As a former Virginia teacher, I am concerned about the direction in which our educational system is moving. From my perspective solutions to our educational woes lie in a collective will in our country to do whatever is necessary to prepare children to be successful in life – beginning at birth. Investing in children’s education is not only a key to our economic success; it would have favorable results for every aspect of our global community.
So, what is needed for children to develop intellectually and when should it be provided to help them the most? Good instruction is an obvious requirement. But other aspects such as health care and good nutrition have been shown repeatedly to be just as essential.
We could begin by looking at a system that is touted as one of the finest in the world. Since the year 2000, Finland has consistently been ranked near the top in reading, math, and science. Although Finland’s homogeneity and small population present fewer problems for education, it is a country that has dedicated itself to making sure that every child has an equal chance at education. Norway, which is a country similar to Finland in size and diversity but follows practices similar to those of the U.S., does not rank nearly as high as Finland.
In Finland funding and resources are funneled toward the weakest and poorest students. Teachers are required to have graduate degrees, which are paid for by the government. Special education teachers have an extra year of training and are paid more. Schools are small and the educators know the children well. All students from birth have access to health care, good nutrition, and preschool.
In the United States the 60’s and 70’s were times of unrest in education. Court-ordered desegregation made it necessary to look for ways to facilitate the joining of two school systems into one. Affirmative Action and Head Start were programs that aimed to bring about equal rights to education. In addition special government grants were allocated to schools in impoverished areas in order to give those schools some of the advantages that those in more affluent areas enjoyed. This practice is used in Finland today.
However, in the 1980’s “A Nation at Risk” pointed out failures in U.S. education, and the focus turned more to raising standards. Instead of targeting extra resources at poorer schools, money was more evenly distributed to pay for the new and higher standards demanded. It was at this point that THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP BEGAN TO WIDEN and continues to do so.
In Finland much less is spent per child than in the U.S. but the money is spent directly on the children. In Finland teaching is one of the most respected professions and is on an equal footing with doctors and lawyers. Veterans of 30 or more years are considered experts in their field. ALL curriculum decisions are made by teachers, not politicians or business leaders, and all accountability is in the hands of the teachers.
Another glaring difference between the U.S. and Finland is found in their testing policies. Finnish students are NOT required to take ANY standardized tests before their senior year of high school. Finnish teachers profess to know more about their students than standardized tests can tell them. Should we as a nation think it fair to judge a school or teacher by test scores when each child brings with him a complex set of factors that may affect his scores more than instruction? You need look no further than nutrition, health care, poverty and attendance to find a few.
Compare this attitude of Finland toward experienced teachers and testing with the policies in the U.S. Teachers here must teach a pre-determined set of standards or content material, often determined by standardized tests. Many complain that there is little or no time left for them to create engaging activities that make learning fun and exciting. As a result, many new teachers in the U.S. are leaving the profession after five years or less. Also in the U.S., the more successful, experienced, and well-educated teachers leave the students to go into administration in order to be fairly compensated for their expertise. Veteran teachers of 30 years are given incentives to retire. The “push” to retire those with experience is especially egregious. Along with teachers leaving the profession out goes their pedagogical bags of tricks, their knowledge of children, and their mentorship of those new to the profession. Ask yourself. If you needed surgery, would you want a surgeon new to the procedure not to have an experienced mentor beside her?
In Finland the more experienced teachers continue to use their added expertise directly with students. The best teachers work with the weakest students. That is why they have the SMALLEST ACHIEVEMENT GAP IN THE WORLD. We need to trust that teachers know more about how and what to teach and how to assess their students than politicians and business leaders do. We need to give them more training and veteran teacher mentors by retaining experience. We need to have our best-trained educators working with our weakest students. We need to use standardized testing for diagnostic purposes ONLY!
As in Finland our country needs to respect, support and appreciate those who enter the profession with the aim of inspiring students so that they might become successful in the world of work and in life. While fair remuneration for work is always appreciated, money is not always the teacher’s ultimate reward for excellence. Teachers also wish to have the freedom and planning time to contemplate innovative ideas and be forgiven if a particular idea does not work. We need to give them all of these things so that they can accomplish their mission of educating our children – the most important mission there is.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gerry Kruger taught English in the Charlottesville City Schools for 27 years. In order to assist students who needed to improve their reading skills, she received a Masters of Education in reading from the University of Virginia. Gerry has been a member of the League of Women Voters of the Charlottesville Area since she retired from teaching in 2007 and is currently their Community Engagement Director.
An essayist for National Public Radio’s WVTF, she published her first book of essays, On Kruger Pond: Charlie’s Story, in February 2012.
Hancock, Lynnell. “A+ for Finland,” Smithsonian 42 Sept. 2011: 94-102. Print.
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Ochshorn, Susan. “Where the Achievement Gap Is Born: A Letter to Cathy Black.” Web. 12 Dec. 2010.
Schneiderman, Janet. “Lessons from Recent Research on Children in Child Welfare and Health Care.” Web. 17 Nov. 2011. .