Monday, August 27, 2012

Sisu, of course

On Friday we had a closing round-table panel discussion of the week's observations with Joanne Weiss, Secretary Arne Duncan's chief of staff; Richard Laine, Education Director for the National Governors Association; Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University professor who is a national expert on education with an incredible specialty in teacher preparation, and me.

I was asked to give "the teacher" perspective of what I had seen and heard and felt this week in Finland. With that aforementioned group. In five minutes.


As I tried to assemble my thoughts I found myself panicked on and off that so many of my observations needed to be left on the cutting room floor and so many of my thoughts for the implications of Finland's success for the future of education in the United States were going to have to be general rather than specific.

My comments went something like this:

First, a week of traveling with about 40 mostly previous complete strangers by busing, observing, walking, school-visiting, eating, fire drilling, language-struggling and a little shopping will compel you to get to know just about everyone. Anecdotally, I felt like I kept running across people who had taught. Sure enough, when I opened up my remarks wouldn't you know about 2/3s of the US delegation raised their hands when I asked who had ever had direct responsibilities for student learning as a classroom teacher at some point in their career.

Aha! This group of foundation heads, public policy officials, think tank-types had some prior knowledge they had also been using to filter this week. My thoughts were going to be based on my experience, but I hoped to tap their experiences in teaching, too.

I was taught only two Finnish words growing up: sauna, which I was also taught how to pronounce correctly, and sisu.

For those of you who don't know what sisu is, there is no actual direct translation. It means more than guts. It doesn't mean momentary courage, although it intones courage. It is maybe best described as having the strength to persevere, especially amidst pressure and adversity.

[For example, let's say a country got tremendous pressure from the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) to adopt market-based education reforms like all the other kids are doing and they resisted that pressure by choosing to stay the course of their own, successful researched-based education policies. That would be an example of sisu in my book. Get it? FYI: Wikipedia actually gives some great examples of journalists trying to convey sisu in a number of different, linked articles.]

This strength to persevere rather than change course was evident all week. The ability to patiently "work your plan" as the business self-help habits suggest you do while swimming with sharks guided by your true north, despite adversity surfaced again and again. One has to be intentional in order to persevere and that, too, was evident again and again all week.

Another thing you need to be clear about in order to persevere, and demonstrate your sisu, are values. The great local president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, Ellen Bernstein, once pointed out to me that we all live in a world of constants and variables. I have been using it as my gut-check for issues ever since.

Constants are those things you value; those things you would not compromise on regardless of the offer. Variables end up being everything else--those things about which you are willing to negotiate, if you will.

My St. Paul example is Humboldt Secondary School. Now, Humboldt has been on just about every academic-probation-needs-improvement-persistently-low-achieving-school label imaginable in the last dozen or so years for its graduation rate. The adopted graduation rate measure that must be used for punishing schools is 4 years, which makes time the constant. Guess what gets to be the variable in that equation then? Graduation.

Luckily for the students at Humboldt, despite tremendous pressure and adversity, the teachers and administrators at Humboldt stick to graduation at their constant (and serendipitously like Finnish schools) consider time to be the variable. Because of their perseverance with students, a greater than usual percentage of whom qualify for special education and English language learner services, the teachers and administrators of Humboldt have a lot of success with students, who themselves persevere to graduate in 4, 5 or 6 years. Humboldt teachers and administrators have chosen the constant that matters for their students. The latest graduation rate is over 98% when you measure Humboldt's constant: graduation, rather than the school accountability constant: time.

Likewise, again and again this week, Finland seems to have chosen the right constant:

->Universal, high quality, affordable preschool rather than measuring readiness at a kindergarten entrance and trying to play catch-up.

->Universal, high quality, comprehensive, no short-cuts teacher preparation so that students are getting consistent and strong instruction from the beginning. My goal is that someday we will be able to look all American parents in the eye and say "this teacher is ready to teach your child. They are not just about ready, they are not ready in about a year, they are not ready dependent on the money we have for new teacher induction, but they are ready now." For Finland, that day has been happening since about 1974. Finland dumped disco and stuck with quality teacher preparation and I think we'd all agree that they are showing they're better off for it.

->Universal access to and attention from qualified guidance counselors from the beginning of elementary school through post-secondary learning so that students constantly have someone guiding their academic and personal decision-making toward a fulfilling career and life. Instead of treating guidance counseling like triage, they treat it like college and career planning so instead of band-aids they get a ready-for-the-world work force.

->Autonomy for students and teachers. Rather than pull decision-making away from the two groups most closely responsible for teaching and learning (those would be teachers and learners) Finland intentionally places developmentally appropriate responsibilities on students from day one, and likewise places responsibility on teachers to determine teaching methods best for students so they can deliver the national standards in ways they professionally believe best for their unique group of students individually (in their classes of 16-21) and collectively.

There is broad agreement among all citizens, their nine political parties, their municipal leaders and their teacher's union on these, and other, constants. My theory is that the broad and deep agreement on these shared values was critical in helping Finland weather the unpleasant decisions that came with the recent economic storm so solidly, immune to the turn-on-the-teacher ugly rancor that has mastasized in our economic/education debates.

We really can't adopt any of Finland's ideas if we merely look to overlay their successful policies onto our current reality. It is really going to take strength to persevere. As education leader and New York State United Teachers vice-president Maria Neira implored the group, "We don't have to limit our conversation to what is; we can think about what can be."

We actually must take Maria's advice and think (and act) on what can be. Don't assume requiring a masters degree means we would require the degrees offered now. We could completely recreate one for initial licensure (sound familiar, Bush Foundation?). Don't think that we can't cover all kids with health care, since some of us have already worked toward it (sound familiar Children's Defense Fund?). Don't assume no one has the stomach to offer universal, affordable, high quality preschool, which we all know already sounds familiar to an impressive collection of Minnesota's leaders and parents.

I speak from experience that I know people can push very hard, so don't lose enthusiasm for change just because the target for change isn't my union. Let's take another cue from Finland, where there were no targets, there were only destinations.

The other destination we can add to our Finnish wish list is Minnesota. If I heard a Finn say "we are about the size of your Minnesota" once, I bet I heard it a dozen times. If any state has the right skills and attitude it is a state that is no stranger to northern lights, ice fishing, hockey, engaged citizens committed to the common good, and historic high-quality schools and teachers. Couple that with our emerging consensus on access to good preschools, progressive state education leaders, a philanthropic community that wants to make a real difference with the students we serve, thoughtful local government officials, and a state full of rank and file educators clamoring to make a difference and our very own manifestation of sisu will be on the horizon before you have time to learn that sauna rhymes with town'a.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Finnish Teacher Training: Masterful and Commanding

Today I had the opportunity to immerse myself in Finland's teacher training programs (and even teach a little lesson myself!).

Our host, Olli Maatta Principal & University of Helsinki teacher preparation instructor, gave us a comprehensive background, arranged for us to view the lessons of the master teachers who serve as yearlong hosts to their student teachers, and also challenged us with some closing, provocative questions.

He began with, "Teaching is not just about being a master of your content. It is being in touch with parents...putting into practice the knowledge you learned in your training."

Potential teachers are chosen after two or three years of undergraduate preparation through grade point average, test scores and a make-it-or-break-it interview. Ultimately it is the interview that is used to choose people to study to become teachers. The interview is conducted with content teachers, content-area professors, and an education professor. This group is looking for a virtual single-minded motivation to be with children as the priority.

Olli stressed that the role of teachers and teacher education are important to the now famous Finnish success that we are here to study.

Once chosen, these potential teachers are paired with master teachers at a teacher training school, like the secondary school I visited. To be a master teacher you must have at least two years of experience but Olli said the reality was that these teachers had much more than two years and a tremendous amount of value was placed in finding master teachers who had advanced degrees beyond the initial, mandatory Masters degree required to enter the profession.

The yearlong school-based placement (sound familiar CareerTeacher fans?!) included simulations on how to deal with a comprehensive list of issues, concerns and situations such as bullying, students who skip school and more to assure that practicing teachers get a wide range of experiences before earning the teaching credential.

In short, like everything else I have experienced this week in Finland, nothing is left to chance. It seems there is no such thing as "sink or swim" in Finnish education for the students or the teachers. Everything is intentional.

Olli explained that "Finnish teachers are called 'passionate pragmatists'" and I saw evidence of that in the 8th grade English lesson I observed. The teaching felt familiar. This master teacher was using the same techniques I have seen in countless St. Paul classrooms: an ambitious teaching pace, constant spiraling up of expectations building toward mastery in each new activity, checking for understanding, turn and talk, and discipline while conveying care for students and their learning.

It was good to sit in on a grade level with which I have so much experience to put the "Finnish students must just be better behaved and THAT'S why they do better on PISA" myth to rest. They are typical students who will draw on their Converse, pick at their nail polish, interrupt with video game stories and roll their eyes if you let them. This teacher clearly had taught them classroom rituals because redirecting them (constantly redirecting them--this is middle school)was swift and successful.

It was an absolute privilege to be able to share a small verb tense lesson alongside her at the end of my stay in her classroom.

When we got back together Olli shared the intentional work behind constructing this universal teacher preparation program with us. It was both affirming and challenging to be able to see behind the curtain so-to-speak of such a successful teacher training program.

It starts with the philosophy that the teacher is the expert in planning, implementing, and evaluating teaching and learning. With this as the beginning, everything is developed to support that.

Teachers must be taught to talk to each other constantly.
Teachers must design the curriculum so they can define what students should know and do at their grade level like no one else.
Teachers must be comfortable with autonomy so they feel responsible for executing this work.

Olli has hosted countless international delegations, all looking for the Finnish silver bullet. He works tirelessly to prevent Finland from being infected by GERM, the term coined by Pasi Sahlberg that stands for the Global Education Reform Movement. He has witnessed many people walking away disturbed that their education reform worldview was challenged rather than reinforced. As a man in a country with the PISA scores we envy and nothing to lose, he ended with three questions for our American delegation:

Can passion/engagement be emulated and scaled?
What does your society celebrate?
Are you able to see the harbor? which was his metaphor for "Are you actually sailing toward a destination or are you just wandering around lost and hoping you find a port?"

I have my gut reaction to those questions, but I feel very strongly that we must answer these questions thoughtfully and together in order to accomplish something.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Angry Birds, Happy People

"Finland is a place where you have angry birds and happy people..."
-Pasi Sahlberg,Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.

I must give someone else in the delegation credit for noticing the  deep consensus in Finland around happiness, keeping it simple and acting with intention and meaning. As I've been reflecting on her observation, I realize that much of what I admired about what I saw so far has fit into one of those categories.

Yesterday was our day to spend time in primary or comprehensive schools. I had the chance to spend the day in a neighborhood school that was also a magnet for students with diagnosed special needs before our afternoon with out-of-schooltime groups and a parent advocacy organization in the afternoon.

In the special needs/neighborhood school we visited, the headmaster summed up their consensus as to what made Finnish schools so good:

->High educational standards for all teachers (no shortcuts for some)
->Equal quality of schools
->Systems to support students not to drop out
->Municipalities and schools can consider local conditions when organizing education
->No private schools so children can learn to be will different kinds of people
->The idea of learning, not teaching. i.e. teachers have a great deal of autonomy and are expected to use several different methods of teaching and the focus is on giving students the tools they can use their whole life.

In another school, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards' President and CEO Ron Thorpe reported back that the principal answered "Because they have big freedom" when asked why people in Finland become teachers.

Ron said that the principal went on to describe the school by saying, "This school is a rose garden and these children are our roses."

This last point, in particular, was reinforced in the afternoon by the parent advocate who said one of the biggest concerns parents have is over-testing. "Finland has been very wise in not adopting all this testing. I'm proud of my child's teacher--now that's test enough."

He explained that the most important job of teachers and parents is to work together and, despite describing some concerns that I have seen first-hand in middle schools I've taught in, too--parents not being as involved as in elementary school, wanting better attendance at parent/teacher conferences--he stated, [we have to] "do the sort of community-building where we have trust or we [Finland] won't get the kind of results we've been getting."

Across all the representative groups: sports leagues, out-of-school-time organizations, parent and youth groups happiness and well-being was the common goal of all.


Today we spent the day in post-secondary institutions and talking to business leaders. One business leader in particular summed up his impression of Finnish educational success with:
Equality is opportunity
We trust our teachers
Less is more.

He went on to tell a story of how the headmaster of his child's school had the chance to tell Howard Gardner, of Harvard University that "We want to make good citizens," when asked what the purpose of Finnish public education was.

He also took some pride in pointing out in clear, clipped English that Finland takes care of its children, so "we've had 'no child left behind' for 150 years." With comprehensive, universal access to high quality health care, preschool, and a lifetime of free education, indeed.

Pasi went on to joke that in other places they have happy birds and angry people. Will we be able to learn these Finnish lessons, or will we be the angry people in Pasi's joke?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I like to move it, muuvit.

It's hard to imagine King Julian of "Madagascar" fame not loving Finland. From the plethora of bike-riders, including bike after bike lined up outside of schools and helmets lined up outside of classrooms, to the national movement (if you will) called "muuvit" which is Finland's attempt to get students around the world moving and fighting obesity. Check it out at Learning to move - Moving to learn.

More on the learning part shortly. In the mean time, muuvit!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Preschool, quotations and a question

Today we were immersed in a preschool program in the morning.

I had the opportunity to observe, and have lunch at, a Swedish language preschool that is attended by children whose home language is Swedish. Because of the number of Swedish-speaking Finns, preschools like this are not uncommon.

A number of things the Directors of the Finnish and Swedish preschools said as they were setting the stage for our visit stayed with me such as,

"I know we don't have tests like you do in the United States, but we follow our children's development and we support them."

"Playing is the most important thing in Finnish early education."


"In Finland, we believe that playing is the way to begin to learn all things."

I was brought back to my own experience picking a day care and a preschool for my children. As a frightened, perhaps over-protective parent, I wanted to find settings where children appeared happy, safe and had joyful, serendipitous opportunities. I found those places. In hindsight, I realize that even as a a two-licensed teacher family, we didn't look for hardcore academics for our children's early years. We looked for hardcore playing opportunities. I was sold on a place in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood that was near a park they visited every day, had a huge backyard with toys ordinary and imaginative, and where there always seemed to be someone singing or signing, or sometimes even caterwauling to no one in particular. I think that experience is what gave me an instant affinity to these Finnish preschool directors.

One big difference: we financed our son's preschool experience with a home equity loan. In Finland it is subsidized for all families so that it ranges from free to 264 Euros/month maximum.

Because it is affordable for everyone, it becomes a near universal experience for all children, which means "Ready for kindergarten" is not so much a gamble as it is a guarantee.

Some impressions of this experience I want to keep exploring include:

->Annual individualized education plans for home and school created by teachers and parents together and then evaluated by teachers and parents together.

->One teacher per seven children for 3-6 year olds, with a maximum classroom size of 21 students.

->The intentionality of the partnerships between teachers and parents, among preschool teachers, and the effort of preschool and primary school teachers to strengthen their partnership.

->The deep appreciation for the critical importance of child's play (as illustrated above).

->Access: Because it is near-universal (approximately 98% of Finnish children attend preschool), there is a common experience of high-quality preschool for every child before primary school.

->The intentionality of teaching children to be autonomous.

At the end of the day as well debriefed our experiences and wrapped up Pasi Sahlberg, the Director General of CIMO(Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, matter-of-factly stated, "When we are asked where Finland got all its great ideas for education we have to say 'the United States.'"

If so, when did we stop practicing what we preach?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Anything for you, Finland

Including dusting off my blog. When I first started to read about the system of public education in Finland I never would have dreamed I'd have the privilege to actually see it for myself and dig in with my own questions or comparisons. Based on the generosity of experts like Pasi Sahlberg, Tony Wagner and others I feel I have an apprentice-like knowledge of a world-class, high-performing system grounded in, as Pasi Sahlberg points out in his book Finnish Lessons, the values of equality, efficiency, and solidarity. I think a majority of Americans could get behind those values in our public education system. Of course, this is where the devil meets the details though. We seem to get tripped up in rationing equality, efficiency, and solidarity as we debate the best course forward in American education. Just when we think we are working to improve student equality together, whether it is equal access to strong teachers or high-performing schools, it is verboten to work just as diligently about equality issues for those same strong teachers as well. Efficiency is liberally discussed when it comes to suppressing teacher's wages, yet any suggestion that we rethink textbook adoption funds or closer linking executive administrator compensation to teacher compensation, for example, is ignored. And shouldn't solidarity, by it's very definition, be shared and not rationed? It seems the expectation that we're all in this together would mean that there's an understanding that labor and management should work together rather than treating work together for --gasp-- better teaching and learning as an accusation. It should mean that trust, while tough to work at (because things that are worth it always take work), should not be abandoned because when we err on the side of fact-finding rather than headfirst, Rappala-fishhook-in-mouth, don't-read-the-fine-print, blind agreements on things such as Race to the Top or other competitions for needed resources. Trust can mean we each verify our moves forward independently as we move forward together, even if we don't always move at the same speed. Solidarity definitely should not be rationed. Isn't the reality that we should think in abundance when it comes to equality, efficiency, and solidarity in our public school system? As Americans doesn't our arc of history bend toward expanding equality, sharing efficiency, and welcoming solidarity? Those are my questions as I land in Helsinki.