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Nadworny: Education Excellence

03/08/12 5:55PM By Rich Nadworny
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(Host) Commentator Rich Nadworny is a parent of two school age children and sits on advisory boards at local colleges. And like many parents, he's wondering how to make our schools better for our kids.

(Nadworny) There's a lot of discussion these days on what to do about our American educational system. In the country in general, and in Vermont in particular, we look at endless reports of lower test scores and international comparisons. Then everyone comes up with often diametrically opposed solutions to reforming our schools.

It seems, though, that many agree on one thing: namely that Finland is a model country when it comes to educational results. The challenge for us here in the U.S. is that the lessons of the Finnish model are ones we have a hard time swallowing.

The Finns, apparently, aren't so obsessed with the end results; they're obsessed with the process. And their process is one of equity and freedom, oddly enough.

The Finns believe that every student, no matter their gender, ethnicity or location, should have the same starting point and the same educational experience. For instance, there are no private schools in Finland. None. School choice is an oxymoron in Finland. I guess you do have a choice; it's just that all the choices are the same. From pre-school through to the PhD level, every person in Finland attends public school.

Finland doesn't bother with standardized tests to evaluate students. Instead, highly trained, highly regarded, well paid teachers are given lots of freedom, and lots of responsibility, to assess students using independent tests that the teachers themselves create. Finnish teachers need to have a masters degree and getting into teacher training programs are as hard to get into as a good medical school in the U.S.

Compared with other countries, including ours, the Finns assign a lot less homework and offer a lot more creative play. Focusing on equity, freedom and process, rather than end test scores, results in Finland placing in the top three ranking in reading, math and science on every international survey since 2000.

Instead of equity, we in America we obsess over another E-word: excellence. One can argue that it's unintentionally led to a hollowing out of our public schools, limiting teacher responsibility and freedom, and focusing evermore on rote homework and standardized tests.

And when we talk of equity, we usually mean equity of outcomes, not equity of opportunity. But by giving all kids equal chances to succeed, it also gives them much more liberty and freedom to choose their careers and to craft their own futures. That seems very American to me.

I don't think it would be too great a stretch for us to embrace the Finnish model. In fact, many American schools and teachers taught that way in the mid 20 th century. Somewhere we lost our way. I'm not sure why.

But I think we can find our way back. If all of us parents - who are so engaged in our kids' education and who vote - decide to take one step further and become more involved in shaping our education policies, we could do a lot to improve our children's future as well as that of our country.

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