Showing posts with label international comparisons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label international comparisons. Show all posts

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Response to the Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland

Reader Question:  The Atlantic Atlantic Article just published an article about the mistake American educators make by teaching reading in kindergarten. Shouldn’t we do what the Finns do: let kids learn to read when they want to and end up with high achievement?

Shanahan Response:
            This article is from the “Whistle a Happy Tune” School of Philosophy. It links one cultural input with one achievement output and assumes both a causal connection (not teaching reading in kindergarten will result in higher achievement) and that if this cultural input were adopted elsewhere, the same outcome would result there, too. It sure is fun to think about how easily we could remake our society. This is the third or fourth such article that I have read about Finland in Atlantic and the tone has been pretty consistent—it is a feel good fantasy, that might help us ward off the blues as the days grow shorter and the verdant earth seems to die yet again (may it keep us warm until "April, that cruelest month").

            The problem with this dream, however, is that cultural change doesn’t work that way.

            The U.S. is not a relatively simple society, small in geography and population, and low in diversity. All kinds of diversity. Few of the 5.5 million Finns (fewer than live in the Chicago area) differ in race, ethnicity, language, income, or religion. It is estimated that there are 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. (twice the total population in Finland) and those aspiring-Yanks tend to differ from the “average American profile” in many ways. Finland takes few immigrants and those they let in have to have to have a secure middle-class income (ours, of course, often have only what they carry).

            The comparison of Finland with the U.S. would be like comparing Scarsdale, Winnetka, Piedmont City, and University Park with the U.S. We’d all be amazed at how wonderful things are in those relatively wealthy communities and how little the schools there have to do to teach reading successfully to most kids.

            What are the most pertinent differences between the Finns' situation and that of the U.S.?

            First, they teach the Finnish language. Finnish is reputedly the easiest language to learn to read (something I was writing about in the 1970s). The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is highly consistent, making it especially easy and quick to learn to decode. Because the country is so small, there are not dialectical differences to complicate things. All things being equal, a Finnish child can learn to read Finnish much faster than an American child can learn to read English. (Funny that point wasn’t even mentioned in the article).

            Second, most Finnish parents have college degrees or advanced degrees. If we can generalize from U.S. research such children will have better health, nutrition, ability to concentrate, IQs, vocabulary, will have more adults available in the home to provide care, and will be more likely to be reading or to have learned a lot of prereading skills before they enter school. Given the religious beliefs of most Finns, it would be the rare child who enters school without a big head start on literacy achievement. Most homes subscribe to newspapers, have many books available, have a well-stocked public library close by, and bedtime stories are the norm.

            In fact, according to a study conducted by the Finnish government, more than one-third of children enter school already reading. That sure takes the pressure off those supposedly high-skilled Finnish teachers.  (Another point not mentioned in the Atlantic article).

            I’ve got to admit I would love to live in a community in which everyone was well educated and had a substantial income. No doubt about it, the children and grandchildren would thrive. However, I live in a community where the majority of adults have not completed high school, libraries may be across gang territory, and mom and dad may not know how to speak English yet. Even when they do, they may be speaking a dialect far removed from the one teachers are using. Under our circumstances, starting early to learn to read a challenging language is a really good idea. (If our population was particularly diabetic, I would support higher than usual insulin injections. But then, I'm just a wild and crazy guy.)

             Another problem with the Atlantic article is that it characterizes the typical U.S. kindergarten as teaching literacy with worksheets. I don't support such instruction, but it does happen--in some cases. The silly dichotomy between play and academic is something made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s and it hangs on with those who have never taught a child to read in their lives. Successful early literacy teaching is much more interactive and hands on (and, perhaps, even play-based) than the weird characterization in the Atlantic.

            The Atlantic article requoted one of my least favorite claims: "'But there isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,' Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a video published by the advocacy group Defending the Early Years."

            You can make that claim… as long as you don’t know the research. I chaired the National Early Literacy Panel. Unlike Dr. Carlsson-Paige, we had to look at the studies. We found long-term benefits from early learning. But that inconvenient fact screws up the narrative: Finland is great, we are idiots, and teaching your children to read will make a mess of their idyllic lives. Sure, and I have some swampland in Florida that I can let you have for cheap. Really.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More Helpful International Comparisons

Just before the holidays, I wrote about the misuse of international comparisons. I decried the notion that we should emulate Finland’s educational approach, though I covet their educational outcomes. My point was that the Finnish context differs too much from that of the U.S. for us to successfully follow such advice, and that, frankly, people are cherry-picking the features of other countries that they like best. So, if you don’t like accountability testing, find a country that is doing better than us but that isn’t testing much. While that may be rhetorically powerful it isn’t very helpful for reforming schools.

Since I published that piece, I have come across two recent reports that provide a wonderful counterpoint to what I complained about. Two independent groups examined the recent international comparison data (Finland is no longer first in reading by the way), and they tried to identify patterns that are consistent across the high achievers or high gainers. These reports are interesting and useful because what they identify are patterns that transcend the situational differences.

How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better was produced by McKinsey & Co., a London-based think tank, and the other report, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States produced the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The reports differ methodologically, but they both tried to make sense of patterns across countries, rather than highlighting their favorite variables.

One thing they agreed upon was that what it takes to raise achievement is probably not the same at all points of development. It might, for example, make sense to spend a lot of time adopting a common curriculum and agreed upon standards early in the improvement process, but if you keep futzing with that and don’t get to the implementation issues (like teacher and principal quality or parent support), you probably won’t succeed, standards or none. Accountability efforts seem to matter early (to get things moving), but their importance appears to wane as the reform takes hold.

These reports also agreed that there were different ways to solve problems, and that the value of particular choices of strategies would be determined partly by culture and local circumstances, and partly where you were in the school reform process. How do you get instruction of a common core to all students? In some cases, adopting a prescriptive curriculum and scripted materials might be an effective strategy. A lot of my colleagues hate that idea, but with highly transient teachers, poor teacher preparation, and poor supervision, such approaches have been successful in a world context. In other cases, increased professional development might be a better way to accomplish the same goal. (In the U.S., Reading First invested heavily in the professional development of inner city teachers… and yet, within two years, more than half of these teachers had moved on. You can’t raise achievement through professional development if you can’t retain the teachers).

These reports aren’t easily compared, but it is clear that they agree on one especially important point: success is possible.

Both reports document countries that recently weren’t doing so well in education—Korea, Finland, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, but that have succeeded in making things excellent for their children (and in passing the U.S.). In fact, the OECD report stresses the belief that success is possible as a critical dimension of success: you can’t make things better wringing your hands and bemoaning all the reasons that you can’t succeed. They also agree that a focus on improving the quality of teaching is needed (through better recruitment, teacher preparation programs, professional development, efforts to raise teacher status, reward systems for teachers, improved principal preparation and support, and focused attention on the quality implementation of effective teaching practices).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Finland's Success with Literacy

Like many who are interested in U.S. educational reform, I rely upon the international comparison data provided by PISA. But, as much as such statistics concern me, I’m always circumspect in their use, since there are real problems with such comparisons. For example, I trust the data on kids up to about 13-14 years of age, but not so much the secondary school data (since kids often get shifted around at those older age levels and they don’t all make it into the comparisons).

Many anti-accountability types, like the teachers’ unions, for instance, have been touting Finland as a model of what should be happening in the U.S. And who can blame them? For the past couple of decades, the Finns have been tearing it up. Their kids are doing great at all levels in reading, math, and science, and they are learning multiple languages. Very impressive and anyone against aspiring to that kind of success is a real Grinch!

But, of course, there are some pretty big social differences that have an influence on learning, so just trying to adopt practices from someplace else is likely to fail. For example, Finland has a very small population (it’s about the size of Ireland or the Chicago area), and it is very homogeneous: almost no differences in race, religion, language, or income levels, and no adults are illiterate (though Finland is beginning to experience immigration and the success of their second-language students is in question). I know of classrooms of 20 children in Chicago that have higher levels of diversity than the entire nation of Finland.

How do you sort that out so that you are not drawing specious conclusions from such data, as the Finns’ great success could be due to their terrific schools, but it could also simply be because of their lack of diversity, the nature of their language (their writing matches Finnish phonology very closely, unlike the complexities evident in English spelling), or their history (reading has long been a major pastime at all levels of income)?

The right way to do that is to not pay so much attention to the experiences of individual countries, but to identify patterns across countries. That means instead of focusing attention on Finland or Japan, you look at the entire group of countries that are ahead of you and then try to find correlations that have some consistency across different cultures and histories.

That hasn’t stopped the rhetoricians from spinning their webs, however. For example, I often hear that the reason Finland outperforms U.S. schools is because they don’t have high stakes testing. I’m not a high stakes testing guy, but I’m skeptical about this kind of shallow analysis.

Recently, the Finnish government published a booklet that crossed my desk (The Finnish Education System and PISA;, a kind of primer for those who want to see how the Finn’s are doing their magic. Unfortunately, the differences with U.S. schools are so profound that I don’t think anyone here would gladly embrace such “reforms.”

For example, the teachers’ unions would certainly rally around the idea of dropping high-stakes tests, but they haven’t exactly championed the adoption of common core standards in reading and math. The Finns long ago adopted common core standards in all instructional areas, and all local curricula have to match with these centrally-imposed curriculum frameworks.

The unions would even be more loathe to adopt a system that only provides 9 years of compensatory education, even though it is clear that if we ditched preschool and kindergarten and the final two years of high school as the Finns do, we could save enough money to pay for many other reforms. Teachers there generally earn about as much as U.S. teachers do, but the typical Finnish teacher has a master’s degree (we pay such teachers more) and they teach about 10 more days per year than U.S. teachers. I’m not sure how they make it all work, but even though they spend just as much on teachers, they spend about 14% less per child on education, so I assume that means class sizes are either bigger or there must be other economies (fewer principals, counselors, computers, etc.).

I was curious about their teacher education system and it certainly looks better on paper, but that doesn’t mean we’d get many buyers here. For example, they only have 8 institutions that can prepare teachers (compared to our 1,354 teachers’ colleges); to bring our system into sync with the Finn’s on a per capita basis, we’d close more than 2 out of every 3 schools that now prepares teachers. What would that buy us? With that kind of stranglehold, we would be able to be highly selective in who could become teachers (the Finns turn away 90% of applicants, a figure that we are nowhere close to matching).

When students have completed two-years of secondary school in Finland they apply to continue with their academic studies or they are shunted into vocational education, a system that makes some sense, but which doesn’t match well with American social aspirations and ideology. Finally, the Finns apparently don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether their kids like school; in the various surveys their children reveal a strong dislike of school (whether this is due to something unlikeable about Finnish school practices or just the depression that goes along with living in a place like Finland with its astronomical suicide and alcoholism rates is unknown).

So, it does matter that places like Finland are outperforming us in literacy as it represents a threat to our economic position in the world. And, we definitely can learn from the successes of other countries such as Finland. But the way to think about this is not to look to see what Finland is doing specifically because those practices are going to be a reflection of their history, geography, and cultural situation, but to seek patterns across the entire set of nations that is currently kicking our educational butts.