education was viewed as a “last resort” for students who could not achieve in academic settings (sound familiar, America?). In 1992, the government created the Institute for Technical Education (ITE), which was intended to revolutionize vocational education and be a world-class example of how vocational and technological skills could be translated to a knowledge-based economy. The result was a state-of-the-art set of campuses devoted to technology and closely tied to international corporations. Vocational education was rebranded as “hands-on, minds-on, hearts-on” education to combat the perception that these schools were for low achievers.

Since 1995, enrollment in vocational education has doubled and now makes up 65% of the cohort  who go on to post-secondary education (ages 16-18), with 25% accepted into the ITE and another 40% attending polytechnics.

As seen by the education map above, in Singapore, students all attend school together until age 12, at which time they are tracked into various pathways after taking an examination.

Unemployment in Singapore is 2%.

(Source:  Center on International Education Benchmarking: 2012. Washington D.C.)

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New Zealand’s Educational System


Starting in upper secondary school, students in New Zealand may choose to specialize in vocational education, or choose to pursue a combined program of vocational and general classes. Many upper secondary schools have a bridge program with tertiary vocational education providers, allowing students to transition smoothly into professional training upon completion of secondary school. Students who focus on their vocational education in secondary school generally go on to attend an Institute of Technology or Polytechnic; the full-time degree students receive there is considered on par with a university degree.  Alternately, students may choose to pursue vocational education at a private institution.

In order to ensure uniformity of coursework, New Zealand also has a National Qualifications Framework (NZQF).  Upon graduation, students in New Zealand earn a National Certificate of Educational Achievement, as well as qualifications for a number of skilled trades. Training programs can apply to have their qualifications certified and listed by the NZQF, and the list of certified qualifications are publicly available, providing a service to both students seeking to enhance their skills and employers seeking to understand potential employees’ competence levels. Certified qualifications must meet the frameworks established by the NZQF.  Both employers and higher education institutions recognize these qualifications.  Education and training institutions are authorized to provide them.  Students seek them with the confidence that, once achieved, they will be honored by employers and other educational and training institutions.  New Zealand has made a massive investment in this system, not least in the development of high quality assessments for the full range of qualifications.  There is every reason to believe that this system of qualifications, built as it was on a solid prior foundation of high quality standards and assessments, has a powerful and positive influence on quality of instruction in New Zealand high schools and the incentives of students to take tough courses and work hard in school, no matter what they plan to do with their lives.

(Source:  Center on International Education Benchmarking: 2012. Washington D.C.)

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