Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Johnny CAN Read — If He’s Finnish

Shortly before last month’s article on our failed school system appeared under the title Johnny Still Can’t Read, U.S. News & World Report ran an article (March 26/April 2) titled The Secret to Smarter Schools. It described how Finland has achieved the type of school performance success about which the U.S. can only dream.

Every three years the Paris based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development offers a Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). It tests 15-year olds from 40 industrialized nations in reading literacy, science, and math. Finland ranks first in literacy, ties for first with Japan in science, and is second in math. How does the world’s richest nation fare? As you might guess (if you read last month’s article), not too well. The U.S. ranks 18 th, 22 nd, and 28 th in those subjects respectively.

How does Finland do it? The U.S. News article expresses it most succinctly: “Perhaps the most potent secret weapon in Finland’s success is well trained teachers.” What a surprise! With so many smart, educated people in our country, how is it that no one ever thought of that? Well, let’s see — In Finland, teachers of all grades must obtain at least a master’ degree. In the U.S., most teachers are untrained in the subject they teach, and that is especially true in science and math.

More importantly, the attitude towards teachers in Finland is in marked contrast to our country. As described in U.S. News, “Today, teacher education programs are highly competitive, in part because teachers enjoy high prestige in Finnish society. ‘The status of teachers is comparable to doctors and lawyers’ says Jouni Valijarvi, director of the Institute of Educational Research at the University of Juvaskyla.” What would we have to do to raise the stature of the teacher class to that of other esteemed professionals? Mr. Valijarve’s suggestion: “This means big investment in teacher education, special education, and supporting children and families at an early age. The returns can be high.” U.S. News suggests, “This idea deserves an A.”

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