Nordic tracking in California schoolsApril 1 Flash: Finland to run state's schools
An announcement is due any day now on whether Finland will take over California’s ailing public school system. Gov. Jerry Brown has reportedly been in secret negotiations with the European nation, long considered to have one of the best school systems in the world.
As always, the Governor is holding the specifics of the talks – in fact, holding acknowledgment of the talks themselves – close to the vest. When asked about it directly, Brown’s spokesman Evan Westrup replied “Ei kommentoida!”* which according to Google’s translation feature means, “No comment.” But let’s think about that for a moment; sounds to me like the Governor has been brushing up on his Finnish. If so, it’s probably not to broker a deal for Nokia to supply all the state’s mobile phones.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson was unavailable for comment and rumored to be shopping for a new fishing pole and waterfront property in Lapland. However, an unreliable unnamed source within the Department of Education said the so-called “Helsinki miracle” has been the “buzz around the water cooler for months,” and he (or she) is not surprised by the impending deal. “Normally the state takes over failing school districts,” said the official, “but that would be awkward when all 1,000 school districts are at stake. So bringing in Finland makes the most sense.” **
Finland’s prominence in education came to light in 2007 with publication of the McKinsey report, How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top.
Emerging from the country’s annual two months of continuous darkness, Finland’s education minister was reportedly heard to murmur, “Onko McKinsey lähteä jo? Hän unohti ottaa hänen kalaa.?” (“Did McKinsey leave already? He forgot to take his fish.”)**
“Teachers [in Finland] are given one afternoon each week for joint planning and curriculum development. The fact that the national curriculum specifies only general outcome goals, rather than the path by which to attain them, means that teachers in schools have to work together to develop the curriculum and the instructional strategies tailored to the needs of their school,”* write the authors, shamelessly taunting California teachers required to use the scripted Open Court reading program.
Critics hard to find
In an email message from Argentina,* where she’s involved in a project to turn the southern right whales to the left,** noted education historian, presidential consultant on education, and best-selling author Diane Ravitch expressed great confidence in and intimate knowledge of the plan. “Finland will immediately stop all standardized testing and trust teachers to assess how their students are doing and what they need,” wrote Ravitch.* What’s more, she said, “next, it will insist on reducing child poverty so that children arrive at school healthy, well nourished and ready to learn.”
Of course the Finnish idea of well nourished could take some getting used to, hinted Ted Mitchell, former president of the California State Board of Education. “Aside from actually having to treat teachers with dignity, it’s likely that the herring salad in the school cafeterias will be the hardest transition,”* said Mitchell. Well, that and the saunas that will be added to every school locker room.
Mitchell lamented the amount of hours he and the last state board wasted in trying to fix lousy schools when an answer was just 6,100 miles away (or 9,811 kilometers – get used to it). “If we’d known Finland was interested in turnaround work, we’d have given then all the PI (program improvement) districts two years ago,”* he said with a twinge of annoyance.
Not a perfect system
Not everything in the land under the aurora borealis is so darn great, however. Oh sure, the students top every other nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in educational achievement of 15-year-olds in an overview of reading, mathematical, and scientific literacy and have parents who “spend time ‘just talking to them’ several times per week,” according to the 2007 UNICEF study, Child poverty in perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries. But students there also rank at the bottom in how much they like school – just 15 percent, according to that same report.
Then again, education in California hasn’t been fun in years, not since NCLB mandated that all enrichment programs, arts, great books, hands-on science (okay, all science), and field trips be stripped from the curriculum.
Even Manny Barbara, former superintendent of Oak Grove School District in San Jose and current VP of Advocacy and Thought Leadership for Silicon Valley Education Foundation, gives the Finns credit where credit is due. Just last week, in a posting on this site, Barbara criticized yet another report bestowing accolades on Finland, noting that its entire population of 5.3 million people is a million below just the student population of California. Still, Barbara can’t help but be impressed with the strong teaching force in Finland, where labor representation is 100 percent. Then taking aim at the controversial actions of some state legislatures in recent weeks, Barbara jibed, “It just goes to show you how a strong union can improve student performance.”*
Stanford University education professor and researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, who has spent time in Finland studying their school system, suggested another possible reason for their academic success. “The Finns are known both for having one of the highest achieving school systems in the world and for consuming more vodka per capita than any other country,”* said Darling-Hammond. “Running the correlations, Stanford economists are said to be calculating how much vodka California politicians will need to consume in order to produce the kinds of policies that will pull the state’s schools out of the doldrums. Napa Valley winemakers are concerned that this shift in focus will damage the state’s economy, but Sacramento lawmakers seem ready to try almost anything to get the state through these trying times.”
* Real quote; honestly, we didn’t make this up.
** Completely fabricated; not an ounce of truth.