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.

Gulp.

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.

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