Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Teachers deserve our trust

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Tests, charter schools and performance-based pay can all mask some fundamental needs in education. Photo / Thinkstock
Tests, charter schools and performance-based pay can all mask some fundamental needs in education. Photo / Thinkstock

The nearest I've come to teaching was a week spent as a visiting writer at an Auckland secondary school. I'm not ashamed to say I needed a lie-down at the end of each day. At least I didn't ask for a beanbag for naps during breaks, as another writer had done.

This, it must be said, was at a well-resourced private school in beautiful surroundings with highly motivated, privileged kids.

If I hadn't been sufficiently respectful and admiring of teachers before, I certainly was by the end of the week.

Respect and admiration are, of course, far from what teachers have come to expect.

Everyone knows better than teachers what teachers should do, and how.

No other profession is as readily dismissed in debates about their work. Politicians, businesspeople, parents, Treasury - we all know better how to "fix" the education system. Teachers matter, everyone agrees; but mostly when we're looking to apportion blame for education failure.

As former United States Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books, "The 'no excuses' reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.

"Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation. The reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, but because of bad teachers. These bad teachers must be found and thrown out. Any laws, regulations, or contracts that protect these pedagogical malefactors must be eliminated so that they can be quickly removed without regard to experience, seniority, or due process."

Ravitch should know, being something of a reformed reformer who once believed in the kinds of market-based education policies infecting countries like ours.

Symptoms include standardised testing, charter schools, creeping privatisation, test-based accountability, and performance-based pay for teachers.

It all sounds rational and appealing, until you look at Finland.

Finland's story is important, as the Finnish educator and researcher Pasi Sahlberg argues in his book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? because it "gives hope to those who are losing their faith in public education".

He writes that, "unlike many other contemporary systems of education, the Finnish system has not been infected by market-based competition and high-stakes testing policies".

Yet Finland has one of the highest performing education systems in the world, as measured by, for example, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which assesses the reading, mathematical literacy, and scientific literacy of 15-year-olds in all 34 nations of the OECD.

The Finns also have the smallest gaps in achievement between schools, and one of the lowest variations within schools - a sign of educational equity. (New Zealand has one of the largest achievement gaps within schools.) And all this, writes Sahlberg, has been achieved "with reasonable cost and human effort".

Critics argue that Finland's ethnically homogenous population makes its education reforms less relevant to multicultural societies like ours. But Sahlberg points out that Finland has improved its education rankings even as it has become rapidly less homogenous (foreign-born Finns now make up nearly 5 per cent of the population).

Cultural and social context matter, of course, but Sahlberg suggests that certain elements of Finnish educational reform transcend culture.

For example, having "an inspiring vision of what good public education should be". The idea that every child has a right to a good publicly funded and locally governed school stocked with good teachers is so deeply rooted in Finnish politics and culture that it has survived some 20 governments and nearly 30 different ministers of education.

There's much to envy about the Finnish system. Education is free, even at tertiary level, and free school meals for all pupils, health services, psychological counselling, and student guidance have become a normal part of Finnish schooling.

But it's the high level of trust Finns place in their teachers that really sets them apart from the Global Education Reform Movement, or "Germ", as Sahlberg calls it.

The Finns don't talk about choice and competition; they talk about equity and co-operation. They don't share our obsession with "accountability". Rather, their focus is on responsibility, says Sahlberg. Finnish teachers are autonomous professionals who regard the education of the nation's children as a "moral mission". In Finland, educators are trusted to know best.

There are no school inspections and no standardised tests. Teachers make assessments, of course, but it is left to them to manage.

The Finnish Way, Sahlberg concludes, relies on "creative curricula, autonomous teachers, courageous leadership and high performance". It makes plain, too, that "collaboration, not conflict with teacher unions leads to better results".

- NZ Herald

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