Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Diane Ravitch's Forward for Finnish Lessons 2.0

This was written by Diane Ravitch as the forward to Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?

by Diane Ravitch

Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons was published exactly when it was most needed. When it appeared, the so-called education "reform" movement was ascendant in the United States and elsewhere and growing stronger.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were enthusiastic supporters of "reform." Their program, called Race to the Top, was launched in 2009, and it contained the key ingredients of the reform paradigm: testing, accountability and choice. Educators were caught by surprise, as they had been led to expect that President Obama would end President George W. Bush's much-hated No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But the Obama program was built directly on the shaky foundation of NCLB. Instead of jettisoning high stakes testing, Race to the Top increased the importance of testing. Now, not only would students and schools be held accountable for student test scores, but teachers would be given a bonus or fired based on test scores.

The reform movement moved into high gear in 2010. Newsweek magazine ran a cover story that spring declaring "we must fire bad teachers," as though schools were overrun by "bad" teachers. That fall, the film Waiting for "Superman" was released with massive publicity. Its message: our public schools are failing, and the only hop for children stuck in "failing" public school sis to escape to a privately managed charter school. The then-chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, Michelle Rhee, became a media sensation, with her tough talk about the schools and the pleasure she took in firing teachers and principals.

Some of the nation's richest foundations -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and many others -- poured millions into this reform movement, encouraging high-stakes testing, Teach for America, charter schools, and even (in the case of the Walton Foundation) vouchers for religious schools.

Several states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana, rolled back collective bargaining rights, and teachers' unions became scapegoats, blamed for low test scores and for driving up the cost of education because of their health care and pensions. Surveys showed that teachers were demoralized -- as well they should be -- by the attacks upon them and upon their profession.

Thus it was that when Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons was published, it injected a new dimension into education debates. Finland had high test scores in international student assessments, and it was not doing anything that our American reformers demanded. It had a strong public school system. It did not have charters or vouchers. It had very high standards for entry into teaching; there was no such thing as Teach for Finland that would allow inexperienced young college graduates to teach in Finnish schools. Sahlberg described a 5-year teacher preparation program that all teachers must complete to teach in Finnish schools.

Teachers and principals belong to the same union, which not only negotiates wages and working conditions, but advocates on behalf of children and schools. Although Finland has a national curriculum, teachers have wide latitude to shape it to their own needs and strengths. Best of all, Finland does not subject students to standardized tests until the end of their high school years. As Sahlberg writes, the schools are a standardized testing-free zone.

What many American educators loved about Finnish Lessons is that it portrays an alternative universe, one that respects educators and enables them to do their best work, one that recognizes that society has an obligation to ensure the health and well-being of children. Sahlberg knew that the Finnish story stoop in sharp contrast with what was happening in the United States and other countries. He refers to this movement for testing and choice as GERM: the Global Educational Reform Movement.

Yes, indeed, the United States, Britain, and many other countries are infected with GERM. Finnish Lessons 2.0 is a disinfectant. It reminds us that nation can consciously build an admirable school system if it pays close attention to the needs of children, if it selects and prepares its educators well, and if it builds educational communities that are not only physically attractive but conducive to the joys of teaching and learning.

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