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Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted
December 30, 2011 3:50 AM   Subscribe

The goal of the [education reform] program that Finland instituted was never excellence. It was equity. Excellence was merely a happy byproduct.
posted by DRMacIver (43 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yeah, but maybe it's just the saunas.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:11 AM on December 30, 2011


There's been debate on the downside of too much equity and not enough creative/innovative spirit which requires a measure of risk taking and rising above the "equitable" level.
posted by infini at 4:19 AM on December 30, 2011


Finland is socially and culturally homogenous, enough so that it can effect the changes needed to run its system the way it does. Unlike the author, I don't think its system could translate well to the United States, because of that. The US is too disjoint to point its efforts in one direction on elementary schools. Fixing the situation would involve disconnecting public school funding from local property taxation, for one, and that doesn't seem likely in the current FOX News survivalist age we live in.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:23 AM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's not about fixing the current system of Anglophone education - it's about piling evidence on evidence, proving the existence of An Alternative. Because as long as the Fox survivalist/Daily Mail reader bean-counting mentality exists, they have been declaring that There Is No Alternative.

Meanwhile, outside the narrow band of English-speaking countries, the alternatives have been found to be quite acceptable.
posted by The River Ivel at 4:32 AM on December 30, 2011 [17 favorites]


Given that the US school system has been pretty silly for ages how is that the benefits of good education, i.e. the world most vibrant computer industry and massive scientific heft, so many top Unis and so on continue to be centred so strongly in the US?
posted by sien at 4:41 AM on December 30, 2011


I was in Finland a few months ago and kept asking this question: "why is your educational system working?" and I kept getting different answers.

I asked this of the son of Alfred Salmela, a man hugely responsible for shaping the current educational system. I asked this of a current Minister. I asked this of various Finns responsible for teaching in Finland. And I got totally different responses.

One answer, interesting to me, was that Finnish is basically a phonetic language, so learning to read Finnish is easier. Another answer was that Social Democrats have had a chance to reshape the future of that country. Yet another answer became clear to me when I understood that for a good part of the year, Finland is snowed under. There's a huge amount of focus on getting things right when you can, because normally the active window for action is only a few months. Parents, grandparents, and relatives, focus children on getting things right when they can. It's about survival.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:42 AM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


sien, I don't have statistics handy, but the US university system (like the British one) is reaping the benefits of massive influxes of students from other parts of the world. It's not just that American students are single-handedly fuelling all of that research and industry.
posted by anaximander at 4:53 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


The success of our education policy is a fairly complex subject and I don't want to make statements that are too strong but I have to say I'm a bit wary of what look like some fairly obscurantist arguments presented here.

But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland -- unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway -- was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

That goal of equity may indeed have been a fundamental motivation by which specific means were chosen for reforming the school system, but I don't see by what reasoning it's not the means themselves (highly educated and well paid teachers among others) that have produced the excellence, and by what reasoning the chosen means would not be effective regardless of whether equity was the motive underlying them.

And I'm saying this as someone who thinks that good education for everyone is basically a precondition for functioning democracy and should be promoted heavily. Seemingly unsound arguments on that path, however, are at risk of being turned against you.

Also: "There's no word for accountability in Finnish,"

Yes there is: tilivelvollisuus. I'm not very happy with this sort of not-exactly-truthful willingness to sound clever to a foreign audience who have no direct means to evaluate what you're saying.
posted by Anything at 4:55 AM on December 30, 2011 [27 favorites]


Yeah, but maybe it's just the saunas.

No. It's actually the salmiakki.
posted by daniel_charms at 5:02 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

This cuts to the quick of our "Don't tell me it's a complex situation, point at someone I can rage against!" system, doesn't it?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:11 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Given that the US school system has been pretty silly for ages how is that the benefits of good education, i.e. the world most vibrant computer industry and massive scientific heft, so many top Unis and so on continue to be centred so strongly in the US?

Shouldn't this observation make one think about the quality of the underlying premise?
posted by downing street memo at 5:13 AM on December 30, 2011


I remember several headlines from the past few years about the governments desire to turn the success of our education system into a lucrative export. Here's one such story in English.
“No new Nokia is emerging in Finland, so in this economic situation we need to search creatively for sectors which could bring employment and generate income. Export of education could easily develop into its own export business”, says Heljä Misukka, Political Secretary of State to Minister of Education Henna Virkkunen (Nat. Coalition Party).
By all means, let's do that -- to the extent that we actually understand the reasons for the success ourselves! But I recoil in horror at the thought that the politicians are going to cut corners and oversell and build this project on a foundation of BS.

If there's one thing we've liked to pride ourselves on it's honesty.
posted by Anything at 5:39 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


That goal of equity may indeed have been a fundamental motivation by which specific means were chosen for reforming the school system, but I don't see by what reasoning it's not the means themselves (highly educated and well paid teachers among others) that have produced the excellence, and by what reasoning the chosen means would not be effective regardless of whether equity was the motive underlying them.

The principle that leads you to a certain policy decision is more important than the policy decisions, because otherwise your policies start to lose their meaning and purpose. They act like razors applied to policy questions: does this new idea promote equality, and can we implement it in every single school? If yes, investigate further; if no, let's try to come up with one that does fall in line with our principles.

Trying to implement policy without coherent principles is what has led us to the point we are at. We want no child left behind, but only when it comes to the tests they are required to pass. We want everyone to have the American dream, but not if it subtracts a tiny bit of wealth from the wealthiest. We want religious equality, but not for Muslims or atheists. America is the land of pretend principles, and it's the reason we are sliding backward in practically every metric there is.
posted by deanklear at 5:45 AM on December 30, 2011 [14 favorites]


"Given that the US school system has been pretty silly for ages how is that the benefits of good education, i.e. the world most vibrant computer industry and massive scientific heft, so many top Unis and so on continue to be centred so strongly in the US?"

In the 40s, 50s, and 60s -- when the modern U.S. university system came to its more-or-less current form -- there was massive funding for education at all levels. The G.I. Bill sent ridiculous numbers of vets to college, a robust middle class sent its children to college, funding for science was relatively generous in part because of clear applications to benefit the nation (Manhattan project, space race, antibiotics, vaccines). Middle-class children achieve better in school than impoverished children, all other things being equal (they're not hungry, their homes and neighborhoods are less likely to be violent and more likely to be stable, they have outside resources, they have medical care). Generally when people talk to me about U.S. education sucking, it's the era of the 50s and 60s that people want to return to, and they talk about broadly middle-class schools of the era.

Now, even today, with more than 40% of children in low-income families, there are a LOT of wealthy children in the U.S. There are around 25 million college-age people in the U.S.; if we take the top 10% of them by income, that's around 2.5 million. If we take the smartest 10% of those wealthy kids, that's 250,000. The Ivy League enrolls about 32,500 undergraduate students. So the first point is that the U.S., being a very large country, has a deep bench, even before we recruit abroad.

But I think that what people forget is that in that "golden age" from the 40s to the 60s, who was in school was very different. Truancy wasn't much tracked or prosecuted; problem students dropped out and disappeared. Students who were disabled -- physically disabled, had a learning disability, or had a mental illness of any form -- had no right to attend public school and, indeed, in most states were barred from doing so (and that's around 20% of students). Schools were segregated, first by law; and then, after Brown v. Board, in most places, de facto by housing segregation. So, yes, if you remove from your schools students who don't want to be there, students who are "abnormal" in any way, and students who are far more likely to be in poverty because of racial segregation (and the many cultural issues that come with having a non-homogenous student population), and then you only look at the white middle-class schools, schools look at a lot better in the 60s! But the general state of CHILDREN does not; it's just that only certain children "counted" in the calculus of how schools were doing. It should be no surprise that when a) all children count; b) funding has dropped while costs have dramatically risen (special ed is expensive!); and c) the middle class has been hollowed out, that "schools" will appear to be doing worse.

But if you limit your metric to white, middle-class schools with no special ed populations and allow all problem students to drop out without chasing them down for truancy, I think you'll find they're doing about as well as they did in the 60s.

I mean, problems need fixing, but let's not kid ourselves about some magical Baby-Boomer-childhood golden age of U.S. schools. And let's certainly not return to that. And let's be realistic that in wealthy areas public schools are generally great and students get great educations and this is a big enough country that there are a lot of them, even if they're a small minority.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:49 AM on December 30, 2011 [44 favorites]


In the USA, the elites get siphoned off into elite schools, at least from college on, and there they find themselves in stimulating and competitive environments. It doesn't work the same way in Europe. In Europe, a portion of the elite goes away to US universities or the top European ones, but a far more significant portion stays on in the local public education system. One good reason for that is language. Even a genius can feel limited by having to communicate in a second language.

In that situation, it's really important to think in equity. The best students of any age group will excel whatever you do to them, but their less gifted peers need support and good teaching. And if you can lift the whole group, it will create the stimulating environment that is at the core of all good education, and you will lift even the best higher.
posted by mumimor at 5:53 AM on December 30, 2011


@Eyebrows McGee:
"But if you limit your metric to white, middle-class schools with no special ed populations and allow all problem students to drop out without chasing them down for truancy"

So, we're talking about private schools then? Because around here, there simply are no public schools that would fall into this category.
posted by Blue_Villain at 6:14 AM on December 30, 2011


The principle that leads you to a certain policy decision is more important than the policy decisions....

"Kill them all, the Lord will know is own." is perfectly equitable in principle, but the operational details would dissatisfy many.

Sure, I'm being over the top, but when you remember that No Child Left Behind was supposed to have quality as it's guiding principal, and what the 112th House of Representatives seemed willing to do to the US economy to score political points, I'm not sure the "wisdom" of Arnaud Amalric is all that far off from the kind of policy decisions you would actually get. (Particularly when the wealthy could bow out and send their kids to a private school.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:16 AM on December 30, 2011


Well to do kids statistically well outperform poor kids in school. I believe that family wealth is one of the strongest predictors of success in school. If you look at where US schools are failing it is with the poor kids. Finland has much better income equity, much less abject poverty. It is not surprising that their kids do better in school. The article seems to blame private schools in the US for siphoning off the good students etc. If you look at wealthy school districts in states that value public education, such as NY and NJ, you will find public schools which excel by just about any metric. I don't think it is how they teach in Finland, how they devote resources to schools in Finland, or anything in particular about the schools; I think that the difference is rather that Finland as a country does a much better job of not letting a large portion of their population fall into and remain in poverty. The equity responsible for better school results is income equity, not equity in the educational system.
posted by caddis at 6:21 AM on December 30, 2011 [9 favorites]


Kind of tilting at a straw horse. The overwhelming focus of US K-12 educational policy is equity, rather than excellence. Many of the things the article cites as evidence of an "excellence" bias, like the emphasis on standardized testing, are in fact deployed strongly in support of an "equity" bias, and are ignored to the extent possible in successful schools.

In the ivory tower, equity is the overwhelming agenda. I'd be surprised if there were more than a handful of tenure-track listings for scholars focused on gifted and talented education in schools of education last year, and I'd be very surprised if anyone was hired for one of those seats who didn't express a primary interest in gifted and talented education in an equity context, not an outright pursuit of excellence one.

At the federal level, there is essentially no funding or regulatory muscle devoted to anything other than equity, whether it's Title I (poverty) or No Child Left Behind and the various civil rights policies (race / ethnicity). Schools which are most successful on measures not weighted by equity policy objectives can hope for benign neglect, at best, when it comes to federal policy.

The affirmative policy efforts of state legislators are similarly focused on equity at K-12, although here you can see representatives of excellence-first districts succeeding from time to time playing defense, keeping successful local schools out of the hands of social engineers.

Only at the most local level will you find serious policy efforts devoted to excellence which is not primarily equity driven. And even then the attitude of education policy community as a whole is one of suspicion not appropbation. They don't ask what a district that gets a lot of students into the Ivy League is doing right and should be emulated, they ask what they are doing wrong and should be torn down: benefiting from housing segregation; shunting aside ESL, special education, and teenage moms; too much funding; too much advantage in recruiting teachers from clean and peaceful classrooms and hallways; too many educated parents selfishly depriving uneducated parents' kids of role models, etc.
posted by MattD at 6:24 AM on December 30, 2011


Kid Charlemagne, obviously we need to have a good principle and then stick to it. That's the problem — there is a lack of principle and a lack of will to adhere to it with hard work and sacrifice.

It's going to be an increasing problem as money continues to replace democracy. When you're asked if having a shiny car is more important to you than giving children a good education, you are shamed into the right answer. If you abstract it through money, you can lie and say you're against progressive tax policies because they are unjust, when the real answer is that you'd like to have nicer things and the kids be damned.
posted by deanklear at 6:25 AM on December 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


I often find the first argument raised when the education conversation shifts to Finland to be how different things are in a small country with a more homogeneous population. This is of course a valid point to raise, but what frustrates me is the extent to which the American "common sense thinking" on education is directly contrary to the methods employed by what nearly everyone agrees is the best school system out there. We are dropping teacher pay, funding schools like businesses, focusing heavily on test scores, building ever-more complex curricula, and seem to have an unshakable belief in the value of homework. I'm not saying all of these ideas are wrong. But I do think that we should probably examine them in the light of the evidence the Finnish system provides.
posted by Nothing at 7:01 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


...but when you remember that No Child Left Behind was supposed to have quality as it's guiding principal...

NCLB was never about quality. It was about setting up the public school system for failure as a lead in for future Republican efforts to dismantle the public school system.
posted by COD at 7:05 AM on December 30, 2011 [11 favorites]


NCLB was never about quality. It was about setting up the public school system for failure as a lead in for future cash cow for Republicans.
posted by 445supermag at 7:26 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Matt,

indigenous people living in reservations
communities with people of color majorities
poor communities regardless of race

beg to differ on the "K-12 is an equity system in the US".

there is no social/economic/political equity in the united states. if it isnt simple enough to look at education, then look at health care. the fact of the matter is that the American Dream is a mythos about privilege not equity. you have successfully lived the American Dream if you buy yourself into PRIVILEGE above your peers. that's the fallacy of american meritocracy: it's not about freedom to become the best. it's about dominating with privilege and amassing wealth thru entitlement.
posted by liza at 7:26 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


They don't ask what a district that gets a lot of students into the Ivy League is doing right and should be emulated, they ask what they are doing wrong and should be torn down: benefiting from housing segregation; shunting aside ESL, special education, and teenage moms; too much funding; too much advantage in recruiting teachers from clean and peaceful classrooms and hallways; too many educated parents selfishly depriving uneducated parents' kids of role models, etc.

That's because being rich, white, and privileged is not a model that be duplicated in low performing schools. There's no point in looking at what a rich suburban school district is doing "right" because they're playing with house money; they'd have to screw up pretty bad to ruin those kids lives. Contrary to what you seem to believe people who study these problems do actually want to solve them, it's just that "have kids from stable, rich, educated backgrounds" is not a solution to any problems.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:50 AM on December 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


@blue_villain, "So, we're talking about private schools then? Because around here, there simply are no public schools that would fall into this category."

My point was rather that such schools DON'T exist anymore (although there are some truly excellent public schools out there). If you limited your sample to a demographically-identical sample from the 60s, instead of comparing modern inclusive public schooling to the limited and exclusive sample people consider normative from the 60s, you would probably find that white, middle-class students, with all behavioral problem students removed from the sample and all disabled students removed from the sample, do okay for themselves.

People who romanticize "how public schools used to be" in the U.S. don't realize how many children were excluded ("left behind," if you like). The picture for public schools may be bleaker in the U.S. now than it was in the 1960s, but I think the picture for CHILDREN is fairly similar -- it's just that we used to exclude large numbers of children from our public schools. Now that we "capture" those students and their data, schools appear much worse off.

Which, again, isn't to deny the very real problems in the school system that need addressing, but to say that "schools in the U.S. used to be great, what is wrong with society today" has it almost exactly backwards: schools back then just IGNORED impoverished, disabled, and minority children. Schools today, by law, cannot.

MattD, I think you have it backwards; the federal government intervenes to help create equity because local systems have been so unequal. Schools are generally a state and local government issue; the feds intervene when there is equality. That is, it's not that the feds made a system looking only for equality; it's that the states created unequal systems and the feds intervened.

But what, exactly, it is that a district getting a lot of students into the Ivy League is doing right that should be emulated that isn't a) a result of economic segregation and inequality or b) a result of parental resources or c) a result of greater available funds through local property taxes? I'd honestly and truly like to know.

I mean, I went to an excellent (top 100 nationally) public school district that sent tons of students to the Ivy League, and we had a kick-ass arts program, which was part of it, but the yearly budget just for the awards assembly could fund two full-time teachers. We'd like more teachers and smaller class sizes in my current impoverished district, like the district I grew up in had. We'd certainly like an arts program that could blow $80,000 on an awards assembly. But local property taxes funding districts dictates that they can spend $80,000 on an assembly and we can't afford class sizes under 30. What part of the model should we be duplicating? What part of it isn't a result of inequality, so that we can put it into action? I will literally bring it up at my next school board meeting on January 6 if you can point me to something.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:54 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


They don't ask what a district that gets a lot of students into the Ivy League is doing right and should be emulated...

Pretty much because asking this question inevitably leads to the fact that such high-achieving school systems spend a shit-ton more money on their students than can poorer schools. This, however, runs in opposition to current conservative dogma that maintains that public school funding isn't part of the problem (thus enabling recurring, draconian cuts and re-direction of funds to privately-run charter schools) So, it's best to simply ignore the money elephant altogether.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:16 AM on December 30, 2011


"But if you limit your metric to white, middle-class schools with no special ed populations and allow all problem students to drop out without chasing them down for truancy"

So, we're talking about private schools then? Because around here, there simply are no public schools that would fall into this category.
posted by Blue_Villain at 9:14 AM on December 30 [+] [!]


I teach in DCPS (DC Public Schools) in a very challenging area. I did my student teaching in DCPS in a wealthy area of Northwest and it basically fell into that category. Pretty much all the kids did really well. DCPS is big on "accountability" and we all go through an evaluation system every year in which we get ranked as ineffective (fired at the end of the year), minimally effective (fired after two consecutive years of this ranking), effective, or highly effective (bonus pay). The problem is, teachers who teach in Northwest often lose their highly effective status if they move to other parts of the city because there are different challenges and it's a lot harder to "raise achievement" there.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:25 AM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


To do the same thing in the United States you would need to reform the way schools are funded. As long as local property taxes go to local schools we will have unequal access to education. The quality of schools are a big component in home value. Try to level that out (by funding all schools the same) and people who bought into nice school districts will be up in arms.

It should be done, but I don't think we have the will to do it.
posted by dgran at 8:42 AM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


@Mrs. Pterodactyl you do realize that "accountability" (notice the lower case "a") as it's been put forth today is just a red herring to discredit basically anything that isn't in agreement to the powers that be.

Capital "A" Accountability for a school should be a long term, to the community, and if a couple of classes of kids contain what turn out to be really dimwitted individuals it shouldn't affect the school, or the community.

What the impossible goal that has been set forth is simply to try to prevent bad schools from turning "normal" kids into "bad" adults.
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:51 AM on December 30, 2011


To do the same thing in the United States you would need to reform the way schools are funded. As long as local property taxes go to local schools we will have unequal access to education. The quality of schools are a big component in home value. Try to level that out (by funding all schools the same) and people who bought into nice school districts will be up in arms.

It should be done, but I don't think we have the will to do it.


While I don't disagree that reforming the way schools are funded will help; I don't think it's the solution that many think it is. For instance, the two schools that Mrs. Pterodactyl(in the interest of full disclosure Mrs. Pterodactyl is also my wife) mentioned upthread are in the same district. They get the same per pupil funding. The difference in them has nothing to do with property taxes or home values or funding. It has to do with where the kids are coming from. The rich school has kids with more stable home lives, better nutrition, parents who have the time and resources to be more supportive, and kids that are better behaved and perform better academically, because all of those "non-school" problems are driving the behavior and academic problems at school. The extent to which these home and school problems are intertwined makes them really hard to solve.

The other thing is that the rich school she described gets identical funding from the city, but has a lot more money because the parents can afford to spend money on the school. They buy playgrounds, they pay for classroom aides, they fund field trips. You can't force rich people to go to bad schools. Period. They will buy their way out of them, even absent leaving for private schools.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:54 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


MattD: I'm a little confused by your comment, could you elaborate? It looks like you're saying that, (a) the US is heavily focused on equity, and (b) that education policy focuses on reducing the unfair advantages of successful school districts rather than in emulating the effective policies of that produced that excellence.

What I don't understand is if you think there's something that produces "excellence" that isn't unfairly distributed. Parts of your comment read like you think that the absence of a affirmative relationship to "excellence" is a failure, but your list suggests that you're well aware of the unfair advantages that privileged students have, though, so I'm thinking that you're actually okay with (a) and (b), not criticizing it.

It might help a bit if we discussed particular school districts, for clarity. What do y'all think of the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academies?

(Finland is so small that the relevant comparison is a big US city: between NYC and LA, but a LOT less diverse. Or a medium-sized state: Wisconsin or Minnesota both have much in common with Finland, but even these comparatively homogeneous states are about three times as diverse.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:54 AM on December 30, 2011


Capital "A" Accountability for a school should be a long term, to the community, and if a couple of classes of kids contain what turn out to be really dimwitted individuals it shouldn't affect the school, or the community.

I absolutely agree with this, and it's a challenge because part of the problem is that I (and many teachers, especially first year teachers, which I am) are in constant danger of losing our jobs and not be able to do ANYTHING more. I also, because of things like lead paint and fetal alcohol syndrome and children who are born addicted to drugs, have a significantly higher proportion of kids who are "really dimwitted" than other schools.

The rich school has kids with more stable home lives, better nutrition, parents who have the time and resources to be more supportive, and kids that are better behaved and perform better academically, because all of those "non-school" problems are driving the behavior and academic problems at school.

This is definitely true and part of the problem at my school is that the kids set really bad examples for each other; I have seventeen kids in my class and the majority of them would be more or less fine but there are about seven who have learning or behavior issues that detract from the class as a whole and make other students think that certain actions are acceptable when they really aren't. For example, one girl in my class consistently pulls all of her materials out of her desk and throws them on the floor, pushes the chair over, and knocks her desk over because she thinks it will get her out of doing her work. When that happens over and over again and there is very little I can do about it (sending her out of the room just gives her MORE opportunity not to do her work) it changes the expectations of the rest of my students as well as taking enough of my attention that behaviors that are unacceptable but lower priority get ignored. When you have seven kids doing stuff like this on a daily basis it makes it hard to model appropriate classroom behavior and demonstrate what is and is not acceptable.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:04 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Excellent points above regarding diversity issues both regarding Finland/US and US 50 years ago/US today.

Student achievement in public education is an incredibly complicated study because of the aforementioned familial, socioeconomic (which includes parent education and occupational prestige), cultural, racial, gender, and linguistic factors that are already in play before a child steps into the classroom. But really, we know, in general, what the predictors are and what the warning signs are despite these incredibly complicated factors, many of which are confounding, moderating, and/or mediating variables.

We have research that shows effective instructional methodologies for various issues. However, in my experience, these methodologies are not adopted because they're too radical (which causes resistance from people in ALL stakeholder groups), won't prep for the test that the school depends upon for its very existence, or are not implemented with fidelity due to improper training or lack of funds. What we lack is the will to spend the money and overhaul the entire system into something completely different, from Pre-K through schools of education at our universities and colleges.

I'm all for accountability, but it needs to extend to everyone in the system: policy wonks, administrators at all levels, staff, and parents--not just teachers.

I love Diane Ravitch. This is an excellent book.
posted by smirkette at 9:13 AM on December 30, 2011


Finland also gives kids a lot of things that US kids generally don't get: when Finns start 'school' at age 7, they've already generally had at least 5 years of universal, fully funded educational child care, preschool, and kindergarten, all taught by certified professionals, and are already ahead of US second-graders.

Finnish schools offer all sorts of activities as standard that aren't available in any but the best public and some private schools in the states (foreign languages from age 7 or 8 to a high standard from specially-qualified teachers, regular art and music instruction from qualified teachers, native language support from specially-qualified teachers for kids whose native language isn't Finnish or Swedish, regular physical activity, including outdoor education and resource-intensive sports like cross-country skiing, very high quality food, special instruction for both special needs and extraordinarily gifted kids, etc.) - extra fees that would limit participation are very limited/unheard-of.

And, of course, there are good mechanisms in place to fund both vocational and higher education - if you can pass that end-of-high-school test or meet the entry requirements, you can go train as a plumber, or an institutional caterer, or get a masters' degree in English literature, or computer science, or whatever without crippling debt.

Finland's size isn't what makes it hard to compare to the US - it's rather that Finland's history (long colonization in which the Finnish language was suppressed, a nasty civil war driven partially by educational and language issues, resulting obsession with transparency in government which has led to very low corruption and therefore a willingness to pay high taxes in the belief the funds will be well used, etc.) All of this has influenced Finns to feel that education - for the entire population - is extremely important and worth funding and prioritizing. The US has a history, on the other hand, of being suspicious of 'eggheads' and feeling that the value of education is overblown in comparison to 'good old common sense' and a general suspicion of government . This is a basic values difference that really drives both funding and performance differences...and it's very difficult to imagine much changing on the US side.
posted by Wylla at 9:27 AM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


You've got my sympathy, Mrs. Pterodactyl. I was recently complaining about the one kid in my class who was disruptive. But you'd laugh if I told you what I considered disruptive. I certainly couldn't do what you are doing.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:31 AM on December 30, 2011


The key difference IMHO comes down to the difference between wanting your child to have every OPPORTUNITY and wanting your child to have every ADVANTAGE.

These are not the same things. One is laudable and the other evil.
posted by srboisvert at 9:45 AM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also: "There's no word for accountability in Finnish,"

Yes there is: tilivelvollisuus.


That "there's no word for X in Y" claim always infuriates me--and it's essentially never true, at least in its broader implication (i.e., that the people who speak that language are literally incapable of grasping the concept). It's like saying "there's no word for schadenfreude in the English language" and imagining that English speaking people never laugh at anyone else's misfortune.
posted by yoink at 10:04 AM on December 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


Back to Finland v. US comparisons: like many other areas (i.e. health care) we actually spend more money per pupil than Finland, and even when you adjust for overall wealth we're ahead of them. (Finland v US) However, like in healthcare, we seem to spend more and get less. But these rankings tend to agglomerate inappropriately: too often, they compare apples and oranges and then arbitrarily declare a winner.

In education especially I think it's important to acknowledge that we do better than the rankings give us credit for. We do poorly in rankings that don't acknowledge that immigration creates unique challenges, but such rankings are bound to prefer homogeneous and xenophobic places and I don't think we should see them as any kind of model to emulate. If you divide our performance into two bands, one of immigrants and one of non-immigrants, and compare us to the same bands of other nations, we'd win both categories: we do better by our long-term residents, and we do a better job educating immigrants. As much as the political rhetoric and in the US is quite xenophobic and there's been plenty of backsliding in the last few years in various states, we've long been deeply economically and culturally committed to a kind of multiculturalism you won't find anyplace outside of North America. (Canada is also awesome on this front, but Finland certainly isn't!)

I'm pretty invested in egalitarian social institutions, but I think it's okay to acknowledge that they're not a panacea. If immigration leads to domestic inequality, and domestic inequality leads to lower collective test scores, we can either prevent immigration or bite the bullet and accept more income inequality and lower test scores. However, the immigrants are better off than they would be if they hadn't moved, so we ought to be less worried about the domestic comparison between immigrants and natives, and more interested in the cosmopolitan gains that individuals experience when they are able to move freely. The right unit of comparison is individual, not national. Focus on domestic equality too often encourages policies that exacerbate international inequality.

What's worse, often times these rankings are used to try to show that American teachers aren't performing as well as they ought to be. In fact, they're dealing with SO MUCH MORE than teachers in other countries, and succeeding, but their successes are being inappropriately compared to the easy victories elsewhere and painted as failures. Gah!
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:41 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


[Did some cleanup per users' requests.]
posted by jessamyn at 1:14 PM on December 30, 2011


The only single fundamental problem with public education here in the states is that there are too many fingers in the rice bowl.

I'm married to a teacher. She works in an area in which most of the students are refugees, new-Americans, low socioeconomic background, special day/ed etc. She's awesome, her fellow teachers are awesome and the administrators are amazing. I always tease them about their being the "Special Forces" of education.

But they can't do their jobs effectively because every time they start getting any headway with the last "next best thing", a new next best thing comes along. (I'm talking about literacy and maths programs that can change or be replaced four or five times a year!) They are not afforded any continuity.

It's not just politicos from the federal, state and local arenas trying to make brownie points for reelection, it's also publishers and gurus, "specialists" hired for pay in the 6 digits, all trying to sell crap to to fix something that really just needs to be left alone to heal.

The front-line teachers and administrators would have it under control if left alone long enough to do so.
posted by snsranch at 2:14 PM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


That's because being rich, white, and privileged is not a model that be duplicated in low performing schools.

I think I got this link from here a few weeks ago (Tense times at Bronxville High/NYT), but the gist of it is, kids who don't have at least one parent who dedicates herself (usually herself) full time to the child's academic (and probably career, too) success, are just not going to be competitive at a high level. Most of my kids' parents are doing pretty well to make sure their kids get to school every day, and do homework, and complete their classwork. Finding out there's more to academic success than just getting to school and doing your work would astonish them. They just don't know how vast their role is, in getting their kids into college and beyond. They would be appalled to see the lengths parents go to, at the suburban schools across town, to make their kids competitive at this school level and the next. They would not understand that to parents in the upper middle classes and above, such striving is normal and expected. Upward socioeconomic mobility is almost unimaginably difficult, because of the hidden customs and expectations of the upper classes.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:17 PM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


They would not understand that to parents in the upper middle classes and above, such striving is normal and expected. Upward socioeconomic mobility is almost unimaginably difficult, because of the hidden customs and expectations of the upper classes.

Not to mention that most of my kids' parents are working more than one job, and frequently are single parents. Doesn't leave a lot of spare time for one parent making one kid's success a full-time job.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:20 PM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


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