Finland Travel Log: Teachers, Poverty, and Policy
Below is the second in a series of posts I'm writing from Finland, as part of a trip with a delegation of U.S. education leaders. For a week, we're immersing ourselves in Finland's top-performing education system. Read Part One here.
As I begin my weeklong dive into the Finnish education system, and the theory of change that guides it, I was struck by two New York Times pieces I read today—one on getting tough on teachers from Frank Bruni, and one from Paul Tough on hard questions about President Obama and his commitment to addressing the “deep poverty” in which one in ten school children live.
I will learn a great deal over the next five days about Finland and its comprehensive approach to early learning, transitions to public school, and social safety nets (Monday); primary school and the role of afterschool and summer programs (Tuesday); secondary education and preparation for career and college (Wednesday); the teaching profession (Thursday); and building and sustaining public will for investments in children and public education (Friday).
But what I do know now is that in Finland policymakers do not build false divisions between improving the teaching profession and addressing the human condition. Granted, there are parts of what Frank Bruni writes in his piece, “Teachers on the Defensive,” that resonate with me — for instance, teachers’ unions being out of step with much-needed reforms (cases in point: seniority and quality-blind hiring and placements). But Mr. Bruni’s call to get tough on unions suggests that by getting better teachers, we don’t have many good ones now. And his analysis, centered on the release of the new film Won’t Back Down, suggests that if only tenure and seniority rules were jettisoned, and policymakers could hire smarter teachers who worked harder, our public schools could overcome the ravages of deep poverty.
On the other hand, Paul Tough challenges this assertion ever so poignantly in his piece “What Does Obama Really Believe In?” Mr. Tough’s 6,000-word essay paints a rich portrait of our nation’s failed social and economic policies that have yet to address the deep poverty that affects so many like Jasmine and Damien who live in the South Side of Chicago, where President Obama worked as a community organizer. Tough questions Secretary Duncan’s well-meaning belief that the “only way to end poverty is through education”—a belief that has put educators on the defensive.
Tough points out that Jasmine and Damien attended Christian Fenger High School—the target of many reforms under both Duncan and his predecessor, but never improved. Tough reminds us how “early stress” in children’s lives—including a “paralyzing mix of unforgiving economic conditions” and “destructive social influences”—make it “almost impossible” for young people like Jasmine and Damien to “escape.” He points to the neuroscience that shows how those early stresses on children “disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex” and how the “absence of strong and supportive relationships with stable adults inhibits a child’s development of a crucial set of cognitive skills called executive functions.”
Tough has written extensively on the power and potential of the Harlem’s Children Zone and its comprehensive approach that, in addition to high-quality education, encompasses parenting programs, preschools, a medical clinic, a farmers’ market, and family counseling. He questions why President Obama promised to invest in a billion dollars in the HCZ model, but has only come up with a mere $40 million over the last three years.
Mr. Tough reminds us that President Obama once said that to overcome poverty, of which failing schools is only a symptom, we must “heal the entire community.” It is time for us to think about teacher quality reforms in light of a teaching- and learning-development system.
As Dan Leeds, president of the National Public Education Support Fund and a very successful international businessman, told us this evening, "I learned a long time ago that you learn more from other companies sometimes than your own."
It's time to learn from Finland.