Friday, September 02, 2016

Why Finland is rejecting U.S. school reforms

Finland, a world education leader, is fleeing Common Core and other American ideas. We should pay attention

HELSINKI — Hundreds of thousands of children, including my own 8-year-old, returned to primary school this month in Finland. They also returned to a new national curriculum framework in a country that has achieved global acclaim for its highly efficient education system and its history of world-topping test scores.

Finland’s teachers, schools and teacher training universities are the envy of educators all over. To me, an outsider living here for six months “embedded” in one of those universities, it becomes increasingly clear that the main reason for the success of Finland’s schools is not because they are ethnically Finnish, but because they are correctly organized and supported by society.

But all is not well in Education Utopia.

Social and economic pressures are increasing sharply. Inequity is growing among schools. Severe budget cuts are hitting vocational and higher education. High-performing students often don’t feel challenged, and Finnish children face problems common to many the world over — bullying, big drop-offs in math and reading skills, digital overload, and feeling bored or disengaged from school. The performance of Finland’s 15-year-olds in international tests has fallen in recent years.

The United States for more than a decade has responded to its own education challenges with a bizarre, bipartisan and ineffectual mix of mass standardized testing, de-professionalization of teachers, dismal quality “cybercharter schools,” the elimination of arts and recess for children, and the botched, now politically toxic Common Core attempt at national curriculum guidelines.

Finland is taking largely the opposite approach. It is doubling down on many of the things that made its schools great in the first place.

Consider it Finland’s anti-Common Core. To some self-styled education reformers, many of the ideas in the new curriculum are blasphemy and irrelevant to non-Finnish children, especially those from poor backgrounds. To many of the globe's teachers and childhood development experts, however, they will represent evidence-based education for all children, and a beacon of hope in an education world increasingly dominated by forced standardization, political interference and childhood stress, shaming and punishment based on bad or irrelevant data.

Finland’s brand new National Core Curriculum emphasizes a child’s individuality and says “children have the right to learn by playing and experience joy related to learning.” It says they should be encouraged to express their opinions, trust themselves, be open to new solutions, learn to handle unclear and conflicting information, consider things from different viewpoints, seek new information and review the way they think. Teachers are directed to give students daily feedback and measure them against their starting points, not other students. In grades one through seven, schools now have the option of dropping numerical grades in favor of verbal assessments. (Failing students will still receive a “fail” grade, and can be held back as a last resort.)

The new guidelines strengthen traditional roles of play and physical activity. Preschool and kindergarten students will continue to learn through songs, games, conversation and playful discovery, not military-style drilling and stress at ages 4, 5 or 6 as is increasingly the case in American schools. A number of studies have supported the advantages of play-based early education for children, including those from low-income backgrounds. Formal academic training in Finland will continue to start at age 7, when many children are best ready for it. That corresponds with research indicating that any advantage gained by earlier instruction, when children are not developmentally ready, washes out a few years later.

Finland is also continuing other policies that work: Primary school teachers will still have to earn master's degrees and undergo at least two years of in-classroom training by master teacher-trainers before being allowed to lead classes of their own. Grades one through nine will offer instruction not only in math, science and history, but also in two or three languages, physical education, music, visual arts, crafts and religion or ethics. And home economics, a rare subject in American schools, will be taught in grades seven, eight and nine.

Finland’s reforms were based on research and evidence and developed by educators, with lots of input from parents and children. Its latest education vision could hardly be less like the one that ill-informed politicians are imposing on public schools in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In the U.S., this has exacerbated widespread system failure and confusion.

In a famous episode of Seinfeld, the long-failing George Costanza character achieved spectacular success by doing the total opposite of everything he had done before. Perhaps American public schools should consider following his example.


A Gem in Chicago

We have gotten so used to seeing college presidents and other academic “leaders” caving in to so many outrageous demands from little gangs of bullying students that it is a long overdue surprise to see a sign that at least one major university has shown some backbone.

Dr. Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, has spoken out in the plainest language against the stifling of opinions that differ from political correctness, on campuses across the country.

“Free speech is at risk at the very institution where it should be assured: the university,” Dr. Zimmer said.

“Invited speakers are disinvited because a segment of a university community deems them offensive, while other orators are shouted down for similar reasons,” he said. Demands have been made that assigned readings in some courses be eliminated because they “might make some students uncomfortable.”

Worst of all, such demands “have been supported by university administrators,” Dr. Zimmer pointed out.

By contrast with many other colleges and universities where speech codes restrict what students can and cannot say, freshmen students entering the University of Chicago have been informed by a letter from the Dean of Students that “freedom of expression” is one of that institution’s “defining characteristics.”

The Dean of Students spelled it out: “Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.”

That such things need to be said is a painful commentary on the academic world in general. It is doubtful if any such declaration or policy could be made at any of the Ivy League universities, which are bastions of political correctness.

At Harvard, not only have invited speakers been shouted down and sometimes assaulted, even a Harvard professor’s classroom was invaded by disruptive students who didn’t like what he was teaching. Such things have also happened at Berkeley and other elite institutions across the country, as well as at less renowned institutions.

The uniqueness of the University of Chicago is not something new. Back in the 1960s, as campus riots spread across the country, and academic administrators caved in to even the most outrageous demands, dozens of disruptive students were simply expelled from the University of Chicago and dozens more were put on probation. As Professor George J. Stigler, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, said, “our faculty united behind the expulsion of a large number of young barbarians.”

But such faculty support required a sense of mission, beyond a quiet life on campus in which to pursue one’s own career. Even as grade inflation soared, and failing grades virtually disappeared in some colleges and universities across the country, that was not true among professors of economics who had been trained at the University of Chicago.

A survey in the economics department at Cornell University, during a year in the 1960s when I taught there, showed that the only students who received a failing grade in any economics course that year were students who took courses taught by professors who were trained at the University of Chicago.

In later years, when I gave failing grades to one-fourth of my class at UCLA, I discovered that this was not at all unusual in UCLA’s economics department, which had a sizable contingent of economists trained at the University of Chicago. We also opposed many politically correct policies of the UCLA administration.

One of the many name-calling responses to people who do not go along with political correctness is to use the all-purpose smear, “racism.” But the first time I saw a white professor at a white university with a black secretary, it was Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago in 1960 — four years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Years earlier, the first black tenured professor at an elite white university was Allison Davis at the University of Chicago. But who cares about facts in these politically correct times?


150 submissions about sexual assault or harassment at Australian universities

With lots of juicy young people thrown together what else would you expect?  The real surprise is that there are only 150 claims out of a million or more students.  And what do the do-gooders want to do about it?  Have every male student tracked 24/7?  It's a complete absurdity.  You can't outlaw human nature.  Talk about campus rape is a huge fashion in the Anglosphere these days but evidence that it is unusual for the age group always seems to be missing

150 “deeply disturbing” submissions about sexual assault or harassment at Australian universities have already been received by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), one week after launching its landmark survey into sexism on campus.

For the first time, the AHRC are surveying samples of students from Australia’s 39 universities, and have also invited all students to anonymously share their experiences of sexual assault or harassment in an online submission.

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs told Hack that she’s already shocked by the submissions that are trickling in.

“The survey launched only 5 or 6 days ago, and we’re already getting unprecedented submissions from the public, from students.

“We’ve had about 150 submissions, and they are deeply disturbing.  They range from the internet harassment kinds of stalking, to profoundly serious matters, which are criminal.”

Gillian Triggs said some of the respondents reported being dragged out of a car and raped; being sexually assaulted; experiencing inappropriate sexual movements; or having their clothes taken off them at a party.

“It’s almost as if the dam is bursting, people want to talk about this.”

Gillian Triggs told Hack she believes people feel more comfortable talking about assault and harassment in a confidential survey.

“I think when you have that kind of opportunity, you do get a very high number of people saying, ‘this is my opportunity to talk about something’.

“These recent submissions are often prefaced by the remark, ‘I didn’t report this, but’.”

Gillian Triggs says there’s huge extremes in the nature of students’ submissions so far, and it’s too early to see if there’s any trends emerging. But she hopes that the survey will be able to show if the amount and nature of sexual harassment on campus is different to the general population.

“We all know that every week in the media there’s another story [about sexual harassment] from a university college, or a university pretty much happening all over Australia.

“One of the things we’d like to know is whether the incidence of these sexual harassments from minor matters to very serious rapes, whether this is any different from the rest of the community. We don’t know the answer to that.”

Over the past few months, Hack has reported on several stories about sexual assault and harassment of university students.


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