A lesson from Finland? Something for Gonski to chew over

It seems that I’m not the only one to notice the huge disparity in education outcomes between countries spending roughly the same amount of money on teachers’ salaries (amongst other things). Diane Ravitch has written a two-part essay in the New York Review of Books contrasting the which-achieving Finnish education system with the retrenched American one.

Her argument was compelling overall, although there were one or two things that I take issue with. I’ll start on a positive note:

Schools We Can Envy by Diane Ravitch | The New York Review of Books.

In recent years, elected officials and policymakers … have agreed that there should be “no excuses” for schools with low test scores. The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.

Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation.

Much of her essay is on this theme: everyone in the US — Bush and Obama, State and Federal — are far too focussed on standardised test scores as a means of determining the proficiency of both students and teachers. Having suffered the NSW HSC, I can definitely relate to the problems created by forcing teachers to “teach to the test” with an extremely inflexible syllabus. As regular readers will know, I am also highly in favour of holding both district leadership and elected officials to account.

That said, Ravitch may be overlooking the most important distinction between the USA and Finland: culture. In fact, she actively argues against Finland’s homogeneous ethnicity being a determinative factor in its academic performance.

Detractors say that Finland performs well academically because it is ethnically homogeneous, but Sahlberg responds that “the same holds true for Japan, Shanghai or Korea,” which are admired by corporate reformers for their emphasis on testing. To detractors who say that Finland, with its population of 5.5 million people, is too small to serve as a model, Sahlberg responds that “about 30 states of the United States have a population close to or less than Finland.”

Firstly, Japan, Korea and Shanghai are not exactly struggling -– especially compared to where they used to be. Also, the ethnic homogeneity of Finland may have a lot to do with what Ravitch does identify as a very important factor in education outcomes: the esteem in which teachers are held.

Finland’s highly developed teacher preparation program is the centerpiece of its school reform strategy. Only eight universities are permitted to prepare teachers, and admission to these elite teacher education programs is highly competitive: only one of every ten applicants is accepted. There are no alternative ways to earn a teaching license. Those who are accepted have already taken required high school courses in physics, chemistry, philosophy, music, and at least two foreign languages. Future teachers have a strong academic education for three years, then enter a two-year master’s degree program…

In the second essay, Ravitch argues that were the US to impose similar standards on their teachers, this would improve the public image of teachers and so would improve the quality of applicants and the culture of teachers into one where teachers teach because of their “intrinsic motivation”:

How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools by Diane Ravitch – The New York Review of Books.

Like other professionals, as Pasi Sahlberg shows in his book Finnish Lessons, Finnish teachers are driven by a sense of intrinsic motivation, not by the hope of a bonus or the fear of being fired. Intrinsic motivation is also what they seek to instill in their students. In the absence of standardized testing by which to compare their students and their schools, teachers must develop, appeal to, and rely on their students’ interest in learning.

It seems to me that Ravitch is confusing cause and effect. The ethnic and cultural homogeneity of Finland is a key factor as this is obviously a culture that takes great pride in education. I would hazard a guess that in a country like the USA that clearly does not do so overall, there are still areas and communities with a Finnish-like attitude to educating their children and these communities show disproportionately strong outcomes despite functioning in exactly the same system as everyone else. That is certainly true of the Jewish community in Australia.

She unwittingly presents more evidence in favour of this theory, both when arguing for more Union involvement in education and when arguing that education does not solve poverty:

Finland’s success confounds the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) theorists, because almost every teacher and principal in Finland belongs to the same union. The union works closely with the Ministry of Education to improve the quality of education, and it negotiates for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions for educators.

… Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty.

The lesson from Finland’s union is not that Unions are necessarily beneficial for education, but that everyone in Finland is more or less of the same mindset. Similarly, the anti-education culture in impoverished communities could go a long way to explaining why children at the same school will have worse outcomes if they have impoverished parents. However, as I have often lamented, culture is off-limits for criticism.

The final point I will raise is on the subject of teacher conditions. Ravitch observes that there is a very high turnover in the teaching profession, leading to a lack of experienced teachers:

The teaching profession in the United States is a revolving door. It’s easy to enter, and many teachers leave—up to 40 to 50 percent—in their first five years as teachers. The turnover is highest in low-scoring urban districts. We do not support new teachers with appropriate training and mentoring, and we have a problem retaining teachers. No other profession in the United States has such a high rate of turnover.

… corporate reformers have shown no interest in raising standards for the teaching profession. They believe that entry-level requirements such as certification, master’s degrees, and other credentials are unrelated to “performance,” that is, student test scores. They also scorn seniority, experience, tenure, and other perquisites of the profession. Instead, they believe that a steady infusion of smart but barely trained novices will change the face of teaching.

Ironically, while Ravitch is condemning American “corporate reformers” (actually public servants pretending to take a corporate approach) and praising Finnish Unions, in this instance the Australian Unions have gone the way of the American pseudo-corporates:

Old-school ideas not on the money | Institute of Public Affairs Australia.

Here, as elsewhere throughout the world, teacher unions wield enormous power … Their power has had three effects on education.

The first is the bulk of additional funding for education has gone into hiring more teachers instead of paying existing teachers more.

The second effect is that … in Australia the starting salary for teachers is relatively high by world standards, but salaries for experienced teachers relatively low.

The third effect of a heavily unionised workforce has been that up until the past few years there was minimal accountability and performance measurement of teachers.

Those first two points seem to be exactly what Ravitch is discouraging – incentives for young people to go into teaching for a few years and then leave to pursue other ends, meaning that smaller and smaller classes are being taught by increasingly poorly trained and inexperienced teachers.

Maybe Australia does need to take some lessons from Finland:

  • Stop concentrating so hard on getting more teachers and focus on keeping the ones we have.
  • Stop adding new education courses at uni and improve the ones we have.
  • Start looking into ways to combat “tall-poppy syndrome” in schools. If there is one thing leading to underachievement in Australia, it’s this – can we at least talk about it?
  • Throwing money at a problem does not solve it.

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  1. #1 by Brett on March 4, 2012 - 12:19 pm

    My key suggestions:

    – Increase school autonomy.
    – Making hiring/firing of teachers easier.
    – Pay good teachers more to encourage better candidates and increase the standing of the profession.
    – Increase entry requirements for education courses.
    – Make it easier for professionals to undertake postgraduate teaching courses.

  2. #2 by MK on March 5, 2012 - 4:33 pm

    I completely agree with all of those except for increasing entry requirements.

    Entry requirements are as low as they are because the demand is so low. If teaching becomes more desirable and policy focus shifts from “more teachers” to “better teachers”, entry requirements will go up as a result. If we increase them now, it would just mean less teachers but would not necessarily improve the quality of teaching because the other problems would still be there.

  3. #3 by Brett on March 5, 2012 - 5:51 pm

    As much as ATAR entry requirements are reflective of supply and demand (even more now that places are uncapped), there has to be a cutoff point at which a prospective student should not be considered suitable for teaching. On principle I don’t think someone who attains an ATAR of 61.55 (Bachelor of Education at Latrobe University) should be teaching the next generation of Australians. Then again I am not sure what the job market is like for teachers. If the job market weeds out unsuitable candidates then they can study what they want but I don’t think this is the case.

    My second point is that increasing the entry requirement for a course increases the desirability of a course. Prospective students have little information the quality of university courses and don’t receive data about employment outcomes of recent graduates. As such ATAR entry requirements are much more than just indicative of supply and demand. I’m not making any claims about the significance of this effect – you would probably exclude more people than you encourage at first but it would still send some sort of market signal.

    Another option would be to change the study score prerequisites for education courses. Right now most of them mandate a minimum study score of 30 for English (basically the mean score for the subject). They could either add a second requirement (ie. 30 for Maths) or increase the minimum English study score. This could even have the effect of lowering the ATAR entry requirement for education coures while adding a degree of quality control.

  4. #4 by MK on March 5, 2012 - 7:19 pm

    Interesting point, but I still maintain that changing over factors would solve this problem through market forces.

    Also, I am against the idea of the ATAR being the sole determinate of university entry anyway. Australia is the only country that I know of that actually ignores everything except school grades – both the UK and the US have holistic entry processes that look at extracurricular activities, references from teachers and – for more prestigious universities – application essays, even interviews. That applies for every course, but should apply especially to courses like teaching, where academic achievement is less important than other factors.

  1. Union progression towards White Australia « Major Karnage

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