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Consequences of privatization

Dr. Henry Levin

Dr. Henry Levin

In response to our recent post on Sweden, Henry Levin shared “Evaluating Consequences of Educational Privatization: Ideas and consequences of market principles in education,” a power point presentation from a lecture that he gave at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden, in March of 2013.

The presentation puts the Swedish experiences with privatization in a larger context by highlighting the many different approaches to privatization and discussing the different kinds of outcomes that may be worth taking into account. Thus, Levin points out that educational privatization can mean that schools have private funding; or that schools are operated privately by educational management organizations; or that private schools are afforded government funding, through vouchers or other means.  Even those approaches that use vouchers (such as Sweden since 1992; the Netherlands since 1917; Chile since 1980; and in US cities like Milwaukee since 1990 and Cleveland since 1995) can differ significantly in terms of how they are financed, their regulations/requirements, and the support services that are (and are not) provided.

Despite the fact that many privatization and voucher approaches have been around for some time, Levin argues that the evaluations are particularly difficult both because privatization has become a highly ideological and emotional issue and because there are a range of educational goals that should be taken into account (not just test scores). Levin suggests four criteria that should be taken into account for evaluating educational systems: 1. freedom to choose, 2. productive efficiency, 3. equity, 4. social cohesion. Levin also points out that there are trade-offs and conflicts amongst these different possible outcomes, as well as questions about which criteria deserve emphasis. Broadly, Levin suggests that the research indicates that while privatization increases school choice, it also increases social stratification, but there is little evidence yet on social cohesion. He concludes “we have made progress in understanding the consequences of educational privatization. But as we have expanded the circle of light, the perimeter of darkness has also grown.”

 

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New OECD report leads to questions about educational innovation

While the OECD has released a number of reports this year, their most recent report addresses the measurement of educational innovation at the classroom and school levels. In this report, the OECD looked at “innovations” in education improvement strategy and ranked 19 countries accordingly. The report acknowledges that while the private sector has established innovation indicators derived from research and development (R&D) statistics and innovation surveys, the measurement of innovation and its effectiveness in the public sector is still in its infancy. Creating such measurements might be more difficult, as the report states that “cultural values, social policies and political goals can lead to differing prioritization of these different objectives across countries.” Innovation indicators will need to be linked to specific objectives, such as learning outcomes, if they are to be better understood.

Denmark came in first place, followed by Indonesia, Korea and the Netherlands. While I could not easily find news reports that focused on the high ranking of Korea, and the sole report I found on the Netherlands referred to parental concerns over a lack of educational innovation, multiple sources published reports that pointed to the near-bottom ranking of the US. Yet, even with the report citing a ‘dearth’ of innovation in the US, EdWeek has a feature article on the ways in which school principals in the US are increasingly acting like entrepreneurs and innovators in business.

Interestingly, as Pasi Sahlberg pointed out in his recent article in The Washington Post, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Finland—all high performing countries—have sought out innovative ideas for education from the United States, where many such ideas are largely ignored by the country’s education reformers. So, not only is educational innovation difficult to measure for the ways in which the concept of innovation might be country-specific, as the OECD explained, it might also prove difficult to measure due to the ways in which innovative ideas can travel, as countries share and borrow ideas from one another. In his brief response to Sahlberg’s article, Howard Gardner pointed out that innovative ideas have a history of being co-opted, borrowed, and misunderstood. Further, he notes that it is a mistake to attribute these ideas to sole individuals, such as himself–for he was inspired by other scholars, and all scholars are influenced by the freedom or constrictions of the conditions in which they work. To that point, a recent study of Norwegian teachers, which aimed to study those conditions in which “newness is created,” showed that innovative work is brought into being when “pluralities of perspectives” are taken into account.

In The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss also questioned the meaning innovation by looking at the language used in the report. She notes that Hong Kong’s main innovation was “more peer evaluation of teachers in primary and secondary education”; Korea’s main innovation was “more peer evaluation of teachers in secondary education”; and Singapore’s main innovation was “more use of incentives for secondary teachers.” But is innovation a matter of degree? Reports such as this one raise questions about how we can measure concepts without a shared understanding of what those concepts mean. As the news report from Indonesia points out, even Indonesian education experts were surprised to see the country at the top of the list, especially when it has been ranked among the lowest performing countries in math and science on the 2013 OECD Pisa exam.

Deirdre Faughey

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Singapore emphasizes 21st Century Competencies

In the wake of our posts on some of the current issues in education in Finland, we asked Paul Chua, Senior Teaching Fellow at the National Institute of Education, to let us know about some of the current discussions in Singapore.

Although Singapore was one of the highest-performing countries on the PISA Computer-Based Problem Solving test, a test meant to, amongst other things, measure students’ ability to think flexibly and creativity, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) took the opportunity to reiterate the rationale and approaches launched initially in 2010 to cultivate students’ 21st Century Competencies (21CC) .

In reiterating their approach, the MOE  continues to emphasize some of the features of their framework for 21CC that are shared with other countries, including creative and critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and social and cultural skills (see for example Soland et al. 2013, and Voogt & Roblin 2012). However, the MOE has also highlighted a unique connection to the core values that the Singapore education system hopes to cultivate in all its students. Instead of learning the 21st century competencies in a vacuum, in Singapore, the competencies are supposed to be learned in the context of core values, like respect, resilience, responsibility, and harmony. From the Ministry’s perspective, such an approach should remind educators in the classroom of the role that values play in education and help them to enable students to become the self-directed learners, confident people, concerned citizens and active contributors that are the desired outcomes of the Singapore education system.

The MOE’s reiteration also includes an update of their approaches to the delivery of the 21CC.  Rather than creating a separate subject called “21CC,” the Singaporean approach calls for the integration of 21CC into both the academic and the non-academic curricula, such as Character and Citizenship Education and Co-Curricular Activities. In order to support that integration, the MOE hopes to help teachers develop the capacity to deliver a 21CC-embedded curriculum through pre-service and in-service learning courses, as well as on-going collaborative teacher learning through professional learning communities. Schools are also to collaborate with community partners to augment the learning and teaching experience with more imaginative and authentic learning environments and programmes. Finally, while cultivating a school culture that values and promotes the delivery of the 21st century competencies is not mentioned explicitly, that concern is reflected in the Singaporean school quality assurance framework.

In recent years, the MOE has also introduced a slew of initiatives to better assure the effective delivery and attainment of the 21st century competencies. These include modifications to the assessment practices in the primary schools; introduction of more varied secondary schools landscape; tweaking of the direct secondary school admission criteria at the interface between primary and secondary school education; and re-alignment of the school self-assessment and recognition framework. First, modifications to the primary schools assessment, including the development of holistic assessments, were recommended by the Primary Education Review and Implementation (PERI) Committee. These modifications were intended to better balance the acquisition of knowledge with the development of skills and values. In addition, a review of the reporting of the scores of the primary school leaving examination is currently underway “to support a more holistic education for students … on equipping students with values, attributes, knowledge and skills for work and life in the 21st century.” (Heng, 2014a). Secondly, to create a more varied and colourful (secondary) school landscape to realize the vision that “every school a good school,” and thereby alleviate the parental pressure of getting their children admitted to schools with the best academic reputations, all (secondary) schools are being supported by the Ministry to develop distinctive and rich learning programmes through the Applied Learning Programmes (ALP) and Learning for Life Programmes (LLP). Many of these Learning Programmes are themselves focused on the development of students’ 21st century competencies. Third, the Direct (Secondary) School Admission scheme is being tweaked so that a greater range of non-academic attributes such as resilience, character and leadership are recognized and hence encouraged, and yet implemented without adding to the burden of assessment. Finally, the Ministry has re-aligned its school self-assessment and recognition scheme to reflect its desire to nurture “every school a good school.” The re-alignments have been made for the intent of “broadening our definitions of excellence” (Heng, 2014b), as well as to give schools “more space to design student-centric programmes … and to create distinctive schools, good in your own ways” (Heng, 2014b).

The search for a more equitable education system in Chile

Recently, I spoke with Dr. Beatrice Avalos-Bevan, Associate Researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Education, at the University of Chile, in order to follow-up on an earlier post about the recent reforms in Chile. In that post, we noted that reports on educational reforms in Chile made it seem that the country might be putting an end to private education. Diane Ravitch also commented on these reports and followed up with Mario Waissbluth. As we explained in our earlier post, while the country is not ending private education, President Michelle Bachelet aims to eliminate parental payments or co-funding of subsidized private schools and increase funding for all schools by implementing new education and tax reforms that would help pay for a more equitable education system.

In conversation with Dr. Avalos-Bevan, we spoke about the issues of educational inequality that have captured the attention of teachers and students, leading to the large and sometimes violent protests over the past decade. Beginning in 2006, protests were organized by secondary students during the first term of President Michelle Bachelet’s administration – a movement that came to be known as the “Penguin Revolution” (after the white shirts and dark jackets of students’ school uniforms). The protests became more numerous and violent during the following Sebastián Piñera administration. When Bachelet returned for a second term as President in 2014, she was elected on an education reform platform that was embraced by students and teachers, and she even brought some of the former student leaders in to work in her administration.

As Mario Waissbluth explained in our last post, the “first wave of legislation” was sent to Congress in May; however, students continue to be dissatisfied because initial actions did not consider as yet changes in the administration and improvement of municipal or public schools, although these have been announced for the second semester of this year. This has caused students and teachers to reconvene their street protests as a way to put pressure on the administration and call attention to their ongoing concerns this past June. Those protests ended with the use of tear gas on thousands of university students

School Funding and Student Protests

As Dr. Avalos-Bevan explained, in the current system there are public or municipal schools, subsidized private schools, and elite private schools. The concern over inequality stems from the fact that the subsidized private schools are able to collect money from the government while also charging tuition. As a result, these schools receive a level of funding that the public or municipal schools cannot attain. Over time, the student population attending public schools has been shrinking, as more families strive to place their children in well-resourced subsidized schools.

The student protests have honed in on school funding because the students personally experience the increasingly segregated school system and the differences in the quality of education provided by the public or municipal schools versus the subsidized private schools. They also pay attention to the country’s poor performance on international assessments, such as Pisa and TIMSS, and attribute it to the flaws they see in the system.

Dr. Avalos-Bevan explained that in order to create a more equitable system, all schools need to receive a higher amount of government funding. For this reason, President Bachelet has suggested increasing taxes by 3% of gross domestic product, and increasing the corporate tax rate to 25% (up from 20%). President Bachelet will also stop funding of current private subsidized schools that operate on a for-profit basis, making all subsidized primary and secondary education free, creating more universities and increasing kindergarten funding and pre-K institutions.

Quality and Teacher Education

Colegio de Profesores, the largest teachers’ union in Chile, joined the student effort and held a strike last month to protest President Bachelet’s reform efforts, which they say don’t go far enough to address the fundamental issues of inequality that plague Chilean schools. Despite what some have seen as indicators of significant reform, others are concerned that the process has not encouraged “adequate public participation in the bill-writing process.”

In addition to refining school funding in Chilean schools, Dr. Avalos-Bevan says that there is a similar problem with private universities and the teacher preparation programs they have created. In the years between 2004-2010, private colleges have increased and are now being criticized for what many identify as an increase in profits without sufficient evidence of quality education. These institutions are known to admit students to their teacher education programs with very low qualifications, who graduate without adequate skills. According to Dr. Avalos-Bevan, the government has created a test (the Prueba Inicia, or Start Test) that aims to assess the students’ content knowledge as they leave university, but the test is currently administered on a voluntary basis. Therefore, many teachers graduate without taking this assessment. Of the few who take this test, many perform poorly.

Despite this issue of teacher education, Dr. Avalos-Bevan believes the main problem has to do with teachers’ working conditions. Salaries are low compared with those who enter professions that require the same level of education (4-5 years), and 75% of a teacher’s contract time has to be spent teaching in the classroom (27 hours per week, which is the highest of all OECD countries, according to the latest TALIS survey), leaving little time for planning, grading, and meeting with other teachers. Dr. Avalos-Bevan would like to see the establishment of a teaching career, with specifications as to how teachers may progress, what kinds of salaries they may achieve, and paths for them to move into other positions in the education system. Currently, there is a strong civil society movement pushing for changes in this direction that expects to propose a plan for the President to consider.

Deirdre Faughey

Educational change in Finland?

Now that I’m back after three weeks in Finland sponsored by the Fulbright Specialist Program, the Fulbright Center in Finland, and the University of Helsinki, a few other aspects of the Finnish educational system stand out.

Social connections, common experiences, and common resources may support coherence amongst “autonomous” individuals

On the whole, our visit highlighted some of the ways in which the strengths of the Finnish education system go far beyond a focus on “human capital” and include attention to “technical capital” and “social capital” as well. Thus, Finnish teachers benefit from what are generally considered to be strong textbooks, instructional materials and assessments that are linked to the national core-curriculum and from social connections that support sharing of information, coordination of activities, and the development of shared understanding across different parts of the education system.

While teachers have considerable autonomy at the classroom and school level, these social connections and several mechanisms that support the coordination of teachers’ activities with others may be particularly valuable. For example, as Helena Thuneberg and colleagues explain, special education is seen as a service for all students and as a collective responsibility of the school. As a consequence, classroom teachers often work with special education teachers in their own classrooms, and each classroom teacher periodically meets with a school welfare teams help to coordinate the work of special education throughout each school (Tim Walker, currently teaching in a Finnish school has described the sense of “shared responsibility” he experienced as part of these meetings). Working groups that are part of the curriculum renewal process also bring teachers together across regions and the country as a whole in a joint enterprise on a periodic basis. In addition, these kinds of working groups of teachers regularly include teacher educators, researchers, school leaders, policymakers, and, in some cases, text book publishers who join together in spirit of trust and collaboration. Notably, many of the members of these other groups have themselves spent time teaching (and, relatedly, going through and graduating from a teacher education program).   The result may be a system with more extensive informal social connections amongst well-prepared educators who share common experiences and rely on a small set of relatively good resources to reach common goals.

The Finnish system has changed (in some ways) over time

The “autonomy” of the current Finnish system only emerged after a highly centralized effort to create the 1-9th grade comprehensive school in the 1970’s. That effort included a required curriculum, massive re-training of teachers, inspection of schools to make sure the curriculum was being followed, and even inspection of textbooks to make sure they were aligned with the curriculum. Since that time, Finland has pursued a number of important reforms, including the development of the core curriculum, the abolition of inspections, and the development of a more inclusive approach to special education. At the same time, Finnish pedagogy is often described as fairly conservative and traditional, and there are concerns about recent declines on international (as well as on recent local and national) assessments. Sorting out which aspects of the system might have contributed to high international test scores and which might be contributing to a recent decline is no simple matter. For example, even the social connections and coherence of the system may reinforce the traditional pedagogy that could make it difficult to respond to changing populations, to take advantage of new technologies, or to support more active student engagement.

Even a system that “works” may need a new approach to change

One of my last meetings in Helsinki was with our hosts Leena Krokfors and Auli Toom and the members of the OmniSchool Project, a group that was asked by the Finnish Ministry of Education to help open schools up to more active learning opportunities for students inside the classroom, outside in the community, and online as well. In many ways, they are trying to reach the same goals that many educational reformers in the US are trying to reach, but the circumstances and conditions in Finland are different. With a relatively successful, coherent system, why should a well-regarded group of autonomous professionals change their pedagogy? Our discussions outlined three different approaches to change that highlight in some ways both the challenges and opportunities for making system-wide improvements in teaching and learning in Finland:

The “within-school” approach

This approach to change (familiar to many in the US and around the world), takes the school as the unit of change and often engages small groups of teachers in developing and piloting new practices. Ideally, those teachers will share what they are doing and learning with others (either informally or formally through “turnkey” professional development), and, eventually, when enough individuals get involved, a tipping point will be reached, and the new practices will spread throughout the school. In Finland, however, the autonomy of teachers (in their teaching and in their choices of professional development), the lack of any school-wide mechanism for collective professional development in many schools, and the lack of obvious rewards for changing instructional practice suggest this may be a difficult task. Furthermore, even if such an approach succeeds in a particular school, the whole process has to be repeated to try to spread the practices beyond the walls of individual schools to the system as a whole. (For a related analysis of the problems with such an approach in a US context, see Richard Elmore’s “Getting to scale with new educational practice.”)

The across schools approach

This approach strives to connect teachers across schools and to make the development of professional networks (as has been championed by Ann Lieberman and many others) a key lever for change. Such an approach may be particularly appealing in Finland, as it builds on a history of networks in which schools and municipalities have participated. Furthermore, this approach could build on the traditions, experiences and practices of the working groups that come together as part of the curriculum renewal process. Thus, rather than trying to create a new mechanism for change at the school-level, an across schools approach can take advantage of this existing mechanism for bringing usually autonomous teachers together in a spirit of national service and collective responsibility. Such working groups, however, still need to figure out how to develop “new” pedagogical practices within existing classroom and school structures and a “grammar of schooling” that, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban have argued, reinforces traditional instruction.

The “beyond-the-schools” approach

A third approach might try to find more advantageous conditions for developing new kinds of learning arrangements by going beyond schools to build on learning opportunities in afterschool programs, museums, online spaces and elsewhere. In most countries, such an approach is limited either because it is so difficult for practices developed outside of schools to penetrate the regular classroom (because of the “grammar of schooling” etc.) or because outside of school time has already been consumed by tutoring, cramming, homework, studying, and other school-directed activities. In Finland, where children spend much less time in school than they do in places like the US (particularly at the primary school level as our children found out), there may be substantial opportunities to engage students in new kinds of learning activities that do not have to conform to traditional instructional models. One could imagine this approach as including a couple of hours of traditional instruction in the morning and then time for a series of afterschool clubs, activities, hobbies, sports, and projects in the afternoon. Thus, classroom practice in school does not necessarily have to change, though it might eventually as students and then teachers and perhaps even teacher educators have more and more opportunities to experience alternate modes of learning. Furthermore, strengthening learning opportunities for all students outside of schools might also help to deal with the ways in which out-of-school experiences contribute to the inequities that the whole Finnish system seeks to address. Challenges to this approach include difficulties coordinating an enterprise that’s distributed across communities and online spaces and concerns about consuming and “curricularizing” students’ free time. In Finland in particular, the value placed on providing children with ample time for play and recreation and for encouraging even relatively young children to take responsibility for their own activities might pose a particular obstacle. As a consequence, the success of this approach may depend on developing learning opportunities that children themselves can organize and direct.

Thomas Hatch

 

Assessment in Finland: Steering, Seeing, and Selection

In Finland, the notable lack of tests for accountability purposes receives considerable attention. In fact, when we talk to teachers, administrators, and policymakers here, the question “how do you know how well things are going in your …. (classroom, school, municipality…)?” elicits quizzical stares. It’s a question that doesn’t make much sense when the initial assumption is that things are going well. However, our discussions here over the last three weeks have highlighted a few other interesting aspects of the uses of assessment here.

Assessment for steering not accounting

The word “accountability” has been traced back to ancient “account-giving” and record-keeping practices, tracking how funds have been spent and ensuring those funds have been spent as intended. Correspondingly, in places like the US, tests have been used to hold teachers, school leaders, and schools “accountable” for their actions and to see if they have done what they are supposed to do. But rather than using assessments to look back to see what was done, in many ways, educators and system leaders in Finland use assessment to look forward and to see if people, classes and schools are headed in the right direction. Such an approach doesn’t require data on every single aspect of student, teacher, or school performance, but it does require paying attention to ensure that no one gets too far off course. It means a focus on looking for outliers and listening for signs of trouble, not checking on each individual or making sure everything is done a certain way or in a certain timeline. But such an approach also requires mechanisms (like the curriculum renewal process as we will argue in a later post) to support shared understanding of the goals and expected outcomes of the whole system and a wide range of supports to make sure that everyone can get where they are going. Of course, it also helps if the whole system seems to be moving in the right direction already.

Assessment by walking around

Given the focus on this kind of “steering” approach, questions about the data used to make decisions from an American seem odd. While we have only spoken to a small group of teachers and school leaders here, invariably, those we’ve met have explained that learning whether a class or a school is on the right path can be accomplished by regularly “walking around” (while our Finnish colleagues did not refer to it directly, a similar concept—management by wandering around—has been part of the literature in business for some time). That means getting around the classroom and the school; talking to students, teachers, staff, and parents; listening to needs for support; and being alert to any signs of trouble. Concerns that arise about particular classes, schools, programs, or practices (especially when they come from more than one source) can then trigger “a talk” with those involved and some further investigation. (Even at the national level, a policymaker we talked to said that they don’t need a lot of data to tell them that many Finnish teachers are not using the assessment criteria that are in the core curriculum because regular meetings with teachers make that clear all the time…)

Despite the benefits, however, such a personal approach leaves unspecified the basis for many important decisions. In fact, when we asked teachers how school leaders know what they are doing or how well they are doing, many weren’t sure. Similarly, school leaders often couldn’t tell us how their supervisors (municipal administrators) could determine whether or not they were effective leaders. This lack of clarity may become more problematic as at least some municipalities in Finland have begun piloting some ways of using bonuses and salary increments to reward some teachers. While it is not widely discussed, those we talked to in at least two different groups of schools reported that their school leaders could decide to give them small bonuses if the leader felt that they did a particularly good job with their students or were particularly engaged in professional activities like research or professional development. While teachers could make their own case and often came to mutual agreements, leaders and municipal administrators, not teachers, have the last word.

Assessment for screening, sampling and selection

Even with a focus on assessment “by walking around,” however, educators in Finland do make use of a variety of tests and assessments. In contrast to Norway (where students do not get any written marks and there is comparatively limited testing until 8th grade), teachers in Finnish primary schools regularly use assessments of their own design as well as tests and quizzes from the textbooks; students get a report card at the end of the year; and in some cases, high scoring students may be singled out for recognition and rewards (something that the Norwegians would find shocking). Finnish teachers use an array of diagnostic and screening tests extensively in the early grades in Finland to make sure that no students are falling behind, particularly in reading. For example in one municipality, primary school special education teachers administer a screening test in reading comprehension to all students at the end of 2nd and 4th grade across all schools (and many administer it at the end of every year). That information, however, is not used at the school or municipal level to “check” on who is and isn’t performing well, rather, it’s used to identify those students who will need extra help moving forward.

As many have reported, the National Board of Education in Finland also regularly gives tests to samples of students and schools that are used to look at national and regional performance in key subjects like Finnish and mathematics. While the National Board does not use that information for ranking (and can’t because all students and schools are not assessed), they do share school level information with the schools that participate and municipal level data with the municipalities involved. In addition, the National Board makes these sample assessments widely available for free so that any teacher, school, or municipality that wants to administer these tests can do so. As a consequence, even without national testing, Finnish schools and municipalities have government-paid for tools that are linked directly to the core curriculum that they can use to benchmark their performance against regional and national samples.

Despite this diagnostic emphasis, tests and assessments in Finland do have important consequences, however, even if they are not used to hold teachers and schools accountable directly. In particular, despite the emphasis on equity, in some municipalities, students can express a preference to attend a particular school and a students’ final exams and final grades at the end of basic education (9th grade) can have an influence on whether or not they get into their top choice upper secondary school. Thus, in some of the largest municipalities in particular, students with the highest grade point averages are likely to get into their first choice schools, while students with lower grade point averages may have to opt for less selective schools.

Furthermore, at the end of upper secondary school, students have to pass matriculation exams in several subjects, and their scores on those exams (in combination with the Universities’ own entrance exams) determine whether students can go on to university and which institutions and programs they can get into. In fact, the results of the matriculation exams are made public; and newspapers report on the highest performing students and rank the schools according to their students’ average scores (see “Lukiovertailu – Etelä-Tapiolan lukio Espoosta kärjessä” roughly: “Comparison of High Schools – South Tapiola in Espoo at the forefront of high schools”). In addition, even more information on the performance of vocational schools is made publicly available—including the numbers of graduates and the average time to completion—and that information is used by the government in decisions about funding.

As a consequence of the school choice options available and the selection practices of students, Sonja Kosunen and colleagues have argued that there is a kind of implicit tracking within the Finnish system that may have an impact on the equitable distribution of learning opportunities. (Nonetheless, as Jennifer Von Reis Saari has pointed out, in contrast to most countries like the US and Sweden the Finnish system is highly “permeable,” so that even students who choose a vocational track in high school can still end up studying advanced subjects and can still gain entrance to University programs.)

In the end, what we’ve learned makes it clear that teachers, school leaders, and policymakers in Finland have access to a robust set of assessments that are supported by a long tradition of work on assessment at institutions like the Centre for Educational Assessment at the University of Helsinki, the Centre of Learning Research at the University of Turku, and the Niilo Mäki institute, associated with the University of Jyvaskyla. Furthermore, those assessments are used for a variety of purposes that can have important consequences for students and schools. But at the same time, many teachers, school leaders and policymakers start with the assumptions that things are going (at least relatively) well, that they will know if things start to go off course, and that, if necessary, everyone will work together to get things back on track.

Thomas Hatch

Professional Autonomy (and Interdependence?) Among Finnish Teachers

International observers often identify treating teachers as professionals as another hallmark of Finland’s education system. Indicative of that treatment, teachers in Finland have the autonomy and discretion to make a variety of decisions left to administrators in many other countries (such as those around meetings and professional development that we mentioned in our last post). Given the relative consistency of Finnish students’ performance on the PISA tests across groups and schools, the extent of this autonomy seems particularly surprising. Our school visits and conversations with colleagues here highlights both the variety of kinds of decisions that Finnish teachers can make as well as some interesting ways in which the need for teachers to coordinate work with others might constrain that autonomy.

Many outsiders focus particularly on the extent to which Finnish teachers make decisions about curriculum—what and how to teach—in their own classrooms, but as parents with children in a Finnish school for two weeks, we found the teachers’ control over their schedules even more surprising. While something undoubtedly gets lost in translation, we have found it almost impossible to figure out when the school day begins and ends for our 9 and 13 year-old daughters at the 1st – 9th grade comprehensive school they are attending. In part, that confusion reflects the facts that students may start or end the day at different times on different days of the week; that some students in one class may start or end the day at different times (depending on whether or not they attend language classes or religion classes, or the teacher has decided to divide the class into smaller groups); and that teachers can decide to end a little early or adjust the schedule for a field trip or other event. Furthermore, our children’s homeroom teachers may begin or end the day a period or two before or after their students who may start the day with another teacher in a language class or gym.

Until we had the chance to talk with teachers here in Finland, we really had not fully understood that they have the primary responsibility for deciding when they will teach which subject. They may begin with a largely blank schedule that has a few givens plugged in (like when their students will eat lunch and go to the gym) and then they do much of the rest. Teachers can even decide to share responsibilities for students or “swap” classes for different subjects. For example, some teachers at a grade level may choose to combine their classes (as happens at the Koulumestari School we visited), while others choose to work independently; some may decide they will “loop” with their students—our 9 year-old’s teacher for example has been with her current class since her third graders entered in first grade and our older daughter’s teachers started with a class of sixth graders last year when they were in 5th grade—but others may choose not to. These teachers, both with Masters in music education and both pursuing their PhD’s, also teach music classes for their own students as well as those of several of their grade level colleagues. In return, their grade level colleagues teach their students in subjects like art, science or religion. Teachers in the later grades may find fewer open slots in their schedule as more specific subjects like biology and physics have to be slotted in and, ultimately, school leaders have to review the schedules and ensure that the entire organization ‘works,’ but the teachers develop the plan and drive the discussion. And, as teachers and school leaders frequently tell us, whatever the decision, there always seems to be “flexibility.”

Viewing this decision-making power simply as “autonomy”, however, may fail to capture the extent to which this flexibility rests on the ability to negotiate and coordinate with others. Despite the impressions, Finnish teachers cannot do whatever they want. They need to be able to coordinate their schedules to some extent with other teachers at their grade level and to negotiate if other teachers want to do something else (interestingly, several of the school leaders we talked to suggested that their key responsibilities include facilitating interactions amongst teachers, and, if necessary, helping to resolve disputes among them). Thus, the flexibility in the system and teachers’ “autonomy” depends on the ability to take into account the interests of others and on the commitment of all in the system to common goals reflected in the core curriculum. Furthermore, the need for teachers to coordinate their own work, classes and schedules with others, as well as key activities like meetings at the school, municipal and national level to discuss and “renew” the curriculum currently underway (more on this in a later post as well) may help to foster the relationships and common understandings that can help to bring coherence to the system.

Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness

Individual and Collective Professional Development in Finland

We had a fascinating visit recently to the Koulumestari School in Espoo (a small city just outside of Helsinki), a school of almost 350 students from first through 6th grade (ages 5-12). The school is designed specifically to support students with special needs (20% of the students have that designation) and also focuses on the integration of new technology into learning. The visit gave us a better understanding of several aspects of the Finnish education system, particularly around professional development and the sharing of knowledge among teachers.

While there is considerable emphasis on teacher education in many of the reports on the Finnish education system, professional development for teachers often gets less attention. In part, that lack of attention may stem from the fact that, reflecting the autonomy that Finnish teachers have, decisions about what kind of professional development to pursue are generally left up to teachers to decide. Many choose to participate in courses or workshops offered by Universities, the National Board of Education, or perhaps their municipality.   Furthermore, for the most part teachers in Finland develop their own class and work schedules, and when they finish teaching their classes they can go home for the day (more on teacher autonomy and scheduling in a later post). While there may be a mandatory meeting of a whole-school faculty once a month, in many schools, teachers can also decide when and to what extent to meet with their colleagues in grade level teams or for other purposes. In other words, from a US point of view (and the perspective of many other countries), collective and collaborative professional development seems to be relatively limited.

The Koulumestari School, however, offers an example of the effort that some in Finland are pursuing to develop more collective professional development. In another indicator of the respect for the autonomy of teachers and schools, these efforts often focus on a networking strategy: creating opportunities for teachers and schools to come together to share information, resources and expertise. For example, the staff of the school has decided to have what they call a “pedagogical café” four times a year, during their regular monthly staff meetings. At these times, the teachers share with one another what they are doing with their students, particularly pilot experiments using different technologies. Participation in a variety of other meetings, including meetings among grade-level teams as well as theme-based teams (such as one focused on assessment and evaluation) also facilitate networking and collaboration. “Benchmark” days—in which the teachers can choose to visit the classroom of another teacher or grade level—and “headmaster’s hours”—in which school administrators and teaching assistants take over the regular classes of a group of teachers so they can meet together—create more time for common work. One outcome of these opportunities has been the development of “combined classes” in several grades in which two teachers with classes of about 20 students and one teacher with a class of about 10 special education students all work together to share the teaching for all of the roughly 45-50 students. These combined classes grew out of an initial experiment when several teachers at one grade level decided to try combining their classes; as other teachers learned how it was working, it spread to other levels and groups of teachers. (Interestingly, for the purposes of coordination, the school leader needs to know when teachers are planning to be out of the classroom for professional development, but the teachers themselves are responsible for getting substitutes.)

Illustrating a network approach at a municipal level, Koulumestari opened in 2007 after the City of Espoo put out a call for applications for new schools that could serve as “learning centers” with particular themes (something akin to “demonstration” schools). These learning centers were designed to focus on issues like special education and the integration of technology (in the case of Koulumestari) and to share what they were doing and learning with other schools in the area. As is often the case for new US schools in places like New York City, the application process included a formal proposal with a design for their school that was submitted by the current leaders and selected from a number of applicants. In addition to participating in meetings and visits with members of other schools in the network, teachers at Koulumestari have now started to offer professional development classes for other teachers in the municipality as part of the regular roster of professional development courses that Espoo offers every year. The school is also pursuing the same networking approach at the national level, as the school applied for and was awarded funding to serve as national learning center for technology and innovation. Through that network, the Koulumestari school is working with 65 partner schools throughout Finland, sharing practices, participating in joint professional development, and working together to develop a model for innovative schools. They also started piloting a global innovation network this past spring

While these networking efforts illustrate one approach to professional development in Finland, it is also important to point out that these efforts share many features with networking initiatives in other countries but they run against the grain in some ways of the same professional autonomy that is often cited as a key strength of the Finnish system. While teachers can choose to work together and share ideas, they also can choose to work on their own. There is a fundamental tension between autonomy and the kind of interdependence and collaboration that many would argue is needed to enable workers and organizations of any kind, including teachers and schools, to be more effective.

Tom Hatch and Karen Hammerness

 

Teacher selection, turnover, and curriculum reform in Finland

This week in Helsinki we met with Auli Toom and Kirsi Pyhältö (members of the Faculty of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Helsinki), and several PhD students from their research group including Lauri Heikonen, Henrika Häikiö, Ulla Karvonen, Emmi Saariaho, and Sanna-Mari Salonen. They shared some of their research and perspectives on the education system here, and our discussions highlighted several things:

School of Education, University of Helsinki

School of Education, University of Helsinki

First, while we know that teacher candidates in Finland come from the top quartile of students, those who go to University to study to become teachers are also often somewhat older than other University students. In fact, some of the teacher education applicants are just completing their secondary education, but some applicants have already graduated and have taken jobs as substitute teachers or are working in other fields and are career-changers from other professions. Furthermore, the annual selection process to become a primary teacher is so challenging, applicants often fail on their first try, and some have to apply several times. The process includes an interview as well as an entry exam called the VAKAVA. The VAKAVA is offered once a year in the spring and requires applicants to read a set of research articles and then respond to a series of related multiple choice questions.

Second, although teaching is a highly-regarded profession, there is teacher turnover in Finland. Precise figures are hard to come by, but turnover rates for teachers within their first five years could be as high as 20% across the country, and even higher in the area around Helsinki. Those we talked to suggested that reasons for leaving teaching are similar to those in the United States including seeking a higher salary; opting for a career with more possibilities for advancement (the primary advancement opportunity for teachers in Finland is to become a school leader); as well as stress and burnout.

Third, Finland is engaged in a major core curriculum reform, but that effort is perhaps more accurately characterized as “curriculum renewal” as it is part of a regular cycle of revision that takes place every ten years. Furthermore, the reform of the core curriculum represents a collaborative project that engages numerous people and organizations from all parts of the education system including teachers, school leaders, policymakers, educational publishers, parents, students and others. (As we mentioned in our last post, our 9 year-old’s teacher in the practice school is a member of one of the curriculum reform committees and we hope to talk to her next week about her role in the process). Furthermore, the core curriculum provides guidelines and principles that serve as the basis for curricula created at the municipal level by teachers, school leaders, and administrators working together. Schools and teachers then have the autonomy to adapt the curriculum in their classrooms. In other words, whether PISA scores go up or down (or stay the same), everyone knows that the core curriculum will change over time and educators are expected to revise and adapt their curricula to keep them current and forward-looking.

Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness

Lockout and reform: A turbulent year for schools in Denmark

Jakob Wandall

Jakob Wandall

As the school year begins again in Denmark, we asked education researcher and consultant Jakob Wandall to take a look back at the lockout that closed the schools last March, review the key disagreements that led to the standoff, and consider the implications for the upcoming school year and beyond.

In Denmark, the month of March is usually the most intense period of time in the school year as teachers and students prepare for final examinations; however, this past year was an exception as schools were closed. The Municipalities Association (KL), backed by the center-left government, closed the schools in an effort to dismantle long-standing teacher privileges that the teachers’ union refused to concede in negotiations. The 99 municipalities in Denmark are responsible for running the public schools.

In the first days of April, the four-week “lockout” of teachers came to an end, but as a result, schools are now valued even more highly by the more than 600,000 pupils and about 60,000 teachers who were affected.

The standoff between the Municipalities Association (KL) and the Danish Teachers’ Union (DLF) raised questions about the viability of the so-called “Danish model” on the public sector labor market, which is largely governed by collective agreements between employers and trade unions, relative equals in negotiations. These two parties are accustomed to reaching agreements without the need for the national government to step in through legislation.

Danish teachers protest during teacher lockout.

Danish teachers protest during teacher lockout.

This dispute arose because the main teachers’ union did not want to give up the principles upon which working hours were regulated. A full-time teacher taught approximately 25 class periods per week (45 minutes per lesson), unless it was decided that the teacher should perform other tasks (e.g. administrative work, guidance of pupils, further education). This equals approximately 19 teaching hours, and a total of 41 working hours per workweek. This pre-lockout arrangement resulted in schedules that consisted of less than 40% of working hours spent teaching, and no obligation for teachers to be present at school during the remaining working hours. Historically, this schedule represented the belief that teachers had a right to work independently on planning and organization.

According to the Danish model if the parties cannot come to an agreement and further negotiations seems useless, there are four possibilities: the prior agreement could be prolonged, the union could strike, the employers could institute a lockout, or the government/parliament could intervene through legislation as a last resort. The idea behind the strike/lockout is that this should hurt both sides: employers lose production and the workers lose wages. In the public sector, where there is loss of production, there is a greater risk for local politicians as the population could turn against them. In this case, there were several unsuccessful attempts by KL to dismantle the existing working time agreement with the teachers prior to the ultimate lockout of March of 2013.

While Danish students usually go to school from about 8 AM to 1 PM and often attend a publicly financed after-school club, the government and a large part of the opposition to the existing agreement wanted to extend the school day.  The additional time would be devoted to academic work and give less time for “free” play, which is something the Danes have always prioritized. Generally, the teachers were against this approach as well as the proposed changes to their workweek, which was viewed as a preliminary step to making the school day longer in the future. They wanted to solidify their right to a specific length of preparation time in a national agreement rather than leave it to local heads of school who may be pressured by budget considerations.

In the media, the government’s reform was presented as very popular; the general school debate over the last decade has been strongly influenced by mediocre PISA results. KL pointed to teachers’ working hours as the main cause of the PISA scores.

The teachers' union DLF, led by Anders Bondo Christensen (left), in grueling negotiations with Michael Ziegler (right) and KL (Photo: Scanpix)

The teachers’ union DLF, led by Anders Bondo Christensen (left), negotiated with Michael Ziegler (right) and KL (Photo: Scanpix)

At the start of the lockout, parents were faced with the prospect of no school and not knowing when it would start again. It was particularly awkward and difficult for the children. But the parents recruited grandparents, took vacation early or brought the kids along to their workplace as many companies established educational facilities or made space available for the kids. The vast majority in the population felt that this was a legitimate fight between municipalities and the teachers union, and that it should be fought without intervention.

On April 2nd, The Danish parliament passed a law that decided the terms and conditions of Danish teachers without consulting them. The DFL argued that the lockout was premature, heavy-handed, and unfairly one-sided in favor of the local authorities. The teachers union had lost the battle.

But what about the teachers? Many of them spent a month trying to mobilize support led by their trade union and used Facebook and email to show the Danes that they were against the action taken by KL. Most appeared to be delighted to get back to work, despite the general opposition to the agreement forced through by the government. After the conflict everyone worked together and the majority felt that there were no negative effects on cooperation inside the school. Many local governments and school leaders silently disapproved of the lockout. Despite the loss of one month, the mandatory tests and examinations were carried out according to plan. Whether the students have learned less will probably never be explored.

On June 8th 2013, the government and a majority of the opposition in the parliament agreed upon the details for a new plan for school reform. Beginning in August of 2014, the students in Denmark will be spending more time in school. At the same time the applications to teacher training colleges in Denmark has dropped dramatically and 1 out of 2 teachers in Denmark is considering leaving the profession.

The debate over whether this additional teaching time will lead to a better school and more proficient students is ongoing. Meanwhile, at this year’s annual Soroe Meeting (a traditional meeting that brings together those most familiar with pressing educational concerns, including members of parliament, educational journalists, civil servants, researchers, and others) invitees met to discuss leadership and preparation for change. This annual meeting has a strong impact on Danish educational policy, which makes this year’s theme (“Klar til fremtidens skole,” meaning  “Ready for the School of the Future”) of great interest to those concerned about what will happen with Denmark’s schools in the near future. While reporters in attendance do not write about what is discussed at this informal meeting, many attendees shared their experiences on Twitter.

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