"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, December 21, 2012

How The Mighty Finland Fell

Ask most people how American students are doing compared to their counterparts overseas and they will tell you that we are middling at best and failing at worst. Ask who is doing it right and you will most likely hear, "Finland!" This northern country has been the utopia of education for many years,  growing as an edutourism destination to capitalize on her students' test scores on the PISA exam. Let's all be like Finland! Not so fast. A review of the most recent data reveals that this education envy may be misplaced.

Education Week compared Finland's 2011 performance on the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to the US's. "The most striking contrast is in mathematics, where the performance of Finnish 8th graders was not statistically different from the U.S. average in the 2011. Finland, which last participated in TIMSS in 1999, actually trailed four U.S. states that took part as 'benchmarking education systems' on TIMSS this time: Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana."

Even more revealing is an observation by Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "If Finland were a state taking the 8th grade NAEP, it would probably score in the middle of the pack," he said, referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Another comparison is Finland vs the state of Florida on the PIRLS test. In this match up of 4th graders on the subject of reading, the scores were about the same. Florida was the only state to voluntarily particiapte in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and is known to focus on literacy in the 3rd grade. Finland did score above the U.S. average in reading in 4th grade.

Pasi Sahlberg, the director general of the Center for International Mobility at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, in Helsinki, attempted to explain the various test results. "With specific regard to math, I was not really surprised. ... Finnish math curricula put strong emphasis on problem-solving and applying mathematical knowledge rather than mastery of content. PISA measures the former, TIMSS the latter."

What does this mean to U.S. students?  Sandra Stotsky, a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, answered the question of whether this difference in the approach to teaching mattered. "...the answer depends on whether one wants this country to produce its own engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, or to depend on high school students with advanced math knowledge and skills coming from other countries to our universities."

What is striking in the article is the number of ways the state of Massachusetts comes out on top in the international ranking, yet the Massachusetts standards and curriculum are not the basis for the upcoming Common Core standards. How very odd if our goal is to have students prepared to compete in the global job market.

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