This editorial appeared in the For Your Consideration section in our February 1st e-newsletter. For Your Consideration provides an open space for individuals to voice their opinions on various public education issues.
I once worked for CMS Superintendent John Murphy who encouraged his principals to go out and beg, borrow and steal good ideas from other school leaders. While Dr. Murphy was a maverick and not always loved by all, he instilled in many of us a desire to learn from others who might be implementing innovative strategies to increase student achievement. After reading Kay McSpadden’s January 7th editorial about Finland’s stellar educational reform efforts and State Board of Education Member John Tate’s recent white paper on Finland’s measurable and long-term success, I am convinced there are several obvious lessons for the citizens of Mecklenburg County to heed as we move forward with a newly elected school board and with hiring a new superintendent.
A historical perspective is in order here. In the 1970s, Finland realized it was almost solely reliant upon its timber industry, which would not be enough to achieve true economic independence. They figured the most lucrative and sustainable way for the country to get ahead economically was to invest heavily in their people, namely the education of their children, from birth to college graduation. Their results over the past forty years are stellar and cannot be disputed. Finland now has an incredibly well-educated and highly trained workforce that fuels an economic engine that is the envy of many nations. In fact, Finland has ranked four times in the last decade as having the world’s most competitive economy, and their 15-year-olds have the top PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores in the world! How did they do it?
Lesson one: It takes time and a commitment of resources to truly turn around struggling schools. It has taken the Finns more than 40 years to get where they are today. Are we willing to forgo our American desire for instant gratification and reliance on the next political leader or superintendent to be our latest savior? I think not. In Finland, there are currently eight different political parties reflecting multiple political persuasions, but as a people, they are solidly united in their commitment to do right by ALL their children. Are we?
Lesson two is valuing our educators and treating teachers professionally. After some 40 years of sustained effort and systemic improvement, Finland now recruits only the best and brightest college students to join its teaching force. Today, universities only accept 1 in 10 applicants to their highly selective teacher education programs. Once accepted, these future teachers undergo a challenging five-to six-year year course of study that, in the end, results in a master’s degree. Once these rookie teachers leave the university, they are not thrown into the classroom to sink or swim alone, but rather they participate in a clinical year in the field with a seasoned mentor. Pay is another stark contrast among teachers in Finland and those here in the U.S. If we were to compare 15-year teacher veterans in the U.S. with their counterparts in Finland, the Finns earn 102 percent of the average university graduate wage, whereas their American counterparts are earning a mere 65 percent. Ouch!
Lesson three is a decentralization of the curriculum. There is almost a complete decentralization of governance in the schools. In fact, the state only provides brief curriculum guides; the schools operate truly autonomously. Teachers are provided adequate time to plan and collaborate with their peers, and it is estimated that the actual teaching load approximates to 60 to 80 percent of their American counterparts. It appears the Finns pay their teachers well, hold them to high standards and they deliver. Their teachers deliver a well-educated professional worker who will be a long-term taxpayer and independent countryman. It should also be noted that their country is basically void of crime and corruption.
If we choose to borrow or steal some of these practices from the Finns, are we guaranteed to achieve the same results? The answer is no. If we continue along the same path of providing inadequate resources—hoping for quick fixes and undervaluing our teachers—should we expect different outcomes? No.
While it has taken Finland almost four decades to climb to the academic heights they now have reached, we must look back to one of the most important first steps they took – elevating educational professionals through compensation, training and empowerment. These are tools we can utilize here and now. Let’s encourage CMS leaders to cultivate and allocate the finances to do so.
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About the Author:
Bill Anderson is the executive director of MeckEd.