Why Schools Need to Change:Finland Meets Civil Rights

By Jal Mehta and Krista Galleberg

Since the beginning of the No Child Left Behind era, there has been a schism between what you might think of as the “Finland folks” and much of the civil rights community, particularly its policy and legal advocates. In this post, we explore what is valuable about each approach to education reform, why they have been at odds with each other, and what a new synthesis might look like.

On one side, the “Finland folks” are champions of teacher professionalism. They point to the Scandinavian nation’s success as evidence that if we in the United States prepared teachers as well and supported students with as strong a welfare state, there would be no need for the heavy-handed test-based accountability that we currently have. Underlying this vision is a conception of teaching as highly complex and skilled work that cannot be easily rationalized. That’s why these advocates are skeptical of rote standardized tests or simplistic approaches to teacher evaluation, which they see as deskilling the profession—applying a neo-liberal logic to what should be a professional sphere. The U.S. educational system is full of mistrust, which is the main root of our problems; we need to train the professionals, and then trust them, if we are to make significant and sustainable progress.

Not so fast, many in the civil rights community respond. We have trusted the (largely White) professionals for years—and where has it gotten us? Generation after generation promises are made and broken, and the students who most need education to provide upward mobility end up with the short end of the stick. Bobby Kennedy, when discussing the original ESEA in 1965, expressed skepticism that more money would matter without accountability for results, and Ted Kennedy adopted a similar stance when he partnered with George W. Bush to pass No Child Left Behind in 2001. For years, organizations like Education Trust have been bullish on test-based accountability precisely because, they contend, it pushes schools to focus on students who are least well served by the existing system. Without accountability for school performance, the specter of racism will inevitably rise up to defeat any well-intentioned efforts toward school improvement.

Read more here.

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