I just returned from attending Education Nation; an invitation-only summit where educators, parents, students, business leaders, politicians and other decision-makers came together for a few days to have some conversations about the state of education today, and to share ideas on how to improve our schools for tomorrow.
This was NBC's second go around with Education Nation and I was not in attendance last year, but it's no secret that last year's summit was quite contentious, as NBC seemed to have built the "conversation" around the highly controversial documentary, Waiting For Superman. The panelists and discussions seemed mostly in favor of charter schools and privatization of public schools, which enraged huge numbers of very vocal educators who rightly felt they were underrepresented.
It was very clear this year that NBC listened to the feedback and learned from their self-acknowledged mistakes. This year, it was pretty clear that everyone was there to join in the conversation; regardless of political beliefs or stance on private/charter/public education or whether the belief is that poverty is to blame or not, or if increased salaries/merit pay for teachers will save education.
The panel discussions were fulfilling and in some cases, not long enough. Of particular note was the debate between Diane Ravitch and Geoffrey Canada that could have gone on all day and not have become boring. Ravitch and Canada remained very cordial to each other while seriously tackling their ideas on Reform.
The other was on assessment and accountability. The session, "Who's Getting Graded? Putting Accountability To The Test," was of particular interest to me as so many of us struggle to make sense of our current teacher evaluation systems and overuse of testing. It seems that everyone agrees with teacher accountability. The issue, however, is how to manage that in a fair manner when the only structured system we have uses students' test scores that only assess content; and on a low level at that. With the current emphasis on testing, teachers are forced to teach strategies that focus on what is known about the tests and to test often. All of this takes valuable time away from real instruction. Just as "texting while driving" creates a dangerous distraction, so does "testing while striving." How do we strive for true learning that encompasses the whole child while being forced to over-test and spending all non-instructional time evaluating the tests? How do we account for population, demographics, family support, poverty? Oh, yeah... We can fire the bad teachers and hire really good ones. A really good teacher can overcome all of those things.
File that one under: Don't Get Me Started...
What was interesting to me were the repeated references to Finland's education system. In this blog post, Kari Louhivouri jokingly attributes Finland's success to "highly trained teachers, short school-days, lots of playtime, not too much homework, long holidays, no testing, no competition between schools, and trusting in teachers and schools."
But it's not a joke.
The transformation of the Finns' education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country's economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.
The students in Finland don't take standardized tests until their last year of high school and other standard tests that are made available to their middle schools are given at the discretion of the teachers. Teachers must have a Masters degree, they are well paid and well respected. All the teachers are unionized and the country provides every service possible, including taxi service, to get their kids to school. I'm sure there is much we can learn from Finland. I recommend you watch this panel discussion on "Global Influence: What Can We Learn?"
All of the recordings are online now. Below is a clip from the closing session that includes a really nice montage of soundbites and visuals from the event.