Education Reform: The Right Way Forward

The opinions expressed below belong to Doug Green of and do not necessarily reflect the views of nor our affiliates.

Reading and summarizing education-related books and points of interest on the Internet for my blog has shown me that our current education reform efforts are misguided and not in the best interest of our children or ourselves. My reading, "Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?" by Pasi Sahlber, tells the story of how Finnish education reforms have led their schools to outperform the rest of the world. The book has added to my resolve to speak out against the madness that started in the mid 1990s when federally mandated standardized testing began. It took Finland a while to go from mediocre to the top, so we need to be patient. In the meantime, here is what I think we can do right now:

  1. Drop Standardized Testing / National Curriculum: First and foremost, we need to convince policymakers to scrap standardized testing and abandon their insistence on a national curriculum. These factors both narrow curriculum, create stress for teachers and students, and build failure into a system that doesn’t need it. They also discourage risk-taking, experimentation and creativity. Test results only cover a fraction of education standards and are not reliable measures of learning as “teaching to the test” is not only possible but typical. The time teachers spend sifting through questionable data should be spent on creating more interesting lessons. We also need to stop groaning about arbitrary performance gaps between groups. The only way to narrow these gaps is to slow the fast learners or use tests where they top out and can no longer demonstrate growth. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should stop looking for ways to help students who lack support and resources.
  2. Encourage the Brightest to Teach: Next, we need to do what we can to encourage more top-performing students to go into teaching. Building more trust and local control into the system should help make teaching more appealing. What we have now, however, is a system looking to rate teachers by student test scores; that doesn’t seem like a great way to draw top talent into the field. Anything to make a teaching career more attractive is necessary, and anything to improve the quality of teachers is a must. In Finland, only one in 10 teaching applicants are accepted and these students must complete a research-based graduate program before they begin working.
  3. Divide Courses: High schools should offer shorter courses so students who don’t perform well can repeat a six-week class rather than an entire year. Students who come close should also be given time to complete the course. If students plan to enter community colleges, don’t let them leave high school until they pass the necessary placement tests, because no one should be paying college tuition to take remedial high school courses that don’t count towards their college degree. At the elementary level, we need to bring special education instructors into the game early and often. In Finland, half of all students get some attention from special education teachers at some point. This can help us to avoid grade retention, which is employed in Finland in only extreme cases, and spare schools the related costs.

  4. Customize, Don’t Standardized: To help motivate students, we need to build on their interests and passions, and bring the real world into as many lessons as possible. Rather than standardization, we need customization. The idea that everybody should learn the same thing at the same time in the same way is obsolete now that anyone can learn anything, anywhere, anytime. Student and group projects can help. Group projects will also build collaboration skills, which are critical. It is much harder for business to teach collaboration skills than specific knowledge. We just need the right vision at the top. Time to raise your voice!

Doug Green was an administrator at the elementary level, secondary level and central administration for 30 years. He teaches leadership for administrators and has authored over 300 articles. In 2006, he retired to care for his wife, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. After her death, he stared to facilitate self-development for busy educators and parents. He summarizes important books and mines the Internet via his Twitter feed for valuable education links, quotes, humor, music and cool stuff.

  • Mrmathss

    Good stuff! But people prefer the noose for its entertainment value, so teachers will continue to be hampered in their efforts in a career that they chose to give to kids.