Alan J. Singer: Problems in Finland and with the P-Tech Education Miracle

Sep 1, 2015 by

ptech

An Interview with Alan J. Singer: Problems in Finland and with the P-Tech Education Miracle

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Singer, you have recently published something about Finland in your latest Huffington Post. Can you summarize it for me?

Because its students traditionally score very high on international assessments, Finland’s education system and record of achievement is frequently held up as a model for the United States. In the Huffington Post blog I discussed how American educational reformers, I call them deformers, only look at part of the story. Finland is a small northern European country with a population of about five million people, about one-seventieth (1/70) the size of the United States and smaller than most major cities around the world, and it is unusually homogeneous.

According to the standard narrative, a big part of the success of the Finnish education system is the country’s focus on math, science, and technology education to prepare its students for 21st century jobs. It is the wave of the future and Finland caught the wave. The United States is supposed to follow the Finnish example so it can produce top student scores on international tests and once again dominate world markets.

But despite educational success Finland’s economy, essentially a niche economy in the globalized capitalist world, is now having trouble with growing unemployment in its technology center. 

2) What do you know about the teacher training system in Finland? Who is admitted and how long does it take to become a teacher?

First let’s talk about education in Finland in general. Pasi Sahlberg is a distinguished Finnish education specialist who writes and speaks widely about education in Finland. According to Sahlberg, since the 1970s Finland has created “a model of a modern, publicly financed education system with widespread equity, good quality, large participation—all of this at reasonable cost.”

Almost every child in Finland completes its compulsory basic education program and about 90% complete upper secondary school, the equivalent of United States high school. Two-thirds of Finland’s secondary school graduates enroll in universities or professional training at polytechnic institutes.

In Finland, education is valued at every level of society, which may explain why taxpayers are willing to foot the bill. Over 50% of the Finnish adults participate in adult education programs. Even more surprising for American students who are plagued with college debt, 98% of the cost of educational costs at all levels, including university, are covered by government.

A major reason for education success in Finland it is the country’s commitment to preparing and supporting its teaching staff. Top college graduates compete for places in teacher education programs and only about one in six is accepted. Once enrolled, teaching candidates receive three years of graduate level preparation at government expense plus a stipend to support themselves while in school. Teacher preparation programs include courses on how to teach diverse learners and understand and conduct research.  It also includes a year clinical experience in a model school affiliated with the university.

At their placements, student teachers participate in problem-solving groups that are involved in a cycle of planning, action, reflection, and evaluation. They learn to create challenging curriculum and develop and evaluate local assessments. In addition, most Finnish teachers complete a second master’s degree in their content area.

Later, while working in schools and classrooms, teachers are treated as competent professionals who create the best learning conditions for their students. Collaboration is structured into the school day and Finnish teachers usually meet weekly to jointly plan and develop curriculum.

3) How rigorous is it, for example, to become a teacher?

Pasi Salhberg argues that the process described above develops teachers who are “conscious, critical consumers of professional development and inservice training services.” For them, “ pedagogical professionalism has become a right rather than an obligation.” Salhberg reports that “Today the Finnish teaching profession is on a par with other professional workers; teachers can diagnose problems in their classrooms and schools, apply evidence-based and often alternative solutions to them, and evaluate and analyze the impact of implemented procedures.” It all sounds pretty rigorous to me. 

4) While the merits of Finland’s educational system have been praised – the country is a very homogeneous nation, quite unlike the United States that is a very heterogeneous one. Your thoughts? And do people understand these words?

The United States is a vast multi-ethnic heterogeneous nation, although I am not sure Donald Trump recognizes this. There really is no majority population. All the major divisions, European, African American, Latino, and Asian have many, many, sub-divisions and often do not identify as a cohesive group. There are also an endless number of ethnic mixtures and people whose families have been in this country so long they have lost any sense of identification with an immigrant group.

Citizenship, either by birth or naturalization, also something Trump does not seem to understand, defines us as American, not ethnicity or race. Homogeneous Finland, on the other hand, is the nation of the Finns. 97% of the people who live in Finland were born in Finland. Unlike in the United States, the children of immigrants are not automatically granted Finnish citizenship. Most of the small group of immigrants in Finland are Russian, Estonia, and Swedish, which produces some linguistic diversity but much not racially. There is a very small group of indigenous European people called Sami or Lapps.  There are about 50,000 Muslims in Finland and it is possible with growing Islamic migration into Europe from Third World countries that Finland’s demographics might change, but not yet.

I think the point is that in Finland there is a sense that public education benefits the entire society while in the United States there is often a sense that some people are being called on to support education for other people’s children. Racism and nativism, or anti-immigrant feelings, as well as prejudices against religious minorities in the United States, has contributed to greater division and an unwillingness to pay increased taxes and maintain a social safety net.

One point I made in the Huffington Post blog is that when economic problems, especially unemployment, struck Finland the government did not abandon workers to market forces. When tech giant Nokia started to lay off its employees, the Finnish “socialist” government provided grants and training programs to help laid-off workers start their own companies or find other jobs. It also required Nokia and Microsoft, which bought up part of Nokia, to help retrain former employees and finance their new efforts.

5) Discipline in Finland — How do the teachers deal with discipline problems? And is there anything published on this?

I don’t think they use the word discipline (kuri) in Finnish schools or teacher education programs. Instead they teach responsibility to students. They also treat students with respect. The entire society operates that way. In Finland corporal punishment of children by parents has been illegal since 1984. In my experience as a classroom teacher and teacher educator, when teachers are well organized and have relationships with their students 90% of the problems just do not happen.  

6) I know that in Finland, either one goes to school/college/university or is coerced into the army or some very low level menial job. Does that impact student motivation?

I am not sure you have this right. In Finland there is universal military or civilian service for all adult men when they turn 18 although it can be delayed up to age 28. About 80% of eligible young men select military service. Military service can be as short a half a year. Civilian service is always for a full year. It is not clear that college gets you out of service.

7) Now, tell us about this P-Tech Education Miracle.

In 2013, President Obama praised P-Tech High School in Brooklyn, New York in his State of the Union Address and visited the school. Obama declared the school, which is supposed to prepare inner-city minority youth for college and ultimately for technology jobs “is proof of what can be accomplished, but we’ve got to have the courage to do it.” While none of the P-Tech students had yet graduated from the program, let alone attended college or secured a job in the tech world, the President called for the creation of similar technology focused schools around the country as part of preparing American youth for the 21st century.

But the news out of Finland is that the P-tech miracle may not be an educational or economic miracle at all. A big part of the economic success of Finland during the last twenty years was based on the growth of one technological company, Nokia, but the Finnish tech giant hit hard times. It laid off 10,000 workers in 2012. In 2014 Nokia was forced to sell its mobile phone business to Microsoft, and Microsoft then announced it would reduce its Finnish work force by about two-thirds. Governments around the world have tried to buoy their economies by training or attracting highly skilled engineers and promoting their tech industries. As global competition has increased, Finland’s economy has suffered, and the country now has too many skilled technicians. The reality is that just so many technicians are needed, and it is much more profitable for companies to do the high tech work in low wage Asian countries.

8) What is the current status of distance education in Finland nowadays?

Most Finnish universities and polytechnic institutes offer some online program, but it is not clear to me how they differ from programs in other countries. . The big online innovation in Finland is its Open Studies program that is part of its adult education system. Programs usually involve independent distance studies and web learning.

9) What have I neglected to ask? 

In the United States educational deformers have blamed teachers and teacher unions for poor student performance, but in Finland almost all teachers are members of the Trade Union of Education. The deformers also demand the constant evaluation of teachers, often based on student performance on high-stakes tests. But in Finland there is no formal evaluation process for teachers. There does not have to be one since the goal is promoting teacher professionalism, not scaring teachers into following prepared scripts. There are also no standardized evaluations of students. Last, unlike in the United States where as many as 50% of teachers leave teaching during the first three years, in Finland between 85 and 90% of teachers remain until retirement.

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