(Editor’s note: Terry Boyd and Cheryl Boyd contributed to this post.)
For our family, this one was personal.
Our daughter Lucy, a 15-year-old sophomore at duPont Manual/Youth Performing Arts School, rushes through a six-hour school day of “instruction.”
After class, she comes home and typically spends five or six more hours – from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. – struggling through homework, made more difficult because she didn’t retain all that much from the lectures or whatever it is she has every day.
Each day she has AP European History, which is every other day of her block schedule, Lucy has a test of 50 multiple-choice questions. She studies 90 pieces of information to prepare for the tests. Somewhere along the line, she has to practice cello for at least an hour.
We get the feeling Lucy’s teachers could be effective instructors and mentors if they weren’t so busy checking boxes related to teacher assessments set by some curriculum and designed by some committee answering to state and federal bureaucrats.
Yesterday morning, she got up at 5 a.m. (unprompted) to study for her French test, actually a retake for the whole class, because only a few students passed the first time around. The second week of school included four tests. The third week of school, she took a record seven tests, and two projects/presentations were due.
Lucy goes to the top-rated public high school in Kentucky.
Imagine what goes on at the worst.
We suspect this “education” is at best a waste of time, and at worst a soul-killing experience that could deflect her from true success in life. Cheryl calls it “hazing.”
Worse, she’s being deprived of anything like a childhood, flung instead at 15 into a high-pressure environment as stressful as any career.
But until we attended Tony Wagner’s IdeaFestival presentation last Friday, we didn’t know how right we are.
In “What’s the deal with Finland?” the Harvard Innovation Education Fellow used the Finnish model to reveal an American system “radically at odds with the culture of learning,” as he phrased it.
Thirty-five years ago, Wagner said, leaders of the Scandinavian country of Finland figured out their extraction-based economy was going to collapse if they didn’t address a fundamental barrier to social progress – education.
So, the Finns gutted the teacher certification system and started building educators’ societal standing by putting them through a rigorous preparatory program comparable to earning a law degree.
Only 10 percent of people applying for teaching positions make it, and the money and prestige make teaching a much sought after career.
Then, the Finns threw out their national curriculum, shifting autonomy to local systems. The national curriculum for K through 12 now is 10 pages.
They shortened the school day.
They cut the number of hours of homework to about three or four … per week.
They cut the number of tests.
Those are the structural changes.
Most intriguing to us is how they took the stress out of education.
A student who wants to be a highly-skilled, high-earning tradesman or technician has that career-path option early on.
Whichever path they take, Finnish children have completely different classroom experiences from Lucy’s.
And it works.
For a decade, Finnish students have been top performers on the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, survey of 15-year-olds’ academic skills including math and science. American students finish middle-of-the-pack … behind Turkey.
The main takeaway for us from Wagner’s IF presentation was, the Finnish system teaches students to think, reason, experiment and collaborate their way through high school, something American kids aren’t free to do until college.
The Finnish system is less rigid and structured than the American technique and includes period of focused “play,” not unlike at Google, where employees are expected to spend 20 percent of their time “fooling around” with personal projects, Wagner said.
According to Wagner, the Finnish method does NOT include our mindset of penalizing failure.
Instead of rote learning and 90 questions on a test, Finnish students take up projects, create solutions, defend their solutions in presentations, then go back to the drawing board to tweak their methods until they succeed.
In order to do that, they have to KNOW their area of study. Intrinsically motivated students delving deeply into what interests them.
Finns don’t talk about “failure,” Wagner said. “They talk about what iteration” a project is in.
We’re skeptical about everything.
We know for certain Lucy is struggling in a system designed to leave her exhausted and discouraged.
Wagner makes a living advocating the Finnish system, but who knows if it can be adapted to American society. Even if the changes were implemented today, it would take 25 to 30 years before the system was effective. Too late for Lucy and our younger daughter Lale.
Wagner’s rapid-fire noteless presentation was showbiz at its best. He stalked the stage. He made his points. It was too slick, but we came away convinced the Jefferson County School system is captive to an entrenched, unimaginative rigidity and an institutional mindset that substitutes marketing campaigns for receptivity to a radical rethinking … to new ways of truly preparing students.
Whether the superintendent is Sheldon Berman or Donna Hargens, Jefferson County Public Schools has overshot our target, over-correcting after too little quantification to where school administrations aren’t interested in anything BUT quantification.
Which we see preparing Lucy for a second-rate college and ultimately, a second-rate life.