Hello?-logoMarch 27, 2013


The news of Methow Valley School Superintendent Mark Wenzel’s departure invites us to think about our schools, and not just here in the valley.

Wenzel came to the job as a non-traditional candidate with a self-described “passion for learning.” To its credit, the school board took a chance on him. He proved to be an energetic, highly engaged, visionary educational leader whose emphasis on teacher development raised standards and performance.

After years of bad news from the school beat, good news about improved test scores and professionalism led to new, and deserved, respect for local educators’ efforts to teach the valley’s youngsters.

Like most American educators, they are forever swimming against a tide of public indifference to their often heroic efforts. Yes, almost everyone everywhere voices support for education. Yet the schools in the world’s superpower cannot match the success of other nations in educating their young.

Why is that, people? Hello?

My own take is that it’s because of what kind of nation we’ve chosen to be. Our bedrock social values negate efforts to develop a superior public education system. We value individualism and capitalism, neither of which dovetail nicely with world-class public education. One of our defining national characteristics is our high tolerance of inequality.

The nation that’s doing the world’s best job of educating its kids does almost everything exactly opposite from how we do them. But the most fundamental difference is that it does not tolerate inequality.

That nation does no standardized testing except once, as students leave high school. Classroom teachers are entrusted with sole authority over, and responsibility for, their students’ learning; there are no outside inspectors. Each teacher designs the course curriculum within broad guidelines, and they often teach the same kids for several years as they advance through the grades. Town councils run the schools.

That nation’s kids and teachers spend less time in class than ours and more time on play between lessons. There’s very little homework. Children start school at age 7, not 6. Students of all abilities are taught in the same classroom, with plenty of help from teaching assistants for the disabled.

Teachers are rigorously trained. Every teacher must have a master’s degree, and taxpayers pay for it. Teachers are paid – and respected – as professionals on a par with lawyers and doctors. Admission to the teaching profession is highly competitive. In 2010, when the country’s universities had 660 places for training elementary teachers, 6,600 people applied.

The country has no private schools or universities. Everyone, rich or poor, regardless of where they live, gets the same high-quality public education.

A tiny country of five million people, the nation is becoming multicultural and immigrant students get individual tutoring while they learn the language. It’s nearly unheard of for a student to come to school hungry or homeless, and free meals, medical care and social services are available to them.

The recognized gold standard for measuring how well nations are educating their children is the European Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of 15-year-old students’ academic competence. Countries voluntarily participate as a check on how they’re doing compared with other nations.

American students consistently perform poorly on the PISA tests, usually falling in the middle and often lower. Our educators blame this on our nation’s high levels of poverty, crime, immigration and other social issues that inhibit learning, and their point is well taken. The quality of our public schools depends on their ZIP code. In education, the American promise of equality is a hoax.

Not so in the education powerhouse of Finland. In the last decade it consistently has scored at the top of the PISA tests. The world is beating a path to Finland’s door, trying to discover its secret. It’s this: the decision to pursue educational excellence for all, not just the lucky few, was made by politicians in parliament, who decided Finland’s social values should underpin its education system – just as they do here to far less impressive effect. Free education from preschool through university is considered a human right.

“It was simply the idea that every child would have a very good public school. If we want to be competitive, we need to educate everybody. It all came out of a need to survive,” Finnish education reformer Pasi Sahlberg told Smithsonian Magazine.

Finland is one of those socialist countries that worries about the common good. A welfare state, it takes to heart the “United we stand, divided we fall” philosophy. We Americans embrace the “Every man for himself” approach and seem well content with its devastating social costs.

“In the United States, education is mostly viewed as private effort leading to individual good,” Sahlberg wrote in the Washington Post. “In contrast, in Finland education is viewed primarily as public effort serving a public purpose,” he added. “The former is driven by excellence, the latter by equity.”

So go figure. The Finnish two-pronged drive for equity and excellence in education is paying off better than the single-pronged American focus on individual excellence – at least on mastery of academic skills on the PISA tests.

The irony of Finland’s success is that it rests on implementation of American educational research that has not been put to much good use at home, Sahlberg notes. Yet he rightly warns that our nation has neither the cultural values nor taxing philosophy to allow our public education system to perform as well as Finland’s.

Not that it’s only size and socialism that makes the difference. Neighboring Norway, my homeland, is the same size and type of welfare state as Finland, but on steroids; debt-free Norway’s oil-based sovereign investment fund is worth $700 billion. Wealthy Norway has followed the American education model. It relies on standardized testing, allows teachers to teach without master’s degrees, and has made pitifully half-hearted investments in education.

And Norway’s kids perform just as poorly on PISA test as ours.