Great short article over at the Atlantic - What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success that neatly summarizes much of what I feel about the flaws in the US education system.
The concept is breathtakingly simple. All the talk about charter schools, testing, in fact almost any type of education reform, is missing the single biggest problem in American education - inequality of opportunity ... from Day 1.
Imagine a 100 yard race where by paying a small entrance fee the contestants can start at the start line. But by paying more they can start further ahead (say 15 yards ahead), and by paying more even further ahead (say 25 or even 40 yards ahead). And those unable to pay the entrance fee can still race, but they have to start 10 yards further back from the starting line. Does this sound like a fair race? Is it by any way certain that the best runner will win? Well, that is the US education system.
Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
It is a very very simple concept. Every child gets as close to the same opportunity as possible. Money does not count. In fact, money can not be allowed to count.
Finland's experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.
Our Canadian province made the switch a few years ago to more equal funding. In the past each district school board set taxes and some boards naturally ended up with more money and better schools. The Province switched to a system of Province wide funding. In principle every child would be funded equally ($x,xxx per student paid to each school board). Adjustments were/are allowed based on various factors such as ESL students, immigrants, poverty rates, and costs of living etc., but the core idea is the same. Students get funded equally.
Of course this is still not enough to eliminate inequality, but it is a very important, dare I say absolutely fundamental, first step. Interestingly my experience with the school system has been that special needs funding far far exceeds enrichment funding. An awful lot of effort and money is spent on the kids at the bottom, and far less on the kids at the top. If you are trying to minimize inequality this of course makes clear sense.
strong>Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. "Oh," he mentioned at one point, "and there are no private schools in Finland."
This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it's true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.
I am a huge believer that structure drives behavior and results. If you set up the right system with the right incentives and disincentives you can allow a lot of internal freedom, pretty sure that everyone will be working towards the same goal. If you set up the wrong system and instead are forced to use all kinds of measurement tools (testing) and standards to keep track of what is going on you are doomed to failure.
So, it is painful to realize that all the reform efforts in the US are essentially not going to work because the most fundamental (and difficult in the US economic/political/social system) reform can not or will not take place.