Friday, May 20, 2011

Vocational Education -- Rethinking its role in the U.S.

One of the many interesting things that "The Finland Phenomenon" brought out was the embracing of vocational and technical education in public high schools. According to the film, about 40% of Finnish students choose a vocational track in secondary school. They learn and train for careers and are immediately employable after graduation.

The U.S. on the other hand has a monumental disdain for anything that smacks of "tracking." The result is that an unacceptably high number of students choose to drop out of high school, or pay for vocational training after high school. Too many of our adolescents know that they have no interest in pursuing college, and yet, that seems to be the only option our educational system wants to prepare them for.

Of the 18,000 public high schools in the U.S., about 900 are vocational (or about 5%) according to the U.S. Department of Education statistics. Why the disdain? Why are we so reluctant to encourage teens to pursue careers as welders, electricians, computer technicians, or health care workers? These are good jobs and for many students, learning something useful would be better than marking time in a "comprehensive" high school completing low level academic courses.

The Economist article raises a good point.
America has a unique disdain for vocational education.  . . . . However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity.
This is the same sort of thinking (the every child is a unique snowflake thinking) that led us to such destructive curricular choices in K-12 education. In our attempts to educate every single child in their own unique way (differentiated instruction with whole inclusion of SPED), we have adopted curricula that are a mile wide, an inch deep, and so obsessed with not offending anyone at any time, that it fails to meet the fundamental objective of actually educating the kids.

Vocational and technical (now called Career and Technical Education or CTE) is so despised, that few kids are ever encouraged to pursue it, despite the clear benefits of higher wages and less time in training. The Economist article found statistics that show adult men with CTE training were more likely to be married and to have a 17% higher income.

The discussion following the Finland Phenomenon highlighted how badly we serve the needs of our youth with our current system. By age 25, the U.S. has a terrible record of achievement -- only 30% of 25 year old have completed a 4 year college degree and only an additional 10% have earned a 2 year associates degree. That means that 60% of our 25 year olds are either in the category of "some college" or no college. With results like that, its time to rethink our cultural disdain for vocational education.

Friday, May 13, 2011

All Potential Teachers Unsuited to the Profession Left Behind - The Finland Phenomenon

Play-based early education ... Academic education that begins at age seven ... Longer classes, but fewer of them per school day ...  Little or no "homework" ... no standardized testing until matriculation ... leading a child's concentration to content ... independent teacher development of material to cover core curriculum ... smaller, more cozy spaces in which to learn ... sounds like homeschooling, right?  Indeed it does, but to the list we now add up to fifteen un-related children, teachers with no less than a master's degree plus 3-4 years of shadowing a master teacher and we have the Finnish education model which looks very much like what I would call the public school / home school hybrid.

My blog partner and I attended "The Finland Phenomenon" at the Stata Center at MIT last Thursday.  It also opened in Washington, D.C. in a screening for members of the NEA.  As documentaries go, it was kind of lame. There was too much Tony Wagner letting us know how Tony Wagner was interpreting the situations being filmed.  Tony Wagner being incredulous at the tiny amount of homework the kids have ...  Tony Wagner whispering during classes, with subtitles for his whispers, so we wouldn't miss a whispered word of Wagner wisdom ...  Tony Wagner telling us those Finns could learn some stuff from us, specifically how to tape in the classroom and how to do digital portfolios ... I think it would have been more edifying to hear longer interview segments with the various Finnish teachers and education officials.  I should have liked to have had the subtitles used to tell me what the teachers and students were saying instead of transcribing Tony Wagner's whispering.  All the Finns, adult and child, came across as competent, economical in their speech (in many cases using more understandable grammar constructs than many psuedo-erudite native English speakers) and just downright charming.

To learn a bit about Finland's educational model, I watched an interview on YouTube with Eeva Penttila, the Head of International Relations for the Helsinki Education Department.  I think I learned more in the eight minute interview with her than in the one hour documentary. The documentary went on and on about the PISA testing and how Finland aces it year after year, while the U.S. comes in 26th or so.  Ms. Penttila chuckled, telling the interviewer that educators in Finland don't place much value on PISA.  She said something to the effect that Finnish kids do so well because they are familiar with how the questions are posed and how to come to the correct answer. She said the emphasis for learning in Finland is placed on implementation of knowledge, not constant repitition.

It appears on the surface that EVERYBODY loves the Finland Phenomenon.  Teachers, politicians, administrators, education consultants, professors at schools of education ... so what's the downside?  Well, there really isn't a downside, there are formidable obstacles.  According to Paul Reville, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education and one of the four panelists to discuss the Thursday screening of the documentary, the context for a "Finland Phenomenon" does not currently exist in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  He cites such issues as the child poverty rate, a large range of "variability" and a hugely less robust social contract between government and citizens.  And, as I have mentioned in a previous blogpost, diversity in Finland is comprised of blonde and brunette hair, not black, white and brown skin. Almost 95% of the population of Finland (a country roughly the size and population of Massachusetts) are ethnic Finns, the other 5% are Swedes. But Finns are not wealthy and twenty-five years ago they had a lot of the same problems we have - we cannot point to skin color as if that were the obstacle.  The obstacle is the kind of class system that has arisen out of our educational system ... an educational system that manifests itself as adequate, or even good, for children NOT living in poverty and just down-right pernicious for those who do live in poverty. And so we come to the Catch-22 that dogs all of us - you will not be properly educated if you are poor and you cannot get out of poverty until you are properly educated.  That's how this "lack of context" invariably plays out. What the Finns did that was so darn radical is that twenty-five years ago they made a decision.  They saw that the educational model that serves an industrial society was not working at all, so instead of bemoaning an entrenched, dysfunctional system, they changed it.  And they began with the teaching profession, making teaching the most highly respected and sought-after line of work in the country.  Finnish universities admit to their teaching programs only 10% of those who apply. And it isn't about money, it's about ethos.

The Finland phenomenon, as an experiment in public education, is not an unattainable Shangri-La. It didn't spring up overnight, but it does seem to have fair political winds at its back. It would be as if the Commonwealth of Massachusetts made up its mind to put political differences aside, ideologies out the window, and window dressing at the curb. The secret of Finland is political will and teacher training.  No, it's way more than teacher training, it's more like a contract the government has made with children -- No more bad teachers.  None.  Not one, anywhere. The folks unlikely to make a good teacher are weeded out years before anything like tenure is made available and everything about the Finnish system smacks of built-in, trust-based assessment of teacher AND student performance.  We cannot take the system we have and make it into Finland.  We are too likely to appropriate isolated ideas and try to make them work in a system that, ultimately, cannot support them.  All education "reform" in this country goes like this ... someone has a wonderful idea and by the time that idea goes through the gauntlet comprised of politicians, unions, textbook lobbies, schools of education and the various boards of ed (state and local), you have a thing that looks nothing like the original concept.  And it's never better.

We have to make that radical decision.  If we continue to tolerate ANY bad teachers and if we continue to turn a blind eye to the crap that passes for curriculum in this country, there really is nothing for it.  Our "robust social contracts" will always tend to be about grownups - the politicians and the voting public, the teachers' unions and the teachers, the textbook companies and their lobbyists, the lobbyists and the various state officials in charge of curriculum, the state officials and the local boards of education ... where do children and their parents fit into this?  How about a robust social contract which stipulates there will be no bad teachers or bad curriculum.  How about a social contract with children that assures them they will be supplied with the tools of learning rather than the indoctrination that leads to a false progressivism or the use of shoddy material that leads to ignorance masquerading as comprehension? The "robust social contract" that Finland has with its citizens appears to be more a product of its educational system, rather than the other way around.  Yes, it was jumpstarted twenty-five years ago, but now the Finns have a system that teaches its children how to think and provides children with an environment which promotes play, learning and family time not marred by additional daily hours of homework.  It allows teachers to create classroom and study materials based on a slim document the Helsinki Department of Education refers to as the "curriculum core" (as Ms. Penttila said in her interview, the curriculum core is set nationwide, but curriculum work is done in the schools.  How to reach the goals of the curriculum is decided locally.)

But the most radical thing Finland does on behalf of its children is it does not let unsuitable people teach. Those who would like to teach, but show through years of academic assessment and supervised experience that they do not have the chops for it, are left behind.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Students need to understand the Solution of a Problem -- We've heard this before

It's been well over 150 years since Massachusetts became the first state to demand compulsory education by law. The idea that every child must attend school was radical at the time, but now is broadly accepted around the world. While some things have changed -- such as the size of schools and number of administrators -- some things have remained persistent issues.

I have seen fully demonstrated the past year that the best educated are not always the best teachers, though it is often thought that a person who passes high in examination or holds a state certificate, is fully competent for any district school.

To be able to master books is not enough. One should possess either a trained or natural ability to impart in a manner comprehensible to the young mind.
If the pupil is not made to understand the solution of a problem but little is gained. I find a deficiency too often in this respect which intercepts the best results.
This was taken from the "Annual Report of School Visitors to the Town of Granby" dated  1903.

Whenever I get a little too immersed in the rhetoric of the "21st Century Skills" movement, at those times when it seems like every commentator and blogger and administrator is singing the same tune about the different needs of today and how today's child is so different from yesteryear's -- at those times, I like to go back and read about the concerns and issues of 1900 and reflect upon what hasn't changed.

Here's what hasn't changed: 1) It is very difficult to identify good teachers.  2) Retaining good teachers is difficult, 3) Students need to be able to solve problems, and 4) Students need to understand what they are doing and shouldn't just memorize answers.

These were the top issues in 1903. They are still the top issues today in 2011. It's good to remember that we still haven't solved the education problems of 1903, they are with us today.

In advance of tonight's premiere of The Finland Phenomenon, I've read Tony Wagner's book -- The Global Achievement Gap. Tony might be surprised that back in 1903, educators were worried about the need for better teachers and the focus on problem solving and understanding. Tony might also be very surprised by how many of his "reforms" were thought of by others long ago.

Monday, May 2, 2011

City Schools Are Taking on the Competition

I doubt anyone will decide to forego a seat in a top charter or magnet school based on this video, but I see it as a very positive sign of change. The Hartford Public School system, one of the worst public school system in the country, has a long way to go to actually convince parents that they should keep their kids in the local neighborhood school. But, the schools are finally understanding something very important. People want quality and they have choices. Right now, according to one news source, 28% of minority students choose to leave the Hartford School System.

Under a settlement with the Scheff plaintiffs, the schools need to meet 80% of the demand for charters, magnets, or sending kids to the suburbs. The Hartford schools have decided it might be easier to reduce demand. They have made some improvements to the quality of education and are now actively trying to court parents and students to stay.

I wish every school system had the same incentives and consequences for failing to improve. Competition is a really wonderful thing. Improving the quality of the schools in Hartford is the best possible outcome for the kids in Hartford. I'm very glad to see the city taking it seriously.