Review and Comment: School

February 22, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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The schools of Finland have been getting a very good press. In one of the latest encomiums, our local education guru Diane Ravitch — no fan of school reforms promoted by Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo or even President Obama or Bill Gates — writes in the March 8 issue of The New York Review of Books about her visit to Finland, which “has one of the highest performing school systems in the world …” She revels in a public school atmosphere of bright and airy modern buildings, well-trained teachers, no vouchers or charter schools, and no evaluation of teachers in relation to students’ test scores.

Her article brought back my own memories of early school years in Finland. How much has changed! It’s as if Finland has emerged from the bad old days to which the United States now rushes to relive. I remember the first three or four grades as rather easy. I endured two humiliations: one, when I enthusiastically joined in a song in class, and the teacher told me to stop because I was out of tune; the other, when I, a generally obedient child, acted up in class and the teacher admonished me with “Dear Henrik.” I had to hear “Dear Henrik” from classmates for days afterward. However, by the fifth grade we were effectively in high school. The single homeroom teacher gave way to separate teachers for different courses, and there were memorization and tests aplenty.

So it was with nothing less than joy that I found myself at Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn, an enterprising American uncle having arranged a scholarship for me (Finland was very popular at the time, the brave little country fighting the big bad Russian bear in the Winter War of 1939-40). Instead of rote memorization (most of it long since forgotten) we did team projects. We created a large model of a medieval castle with surrounding fields, made illuminated manuscripts and drew knights in armor and ladies in long habits. More practically, we learned about crop rotation, trade and the feudal system. It was fun! Much of that learning has lasted.

As Ravitch points out, “Finland has borrowed many of its most valued ideas from the United States,” most of them deriving from the “learning by doing” ideas of John Dewey that clearly influenced the schooling I got at Adelphi. (After its school buildings were absorbed by neighboring Pratt Institute, Adelphi moved to Bay Ridge where it evidently is still doing well.) City public schools here had already slipped from their earlier good reputation at the time of the World War II years when I was in school. Population growth, especially from poorer, less literate, racially diverse, and often non-English-speaking backgrounds, posed challenges that still hound the public schools. Adelphi, a private school, was not representative of American education in general, but it was a model of what schooling could be.

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That Finland could so revolutionize its public school system in a “progressive” direction suggests that the U.S. could do something similar. Against objections that Finland is small (5½ million people), Ravitch quotes the observation that 30 states here have populations smaller or no bigger, implying that they could well follow Finland’s example. That is, if teacher training were more rigorous and the teaching profession accorded similarly high social status. Of testing in Finland, Ravitch writes: “They do take tests, but the tests are drawn up by their own teachers, not by a multinational testing corporation. The Finnish nine-year comprehensive school is a ‘standardized testing-free zone,’ where children are encouraged ‘to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity.’”

Strangely, by all accounts, this works. Finns emerge highly literate and technically competent. Meanwhile, we concentrate on testing, testing, and teacher evaluation — with escape hatches for the lucky students — only to demoralize and drain our public schools. And then there’s Rick Santorum calling public schools operated by states or facing federal standards “anachronistic” and “factories.” Santorum doesn’t seem to have an alternative beyond home schooling. Well, he’s free to lob grenades at whatever he wants as long as he has no responsibility for how it works.

Parents can be wrong, but when we see so many of them rebelling against “co-located” charter schools and other steps that undermine the universality of public education, it is time to seriously question the Bloomberg and national mandates. One hopeful note: Erroll Davis, a former CEO and university chancellor persuaded out of retirement to clean up Atlanta’s cheating-plagued schools, has replaced a wall of graphs in his predecessor’s office with photos of Atlanta schoolchildren. Monday’s New York Times quoted him saying, “If you create the right kind of system, run by the right kind of people, test scores will take care of themselves.”

— Henrik Krogius, Editor

Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News

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