The Role of Curriculum in Teaching and Learning
There’s much to be encouraged about in the recent poll. The vast majority of Americans (75%), for example, think that the Common Core will provide more consistency in the quality of education.
The Common Core promises to frame more integrated and deeper learning opportunities for students. But I wonder if, in our implementation (or execution) of the Common Core, we will take a page out of the Finnish playbook. Finnish administrators and teachers embrace their national curriculum because it represents the nation’s educational values, rather than narrow prescriptions for learning.
And, importantly, in Finland, teachers and principals are the ones who determine whether their students have met the standards.
Standardization vs. Professionalism
Most Americans say that a third of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on standardized tests. But when asked to list words that describe the teachers who had the most positive influence on them, Americans responded with words like “caring,” “encouraging,” and “attentive.” Those adjectives hardly coincide with the impersonal and stressful multiple-choice standardized tests students must take, regardless of background or ability level.
The Finns, primarily because they screen and prepare (not one or the other) each teacher so well, do not seem to care about teacher evaluation. They avoid the twisted contortions and gnashing of teeth over how to precisely use a value-added measure—based on one 20th-century standardized test—to determine 50 percent of a teacher’s effectiveness ratings.
After a couple of visits to Finnish schools, I can imagine how the Finns could leave every country behind in international measures of student achievement if they took professional development and evaluation more seriously—building on their trust of educators to make professional decisions about who is doing well and why.
But one thing is certain: Any teacher evaluation reforms in Finland would have to take into account that no one teacher is rarely, if ever, solely responsible for the education of a group (or even a class of students). It would be wise for U.S. policy to do the same.
Rating the Schools
Once again, the American public rates public schools very favorably—if they know them.
- 77% give an A or B grade to the school their eldest child attends
- 48% give an A or B grade to the schools in their communities
- 19% give an A or B grade to the nation’s public schools as a whole
Less than half of Americans without kids in public schools have visited one in the past year. So you have to wonder—where are they getting their information?
Perhaps it was from a Newsweek cover story of late titled “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers,” or from reformers like Joel Klein who claim that our schools, uniformly, are failing. In Finland, there are teachers who are not teaching effectively, and there are schools that are not great. But no one—including the Finnish media reporting on student matriculation exams—classifies teachers or schools as “bad” or “failures.”
In the United States, policymakers and business leaders often point to standardized tests as the metric for judging school success and teacher effectiveness. Not in Finland. As Risto E.J. Penttila, Secretary General of the Chamber of Commerce, told us today: “The purpose of our education system is to make good citizens.” I suspect those Americans who know the public schools can see the work they’re doing in making good citizens. They are the same Americans who characterize effective teachers as “caring.”
The Role of the Media
Looking at the PDK/Gallup poll results, there seems to be a discrepancy between Americans’ local, individual experiences with education, and broader perceptions of the system as a whole. When it comes to thinking about education on a national scale, we rely less on our own experiences and more on what the media reports.
And when the media focuses on what’s wrong with education rather than what’s right with education, it can be easy to make assumptions that skew negative. Our media doesn’t portray educators as a group as being a “caring,” “attentive,” or “encouraging” group.
Which makes it incredibly easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our positive experiences at our schools and our children’s schools are the exception, not the rule.
Along the same lines, the PDK/Gallup shows an uptick in support for using public dollars to send kids to private schools (44 percent were in favor in 2012, compared to 34 percent in 2011). However, how much media coverage shows side-by-side comparisons of student achievement in public vs. private and charter schools? In many cases, public schools still do a better job educating students, while at the same time educating all students.
Just as educators have a responsibility to their students, the media has a responsibility to cover not just hot-button issues that attract readers by causing alarm. We need to celebrate our teachers' and students' successes—not failures—so they can serve as a model in our profession and in our communities.