14 responses

  1. Emily
    November 12, 2012

    Hi Matt,

    I enjoy your blog and found this post in particular really interesting.

    Regarding what you said here: “… we continue to act like the job of all teachers is to get everyone Proficient and into college. THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN—IT ISN’T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN.”

    This resonated with me because I hope to be a high school teacher one day (I’m still in college) and always thought that my goal as a teacher would be to try and encourage ALL of my students to go to college — if only for the practical reason that college graduates make more and have more opportunities than those without a degree.

    However, your arguments about how the system is set up (and especially what you said about your senior with a 4.2) make sense to me … I see why “college for all” is impractical in some cases.

    So I guess my question is — what do you think the “goal” of high school teachers should be, anyway? Since a lot of the subjects will never lead directly to a vocation, I’m at a loss for what good I’ll be doing teaching Shakespeare to someone who really wants to, and probably SHOULD (considering the thousands of more interested and talented Shakespearean students out there) end up as a car mechanic.

    P.S. One last question if you don’t mind — do you have any thoughts as to why Finland lets its kids start vocational training early, and why the US is/has been resistant?

    • Matt Amaral
      November 12, 2012

      Emily, good thoughts. I guess one answer that keeps me going is that even though most of them won’t go to college, in an urban school you can be the difference for those that do. In the end your percentages will always be low, but the kids you do get into college will be many, and you can truly be the defining teacher in their education. Sending one kid to college means sending their family and future family to college, because as those of us know who have gone, it changes your entire outlook on the world. This is also why the vocational route would be better for teachers as well. We get frustrated because such a high percentage of our classes don’t care about things like Shakespeare and never will. If you put those kids on their own path, that would leave the kids that are interested in Romeo and Juliet.

      As far as why we are hesitant to embrace vocational ed, I have no idea. Although it isn’t like we don’t have those programs out there, there are plenty of them. At our school it is called ROP. I’m sure there are many, many programs out there, but they are not an all encompassing part of our public schools like they should be. They should be at entirely different sites if you ask me. If you watch the film, the reason Finland has embraced it is because they lack natural resources and recognize PEOPLE are their greatest resource. They learned therefore they need to educate them, and what that means is educating the masses in labor oriented jobs, because in the history of human society that is what most people do. I’m not sure why we don’t embrace it. I think our leaders don’t see poor people as our greatest resource, for them it is oil, gas, and Wall Street.

  2. Alexandra
    November 12, 2012

    Word. The latest NCTM had an article on Singapore math scores, and they are virtually like Beverly Hills…except all the lower class workers go home on a boat to another country where their kids are tested. So really, Singapore has a homogeneous culture where kids don’t get jobs or play sports after school. Instead, they go to cram schools to get ready for high-stakes testing in 6th grade — which essentially determines their vocational path. Seems these “high performing” countries have quite a bit in common!

  3. Pete Hokom
    November 12, 2012

    Matt, I wish that all adults in the country would read this article. I know that is not to be, but, it would be good even if many politicians and caring parents would read the article I agree with everything you said, and with 53 years of teaching experience in high school and college, I have a basis for my opinion. This experience included a year in a highly selective Gymnasium in Germany as will as an inner city school in Cleveland Ohio, and, of course at your present school. Thanks for writing the article.

  4. Emily
    November 13, 2012

    Can’t figure out how to reply directly to your comment Matt — but thanks for your thoughts. I wish we had more discussions like this in college … the education system would be way less messed up if we did ..

  5. Peter
    November 18, 2012

    Poverty comes crimes. In “egalitarian” Finland, you can trust your 8 year old kid walk alone safely after school to attend sport activities. Imagine that. No soccer moms or dads juggling with their busy work schedule taking turns chauffeuring their kids to the soccer field.

    I totally agree with you. You can’t just cherry pick education from Finland and say it’s better than U.S. simply because they know better. Education is just a small part of two disparate bigger systems at play. To have an education component like Finland, you have to address other issues like income gap, crimes, public transportation, immigration, healthcare, and so forth. If you must compare education, then you should ask why universities in Finland aren’t standing out like their primary and secondary schools? Why U.S. universities are so great? Hint: immigration.

    Having lived in Finland for many years before returning to the U.S, I can ascertain that teachers in Finland are indeed very well respected. It’s a prestigious occupation despite the average pay. As to every Finn speaking English, maybe the Swedish-Finns but not all Finns. Both my nephew and niece-in-law who aren’t Swedish-Finns don’t speak English much at all. Perhaps they weren’t selected for the interview for that reason. (No, I’m not joking. Finns are very sensitive about their perceived image abroad. They’re honest people but just…patriotic.)

  6. Ellie Herman
    December 4, 2012

    I just want to say I stumbled on this site for the first time and want to yell a hearty virtual “Hell, yeah!” to everything I’ve read here, including this piece, which is the first common sense I’ve heard on the subject. It’s beyond me why this is not obvious to Diane Ravitch and all the others who are currently holding up Finland as a model for all of us.

    I’m a fifth-year teacher at a charter high school in South Los Angeles and I just have to tell you how deeply I appreciated everything you’ve written in this blog, which resonated with me completely. Your honesty and common sense about so many issues are just incredibly refreshing and make me feel like I might possibly not be insane to think that we should not necessarily be teaching every single second of a block schedule day because relationships matter and community matters, or that English teachers actually work harder (and I am an arts teacher, so I’m relatively impartial here) or that this job as currently structured is not sustainable. Thank you for keeping it real! Okay, got to go teach…

  7. Joanna
    April 2, 2013

    I stumbled on this article, and as a finnish High school teacher I’d like to comment & explain our system.

    First of alla, in elementary school teachers are there. You don’t leave the students alone for an hour before high school. You can’t. And the classes are not actually that small. During the first school years it’s usually around 20 kids. In the 8th grade it can be up to 30 students. In high school we teach both really small groups of 10 and big groups of 40-50.

    We have a growin number of immigrants and unlike in US, they are entitled to learn their native language too. We’ve had the Swedish speaking minority for ages, but there are Swedish speaking schools (and even universities, because officially Finland is bilingual). Just like the Same people in the north (Lapland) can study in their own language until the end of high school. In some schools the number of immigrants is over 50-60%. But in here, the immigrants are first taught in theis own small groups and as they learn the language they are integrated in normal classes, gym, music etc first and history, geography etc later.

    In Finland every teacher has a Master’s. It’s required. From 7th grade onwards, it’s only subject teachers. Our University system is different. We have to apply and only academics matter. We have to have basically good grades from A-levels at the end of high school and pass a separate entrance exam. We apply for a major from the start. So in here the English teacher has studied English as a major from the start. The number of minors is not limited, since the univerisites are free. Future teacher take pedagogical studies for a year, all the rest of the studies are the same courses that the future scientists etc are taking. We know our topic. And we have to apply separately for the pedagogical studies and pass the aptitude test too.

    As a consequence we have great autonomy in teaching. We have the common curriculum, of course, but it’s pretty broad. We can choose what to emphasize, make our own material, exams etc. We can decide freely how to teach, what methods to use etc. There’s basically no control, no standardized tests (except those at the end of high school, the European system, equivalent of the English A-levels). Especially subject teachers tend to make their own exams etc. In some subjects (e.g. in foreign languages, music) subject teachers are used in bigger schools from the 3rd grade onwards.

    The basic philosophy is to make the students work and think. We give them problems to solve, both in the classroom and at home. Yes, we do have homework. All the way through the system, every week in every subject. And we do have exams, but not standardized etc and not so much.

    In most European countries high school is not obligatory. Most countries in Europe have the same dual system as we do. But in a quite a few countries kids have to take either vocational school or academic high school.

    In Finland we have dual system also at the university level. In here, the nurses go to applied university, not university (in Finnish, we don’t even call those universities!). The guys have to go to the army around the age of 19 (usually after high school/vocational school), and since especially our universities are competitive, we usually start higher education at the age of 20-22. So most have work experience and are living on their own when starting higher education. Plus we get the student money etc, so higher education is available for everyone.

    Furthermore, we have no dead-ends despite the dual systems. One can apply to university after vocational school, but it’s a lot harder than after academic high school. We even have tracts in the vocational schools where one take enough courses in the academic one to take the A-levels and get the certificate for that. Alike, after apllied university one can apply straight to a Master’s program, but usually some mediate studies are required before one can start the master’s level studies.

    In here, school starts at the age of 7, not 5. Optional preschool starts at the age of 6.

    And to Peter: Finns are actually good in languages. But we are a bit shy and reluctant to speak if we don’t trust ourselves to speak them well. And I mean well. There’s a saying that a Finn is a good/fluent to keep silent in five languages. We have to take Swedish at school, and then another foreign language. Most take English and for most, it’s the first foreign language. Auite a few take at least a bit of German, French, Spanish…These days there are even elementary schools teaching chinese! The Swedish speaking minority is more outgoing than the rest of us in general, that might be the reason.

    • Matt Amaral
      April 4, 2013

      Thats for the explanation. I like the Fin system, I think you guys do a great job. I especially love the autonomy teachers have and the required Master’s. I really like that you encourage your immigrant populations to maintain and study their primary language. What a great idea.

  8. Rainier Sielaff
    June 9, 2013

    Hi, Matt, LOVE your blog posts!!!

    I wonder what would happen if your school and other low-income schools had to share resources with schools from Beverly Hills or Aspen, CO; if such wealthy parents couldn’t just donate to their own kids’ school, but had to donate to a big pot that was distributed equally throughout the country or state, and private schools and home-schooling were illegal? It’s my understanding that Finland has such measures.

  9. Lexingtom
    June 14, 2013

    What jumped out at me when I saw the film is that I didn’t see teachers there do anything really different than I see teachers at my school doing. But when we have teacher trainings, 90% of the time is spent in what we aren’t doing.

  10. John Godfrey
    May 7, 2014

    Hello Matt,
    I am late to the party in this conversation, but I was Googling Tony Wagner and his film on Finland, which I had seen, when I found your blog. As a Canadian who travels a lot to the US, the most important difference I took away from your piece is not between the schools but between the countries. If inequality is as deeply entrenched in the US as Paul Krugman says it is, you can’t expect the school system to solve the problem.

    • Matt Amaral
      June 6, 2014

      Yes, that is exactly my point. Thanks John. Yes, Krugman is the man. If you go back to the beginning of the recession and read his suggestions as to how we should get out of it, decrease unemployment, etc, you see that he is right about just about everything. He said what would happen if we follow a path of austerity, and look what happened.

  11. Carlos
    October 29, 2014

    I agree with the reviewer. There is no phenomenon, it’s not Finnish and there’s no novelty in whatever Toni Wagner alludes to as being the “phenomenon”. What is shown in the film is basically the Scandinavian model of education. I studied in the Risingskole in Odense, isle of Fynn, Denmark in the mid ’70’s and my experience is basically the same thing as presented in the documentary. The only difference is that in my day the teachers were not called by their first name and the technology used in the ’70’s was not that used today, but beside that the rest is exactly what I went through in those days. Now Toni Wagner only presents his ignorance of the education systems of Western Europe. The education systems of Norway and Sweden don’t differ appreciably from what is presented in the documentary. If you look and all the so called “indexes” for the Scandinavian countries, one can notice that they do not differ appreciably. The educational systems of Switzerland (remember Jean Piaget) and Holland cannot be ignored. I was on a scientific collaboration in Geneva Switzerland in the mid ’80’s and speaking to a school student there I noticed they had a strong educational system. One of the peculiarities was that school students had perfect command of the Pascal programming language which was developed by a Swiss, Nilaus Emil Wirth. students at the Earth Sciences Division of the University of Geneva were already using HP programmable calculators for their introductory Gelology courses, something rarely seen even today in many other universities in the world.
    The “indexes” for these countries mentioned don’t vary appreciably from what can be found for Finland. Toni Wagner did not even bother to take a look at different Western European educational systems or their development and make a comparative analysis. In reality, his documentary shows no analysis at all. Finland is not the only developed country in Western Europe. A mistake he makes is comparing a state like Minnesota, i. e., an administrative division of a country, with a country, which makes no sense, because it is not absolutely independent to implement its own regulations and does not have its own independent objectives, no matter how federalist USA may be, because their are always budgets and policies to follow that are imposed from the central government. And the HDR indexes won’t match because economically a state of the union does not function economically as an independent country like Finland. His documentary doesn’t analyze such differences. And in agreement with the reviewer Minnesota’s population is much more heterogeneous than Finland’s is as the recent turn events with the shooting incident of a member of the Afro-American community by the police revealed. The homogeneity and reduced problems with immigration, specially illegal immigration, is a factor Toni Wagner does not consider.
    As for the innovation part, he presents Nokia as the apex of innovation and success in one of the “informational interludes”. This an example of shouting “Victory!” too soon. Ever since Apple introduced the I-Phone, Nokia started lagging behind in the market. To make matters worse it made drastic cuts in the R&D division accompanied by massive layoffs and reduced its output to provide systems for the Windows Phone versions. And what’s happened? It’s shares plummeted as well as its gains. The company was going broke and ended it bought by Microsoft which already made an announcement that it will gradually phase out the Nokia brand for the Microsoft Lumia brand. One thing you can’t do in the High-Tech sector is kill R&D, because that’s putting a noose around the neck. That’s a no-no. One thing Toni Wagner ignores about innovation is that one does not need the Finnish model whatever that might be or mean or his so boasted about “survival skills” that a public educational system must “imprint” in an individual. As long as people have brains and are given the right conditions to learn (ask themselves questions and try to find answers), investigate, research, develop you don’t need the crap Toni Wagner babbles about. If those conditions don’t exist or are terminated then you have problems with human development which have social, economic, political consequences. One example was when the “Catholic Kings” (king and queen) expelled the Arabs and Jews from Spain. That killed Spain’s future development. Once they bled their new conquests out of their gold and riches, Spain became one of the poorest nations in Europe. Their restrictive policies towards these conquered territories also led to the arrested development of the future nations that formed. One can also look at what happened to the Renaissance and the development of Italy after the Catholic Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the stake and then made Galileo Galilei publicly retract himself from favoring the Copernican solar system model. The Ancient Greeks did not have what one could call an egalitarian society but the number of geniuses Ancient Greece bore is astonishing as well as their contributions to knowledge and development considering the time period. And looking at a more recent time frame the universities of USA are still the best in the world and USA is still at the forefront of many research and development fields today. Also take a look at the Nobel prize winners in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. They’re mostly Americans, Germans, Japanese, British or French, not Finnish. There is no Finnish phenomenon at all.

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