As The World Turns: Education In Finland

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In a guest column a few weeks back, I discussed the good news about AIMS: we continue to show improvement and continue to out-perform state averages overall, and in many subjects and grades by large margins.

A big pat on the back to our students, supportive parents, hard-working teachers and principals. I also discussed my concerns with the AIMS, not our results, but the enormous influence this one test has on teaching and learning. Although under the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind, all public schools are held "accountable" on the basis of standardized test results, these results have not translated into better performance when we compare students from the United States to many other countries in Europe, most notably Finland.

For a country that doggedly avoids competitive, high-stakes tests, Finland has been garnering a lot of international acclaim for its students' scores on the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment test. Finland's 15-year-olds topped the science tests given two years ago, besting students from 56 other countries. Combined with its high scores on the most recent reading and math tests, this gives Finland's high school-aged students the top ranking in the world.

There are perhaps some things that we can learn from the Fins; some things that we are already doing here in Payson.

First let's look at some differences that may not be under our immediate control to change. Finland has the highest standard of living in the world. Poverty is nearly non-existent. There is universal healthcare, universal free pre-school, free school lunches and free college tuition. Now the Fins do pay dearly for these benefits via taxation and I am not writing to advocate for Finland's economic model. What the research does indicate however, is that a far greater percentage of Finnish students compared to the U.S. (I would include Payson), come to school ready to learn. Also, in Finland teachers hold a similar status to that of physicians. Correspondingly, only one out of every eight applicants to teacher education programs in Finland is accepted. All teachers must have master's degrees and although pay is not extraordinary by comparison, entering the profession is competitive.

What also stands in contrast to our AIMS-based model sounds simple, but took years of strategic planning for them to achieve. In Finland, teachers focus less on standardized testing and more on differentiated instruction. To differentiate instruction is to recognize students varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, interests, and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. More simply put, the intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student's growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and assisting in the learning process.

Observers report that in Finnish schools the faculty takes ownership for the success of every student. While there are national standards, the emphasis is placed on creating and maintaining a supportive learning environment. National outcomes do exist, however, teachers and schools are left on their own in determining how to get there. Schools are not ranked, performance labels are not determined and unlike NCLB, punitive consequences for schools, not only do not exist, they are prohibited by law.

I think it would be misplaced to think we could or should attempt to mimic Finland. I am all for increasing the rigor and selection process for teachers, but we in the United States simply do not have the supply of teachers that gives us the latitude to do this, at least in the near term.

Also, the socio-economic differences between our two countries go well beyond the scope of schooling. There are some things that we are doing however, that align with the strategies Finland has fostered.

At PUSD, we place a great deal of emphasis on collaboration and working together in our schools as professional learning communities. Much of our professional development has centered on the importance of sharing the responsibility of monitoring students learning on a timely basis and developing systemic ways of responding to students who are struggling.

Growing in our capacity to differentiate instruction is an integral part of our being successful, however, this is an on-going process that will take time for teachers to grow in proficiency. Our district is committed to the type of collaboration and instructional practices that Finland has demonstrated as being effective.

Lastly, we are fortunate to have the Career Ladder program that affords our teachers the opportunity to participate in sustained professional development. Career Ladder brings more rigor into the profession while providing a financial benefit that sustains continued professional growth. Career Ladder also this gives us a competitive advantage over many districts in attracting teachers.

In Finland they embraced a strategy and put forth the necessary resources and consistency of focus to see that strategy come to fruition. Mandates from our state and the federal government may come and go, but, if, as a district, we can continue to effectively implement research-based practices and programs, utilizing committed education professionals, I'm confident that our students can keep pace the rest of the world and we'll graduate students well prepared to succeed in the global economy. It is a challenge, one that our district must embrace.

Casey O'Brien is the superintendent of the Payson school district.

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