Is this School Heaven? No, it’s Finland

Metaphor Alert: I have been to the mountaintop. I have trod sacred ground. I have seen the light. I have been to Finland. It’s the place where teachers go after they die if they’ve been good and taught the Whole Blessed Child; if they’ve rejected the hell of Obsessive Standardized Testing.

It says something about the upside-down world we live in where we are called on to keep believing in the false and failed prophets of absurd school proposals they like to call “reform” — privatize for profit, have children compete with each other for the winner’s crown or the loser label. Here in the United States, we’re told this will hold back the demon — our “Global Competition.”

Well, let’s end the metaphor here or I’ll run out of air-quotes. Let’s talk science. Because our Global Competition is basically every country doing the opposite of what school privateers and test profiteers tell us to have faith in.

Singapore . Canada doesn’t have charter franchises. Korea doesn’t have short-cut preparation for teachers. This is an embarrassment to the Global Education Reform Movement (the GERM) that rolls out economic development plans to entire countries suggesting they will become richer countries if they privatize, standardize and de-professionalize education.

None of the top performing countries got there with this stuff. And these guys have no idea what to do with smart, little Finland.

Finland is no mystery and it is no miracle. They simply have a very good systems approach to school improvement. They decided 40 years ago that in a country with few natural resources, they would do well to develop the human beings in their society. The believed that healthy, well-educated, compassionate human beings should form the foundation, not only of a good economy, but of good families, neighbors, and even a good democracy.

They did their homework. They saw that private competition in school systems tended to shake out with wealthy

families getting more for their kids than middle class and poor families. As they had no brains to waste, they decided to invest in one, good public system where all kids would get what they needed whether their parents were rich or not.

They decided to invest heavily in teacher recruitment and teacher preparation. By design, they made the colleges of education a highly elite program where only the top university students were accepted with all expenses paid.

There is a one-year residency under a top teacher for graduates. All teachers have master’s degrees related to their teaching assignments. They make it impossible to hire a bad teacher.

There are no fast-track, short-cut, temporary teachers. There is no Teach for Finland. Trust is the key word that comes from politicians, parents, academicians, and unions — after a top notch teacher training for top ranked students; trust rules.

And they put in the hands of these skilled, career educators the tools, technology and time to collaborate, design, intervene and assess instruction, teaching and learning on the school building level. (There are no state standardized tests except for the one at the end of 6th grade to guide intensive support to students to learn and the other at the end of high school to determine placement in higher education should you choose to attend.)

They have the support staff they need to personalize the learning experience with tutors and nurses and psychologists and librarians and counselors.

The principals in these schools are teachers, and they are required to teach at least one class. They are colleagues with the faculty and staff. The parents and students are included in the learning process. There is a natural bridge — a true relationship — between home and school.

The design is comprehensive. Universal preschool is available to all, and well over 90% of families take advantage of it. For high school students who qualify, universities and trade schools are free. Students know that if they work hard, high education is waiting for them. None of their families lose sleep, as our families do, over crushing college debt.

I walked through the halls of these schools. I talked with students and teachers and principals and parents and support staff. These are good people. They believe deeply in the work they do, and they see the results of carefully developing top professionals, giving them the tools, time, support and authority to do their jobs, and continually focusing on the whole child — critical, creative mind; healthy body and ethical, compassionate character — making decisions on the school level as needs and opportunities arise.

On my last day in Helsinki, I spoke at the educator’s conference of the union, . I spoke about the Global Education Reform Movement and its focus on privatization with school vouchers and unreliable franchise charters; fast-track teacher training with scripted textbooks and more and more states where decisions like passing or flunking students were being made by state legislators and governors and people who had never met the students.

And I told them that we had so much to learn from them.

After my talk, one teacher came up to me and said she was worried that perhaps their politicians were learning from us. She said that they are now talking about changing what has made them so successful. Maybe our teachers didn’t need as much training, and they could do it cheaper. Maybe we didn’t need universal preschool or vocational programs. Maybe we needed to focus on more testing.

This teacher wondered how politicians could be so foolish as to jeopardize something that took so long to build and though far from perfect, was working as well as any system in the world.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it might not be foolish politicians at all, but devilishly clever people who had no interest in the education of children who did not produce profit. It occurs to me that the Finnish politicians that put their country on the right path 40 years ago are now gone. New politicians with new allies are in power. And Finland is a problem to the GERM. The problem is that it exists. That it succeeds. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the patient GERM will start to pick it apart until they can erode public trust in a good system — something even the best United States public schools have experienced for decades.

But we are champions for the whole child. We will defend the whole child here. We will defend the whole child abroad. We will defend common sense and hard work and equity and quality. The GERM will come, even to Finland. And this time we will be ready.

Originally published at on January 31, 2015.

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Lily Eskelsen García

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Official account of the president of the National Education Association. Utah teacher of the year, author, maestra and rabble rouser!

The Synapse

Authentic voices in education. To join us, tweet @synapsepub.