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Changing the System, Finnish-Style

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.

Dear Marc,

I really enjoyed reading your last letter. As you know, I have a background in anthropology and so I particularly enjoyed the way you wove a reference to Alvin Toffler into our conversation. As an information-age society we can and should expect our educational system to support the changing needs of society. I would further add that the information age brings the need to nurture globally-minded citizens who will be working either actually or virtually around world. Global education includes second- and third-language mastery, geography, economics, environmental science/agriculture, and other relevant social sciences. And while I hesitate a bit jumping into a discussion that is more political philosophy, the need for a system that fosters humanistic education seems to be screaming to be heard. To quote one of my mentors, Dr. Monte Joffee, founding principal of Renaissance Charter School, “We will know we are successful when we are able to have both high student achievement and humanistic education in all of our schools.” The attributes you listed in your post seem to indicate you share this belief.

Unfortunately, I often feel that our efforts as school leaders do tend to fall much more into the “piecemeal” change category. I think this is both because we are too busy trying to work within the existing system and thus don’t have the time to be revolutionaries and also that the kind of change you are talking about requires a real movement. Clearly, there is an educational reform agenda being pushed by some very influential people and some of their agenda does seem in line with your Info-Age paradigm shift, but not all does. So I gather that we are both looking at creating a different movement.

Given all this, I decided to do some really quick research on Finland and its education system. The country is often raised as a model and interestingly, for New York at least, is fully unionized. I found  an interesting blog post by Bert Maes, who writes about industry and education, titled, “What makes education in Finland that good? 10 reform principles behind the success.”

By now you know I have a thing for lists, so here is my summary of what I read (more than 10):

  1. All Finnish kids, regardless of socio-economic background, start day care early (where they are well-primed for formal schooling and enter compulsory primary school at age 7).
  2. Teachers are extremely well-prepared, respected, and supported. They continuously update their skills and are self-reflective in their practice. Teaching is a highly competitive profession.
  3. Teachers have considerable independence in the classroom and are actively involved in school development.
  4. Political authorities highly value education: “Investment in people is the best investment.”
  5. Many costs, including free meals for all primary grade students and school trips, are paid for.
  6. There are no mandatory tests or exams except for the nationwide National Matriculation Examination taken at age 17-19. Teachers make their own assessments and use descriptive feedback and do not compare students to one another.
  7. Schools receive full autonomy and can plan their own curriculums.
  8. After primary, students can select either a vocational track or an academic track.
  9. The government, unions and other organizations work together to meet common goals. Teacher unions changed from an external political pressure group into a stakeholder in governmental decision-making.
  10. Experimental and pilot programs are encouraged and supported and are monitored by university researchers.
  11. The teachers union and educators have always had the opportunity to be heard and helped to craft the blueprint for needed reforms.
  12. School leaders are chosen who are experts in educational development, teacher education, and management.

Maes ends with this conclusion:

The key in the educational reforms was ‘how to find ways to help schools and teachers come together and share what they have learned about productive teaching techniques and effective schools’. The result was the creation of multi-level, professional learning communities of schools sharing locally tested practices and enriching ideas, and matching the needs for local economic development.

Do you think these ideas might be keys to the start of a real revolution here in the United States?


About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.