On the move in Finland

More Recess

Worried about passive, phone-tapping kids, Finnish schools are trying to get students moving, writes Tim Walker in The Atlantic. An American, Walker lives in Helsinki and teaches in a bilingual school.

Kids in Finland have short school days and frequent 15-minute breaks — typically there’s one after each 45-minute lesson. And even though the breaks keep them more focused in the classroom, they don’t necessarily keep them more active at school.

Under the “On the Move” initiative, his school has turned sixth graders into “recess activators” for first and graders. Older kids lead the younger ones in games, such as Banana Tag.

In the fall, a new schedule will combine short recesses into at least one 30-minute break. Students in grades seven through nine will choose activities, such as yogalates, floor hockey, or gymnastics.

Teachers also are looking for “strategies for getting students to be more active during lessons,” writes Walker. These include “energizers” (short breaks from sitting), allowing kids to complete work while standing or while sitting on large bouncy balls.

He’s replaced oral presentations, which tend to be dull and time consuming, with the “gallery walk.”

Students fasten their presentations to the walls of the classroom or hallway as if they were exhibiting their work in an art gallery. Each display is numbered and the children rotate from exhibit to exhibit systematically, spending a minute or two carefully studying each one. To make this experience more meaningful, students provide written-feedback to each other as they’re visiting each display. Before they start the active gallery walk, I hand out sticky notes in two different colors. On one color, my sixth graders write questions about the work for the presenter to consider and on the other, they jot down positive observations.

On the Finnish Report Card 2014 on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, Finnish kids received a “D” for physical activity levels, reports Walker, U.S. children earned a D- on the 2014 United States Report Card.

U.S. teachers teach more, but not much more


U.S. teachers spend more time in front of their classes than teachers in other developed countries, but not much more, concludes a new Columbia study,  The Mismeasure of Teaching Time.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated U.S. teachers spend 50 to 73 percent more time instructing classes, notes Education Week. The new study says that’s way off.

• Primary school teachers in grades K-6 spend 12 percent, not 50 percent, more time leading class each year than the average in the 34 OECD member countries.

• Teachers in grades 7-9 teach 14 percent, not 65 percent, longer than their global peers.

• Upper-secondary teachers spend 11 percent, not 73 percent, longer on instructional time.

The report recommends “reducing instructional time for students by following the Finnish model,” which gives students 15-minute breaks between lessons for fresh air, play and relaxation.

Why edutourists go astray


A math class in Shanghai

Edutourists often go astray, writes Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times declared the “Shanghai secret” is teacher training and a work day that allows for professional development and peer interaction.

After touring schools in Japan, Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green endorsed lesson study and “pedagogical reforms from the 1980s and 1990s” to boost math learning.

High-scoring Finland is a prime edutourist destination, writes Loveless. “The Education Ministry of Finland hosted at least 100 delegations from 40 to 45 countries per year from 2005 to 2011.”

Singling out a top achieving country—or state or district or school or teacher or some other “subject”—and then generalizing from what this top performer does is known as selecting on the dependent variable.  The dependent variable, in this case, is achievement.  To look for patterns of behavior that may explain achievement, a careful analyst examines subjects across the distribution—middling and poor performers as well as those at the top.  That way, if a particular activity—let’s call one “Teaching Strategy X”—is found a lot at the top, not as much in the middle, and rarely or not at all at the bottom, the analyst can say that Teaching Strategy X is positively correlated with performance.  That doesn’t mean it causes high achievement—even high school statistics students are taught “correlation is not causation”—only that the two variables go up and down together.

Edutourists routinely go to top-scoring countries, but rarely check whether their favored strategy is used in middle- and low-scoring nations, writes Loveless.

In addition, edutourists visit a selected sample of the best schools, he writes.  Confirmation bias makes it likely they’ll see what they expect to see.

Zhao: Don’t follow the dragon

The U.S. shouldn’t try to “catch up” with China, argues Yong Zhao in  Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

 China’s test-obsessed, authoritarian schools aren’t a model, says Zhao, who was raised in China and is now a University of Oregon education professor.

Shanghai students ranked at the top in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, test twice in a row.

But the Chinese system “ignores children’s uniqueness, interests and passion, which results in homogenization,” Zhao tells the New York Times. “It forces them to spend almost all the time preparing for tests, leaving little time for social and physical activities.”

U.S. schools are following China’s example by becoming “more centralized, standardized and test-driven,” says Zhao.

Finnish schools “let down” two-thirds of students, according to Maarit Korhonen, a primary teacher. Those who aren’t academically minded and don’t do well on exams are “thrown away,” writes Korhonen in Herää, Koulu! (Wake Up, School!) There’s little to challenge the talented, she adds.

Finland’s top PISA scores have led to complacency, charges Korhonen.

Efficiency Index: U.S. overpays teachers

U.S. schools overpay teachers, according to the international “Efficiency Index” released by GEMS Education Solutions.

The report was created with the support of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, which created the PISA exam. leader

The U.S. ranked 19 out of 30 OECD countries, because teachers earn higher salaries than necessary to attract competent teachers and classes are smaller than necessary. (I don’t know how they calculate this.)

Yet the U.S. rates as “more efficient than effective,” along with countries such as Hungary, France, Britain and Sweden.

Finland, Japan and Korea do the best in efficiency and quality (as measured by PISA scores). Finland and Korea achieve excellent results with relatively large class sizes – the 3rd and 5th largest of the OECD countries – and pay teachers moderate wages, the report noted.

Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and others were effective, but not very efficient.

Brazil, Chile, Greece, Indonesia and Turkey were both inefficient and ineffective.

Top teachers trump standards

Standards and tests won’t improve American public education, argues Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and an author of Massachusetts’ standards. Policymakers should focus on improving teacher quality and training and the K-12 curriculum, she writes.

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its narrow circle of Gates Foundation-funded or Gates Foundation-employed advisers . . . have spent their initial energies on first getting states to adopt the kind of standards they think low-achieving students can meet to be declared “college-ready” (i.e., generic, content-light skills in the English language arts); and then, on arguing with teacher unions about the percentage of students’ test scores for which teachers and administrators should be held accountable.

Only one characteristic of an effective teacher — subject-matter knowledge — is related to student achievement, according to the 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, writes Stotsky.  “The more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn.”

In high-achieving school systems, only the very best students can gain admittance to teacher training programs, she writes. Training is far more rigorous than in the U.S.

In Finland, prospective elementary teachers complete a three-year bachelor’s and a two-year master’s in education. Prospective secondary teachers usually complete a three-year degree and a two-year master’s in their subject, followed by a two-year master’s program in education. In both cases, the master’s focuses on educational research.

An academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to establish and teach an academically stronger curriculum, do better designed research, and make more soundly based educational policy.

Stotsky lists seven things states could do to improve teacher quality. It starts with restricting admission to teacher training to the top 10 to 15 percent of students.

Would the brightest students compete for a chance to teach? The career would be more prestigious if it was reserved for top students. But . . . I have my doubts.

How to make teaching an elite profession

Seven percent of teacher training programs receive a top ranking in National Council on Teacher Quality’s Teacher Prep Review. “With only 1 in 15 programs providing first-year teachers with solid preparation, it is clear we, as a nation, have a long way to go if we are going to do right by teachers as well as their students,” said Kate Walsh, NCTQ’s president.

Among the top teacher training programs in the country — according to NCTQ — is Utah’s Western Governors University , which is online and competency based.

NCTQ recommends setting higher standards for teacher candidates, making it tougher to be recommended for licensure and holding teacher training programs accountable for the effectiveness of their graduates.

American schools need better teachers, so let’s make it harder to become one, argues Amanda Ripley in Slate. The “world’s smartest countries” treat teacher selection and preparation “the way we treat the training of surgeons and pilots,” she writes. Some U.S. states are raising standards for teacher education programs.

Rhode Island, which once had one of the nation’s lowest entry-bars for teachers, is leading the way. The state has already agreed to require its education colleges to admit classes of students with a mean SAT, ACT, or GRE score in the top one-half of the national distribution by 2016. By 2020, the average score must be in the top one-third of the national range, which would put Rhode Island in line with education superpowers like Finland and Singapore.

Sonja Stenfors, 23, is a teacher-in-training from Finland, worked as a classroom aide for a year to raise her odds of getting into a teacher-training program, writes Ripley. Only 10 percent of applicants are accepted.

After three years at a Finnish university, Stenfors is studying at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.  “Here it’s not cool to study to be a teacher,” she wrote in Finnish on her blog. “They perceive a person who is studying to be a teacher as a little dumber.”

The University of Missouri–Kansas City admits two-thirds of those who apply, writes Ripley. There is no minimum SAT or ACT score. Students have to have a B average, sit for an interview, and pass an online test of basic academic skills.

They do two semesters of student teaching, compared to Senfors’ four semesters in Finland, and receive “less rigorous, hands-on classroom coaching from experienced teachers.”

Exam stress is higher overseas

U.S. students take lots of tests, but exam stakes are higher overseas, reports NPR.

In England, 16-year-olds take “15 or 20 substantial examinations” as part of a test deciding whether they’ll finish high school, says Dylan Wiliam, a professor emeritus of educational assessment at the University of London.

For those who do well and go on, they get two more years of high school. And each of those years ends with another big round of tests, saving the worst for last.

“And your grades on those examinations will determine which universities you’re offered places at,” Wiliam says.

Grades don’t matter. It’s all about the tests.

Finland has no standardized exams — until the end of high school, when students spend 40 hours taking a half-dozen daylong exams. Students know their futures depend on doing well on the exam, says Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Japanese students have to take entrance exams to get into an academic high school.

 “It’s a lot of pressure,” says Akihiko Takahashi, an associate professor of math education at DePaul University who knows the Japanese testing system well. “If you do not pass exam, you cannot go anywhere, even high school.”

Japanese (and Finnish) universities also give their own entrance exams.

Around the world, except for the U.S., high school grades, teachers’ recommendations, extracurriculars and essays don’t determine college admissions, says Wiliam. “Basically, it’s how well you do on those exams.”

Finns: Equality works

“We Created a School System Based on Equality,” Finnish education and science minister Krista Kiuru tells The Atlantic.

Finnish children start school at age 7, notes Christine Gross-Loh. “They have more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialized nation.”

Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world.

Finnish schools “have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others,” says Kiuru.

Students participate in “handcrafts, cooking, creative pursuits, and sports,” she says. “Academics isn’t all kids need.”

We like to think that school is also important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people’s feelings … and understanding it matters to take care of others. 

. . . Teachers have a lot of autonomy. They are highly educated–they all have master’s degrees and becoming a teacher is highly competitive. We believe we have to have highly educated teachers, because then we can trust our teachers and know they are doing good work. They do have to follow the national curriculum, although we do have local curriculums as well. But we think that we’ve been able to create good results due to our national, universal curriculum.

We don’t test our teachers or ask them to prove their knowledge. But it’s true that we do invest in a lot of additional teacher training even after they become teachers.

Students don’t take national exams.

“In Finland we are starting to have some issues … in some suburban schools with more immigrants or higher unemployment,” says Kiuru. “We support those schools by investing more in them.”

At age 16, half of Finnish students choose technical-vocational training and the other half choose an academic track.

Finns slip

After acing international exams 12 years ago, Finland’s PISA rankings are slipping in reading, math and science. The Finns stopped trying to improve, educator Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons, tells Marc Tucker. “The huge flow of foreigners from all over the world to visit the remarkably successful Finnish schools made the authorities fearful of changing anything.”

In addition, “non-Finnish speaking immigrants are coming to Finland in larger numbers than ever before.”