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Racing to Nowhere: What America's Education System Can Learn From Finland

Race to Nowhere was just shown in Montclair at the Bullock School on Thursday night.

This week, a number of parents attended viewings in both Montclair and Millburn of “The Race to Nowhere," the documentary film by Vicki Abeles about the pressures children face in our current education system. Below is one parent's take on the film.

Quite frankly I felt a measure of despair as I sat in the Millburn High School auditorium full of other township parents, educators and administrators. I recognized myself in the film. I have told my daughter she needs to do well so she can get into AP classes when they’re offered. I also felt despair because much of the data presented in the film was as depressing as it was compelling. An AP biology teacher recalls cutting the homework he assigns in half and the AP scores of his students rise.

Denise Pope stated the colleges and universities these children have worked so hard to be accepted into are having to remediate 50 percent of college freshman because they are memorizing material for tests and not learning it. Therefore they aren’t retaining the information they need to be successful at a basic level in university. These are kids taking AP classes, folks. 

The film takes the opposite stance of the slicker big-budget “Waiting For Superman" in that it advocates for moving away from standardized testing and AP courses as a measure of success. "Superman" suggests testing is the way to measure success. "Race to Nowhere" suggests reducing or eliminating homework and concentrating on group projects and thoughtful assignments will increase the students critical thinking abilities and ability to work collaboratively. "Superman" advocates for more homework. "Superman" also suggests longer school days are needed, whereas "Race to Nowhere" patently says kids need more time to be kids, to engage with their families and get the proper amount of sleep.

Although well-intentioned, I felt like I heard a lot of platitudes from the panel after the film. More insultingly was the way we as parents seemed lectured to about our children's lack of time management by the panel, who seemed to suggest there are no problems in our school district. I wanted someone to tell me "we’re going to investigate because some compelling questions have been asked," but we didn't hear that. I wasn't expecting the panel to formulate a new way of educating our children on the spot—that’s both unrealistic and unwise. But there needs to be time to consider the research, discuss a plan and it’s implementation and go from there.  To have a panel of guidance counselors tell me kids should be kids does nothing to address the problem.

And while we're on the subject, why wasn't Schools Supt. James Crisfield on this panel? Or members of the Millburn Board of Education or principals from any of the schools?

Our education system is broken. We’re 31st amongst developed nations when it comes to math and science achievement. Globalization is happening and we’re being left in the dust. The two films offer two very different reasons and solutions for the failing of our education and our children. When I got home that night I started doing some research of my own. 

A country that consistently tops the list according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) latest PISA survey is Finland. According to the OECD website, “PISA is a three-yearly survey of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in OECD member countries and partner countries and economies.”

OECD has found there is a direct correlation between countries that rank high in the PISA survey and the country’s potential economic prosperity.  This alone should make our country take pause. Our future prosperity as a nation depends on our children being educated. Of course it makes sense.  These are the people who will be running the place long after we’ve moved into retirement homes and adult diapers. 

What does Finland do differently from the United States? A lot. Finland has a high graduation rate, equality in access to education for all students, high scores on benchmark testing, and moderate spending per pupil.  Teaching is considered a prestige profession. Only those who are at the top of their class can go on to be accepted to pursue a degree in education.  It’s the most competitive field in the country surpassing law, medicine and finance. Not surprisingly then the Finnish people hold educators in the highest regard. They truly are the best and brightest.

Another component that flies in the face of those in favor of standardized testing—Finland abolished these tests in the 80s. They moved away from this method of accountability and gave their educators some freedom to teach in more creative ways. They use the national curriculum as a guideline, not as the be all and end all. Kids in Finland spend less time in the classroom than American kids, whose school days are comprised on average of seven class periods hours of classroom instruction. Their Finnish counterpart typically has three. This allows them time to finish their projects and study and it also grants time for their teachers to create meaningful lesson plans, discuss practices with colleagues and assess their students accurately. When all your teachers hold advanced degrees and are the cream of the crop you can do this sort of thing. 

The only time students take a standardized test is when they are high school seniors and want to go on to college. Students aren't grouped by ability or "tracked" until they are high school sophomores. 

Finland is a small nation with only 4 percent of it’s population foreign born, so why would we think the United States, a nation founded on diversity, could implement these kind of changes successfully? Norway is Finland’s neighbor and is similar to Finland in size and demographics.   Norway also has an education system very similar to ours. Overcrowded classrooms, teachers who aren’t required to have advanced degrees, the schools are under funded and teachers are paid much less than fellow professional. Norway even has a program similar to our own “Teach America” and consistently receives mediocre rankings in the survey.  

If we look at Norway as the control and Finland as the variable here, it’s pretty clear that success isn’t really as dependant upon the country's size and a homogeneous population as it us upon the practices and educational policies put in place.   

My initial take away from "Race to Nowhere" is something has to be done about our dismal education system. I don’t want someone who is just memorizing something just to forget it two weeks later after the test is over operating on me because I don't give a damn about their GPA. I want their knowledge and experience if they are cutting into me.

I’ve heard a lot of talk from the workmom’s network about making sure the teachers and administrators see this film and get the message, but the onus can’t be just on the administrators. We need a political system willing to do something other than more of the same, and we as a society have to adjust our measures for success. We can complain all we want about the level of homework our children have but we are the ones demanding they take all AP classes and have the appropriate extracurricular activities to build their resume for college. We have to step up take responsibility for our part in perpetuating this ‘driven’ culture of our kids lives and let go a little bit.

Not every student belongs at an Ivy League school; they belong at a school that is the right fit for them. As the film points out, most CEOs in this nation came from state schools. And many were C students to boot. When my daughter was an infant, parents were discussing the preschools they had been on waiting lists at since they were pregnant. I laughed when someone mentioned thinking they were over-exaggerating for effect. I was met with stares that said they were serious as a heart attack. “Why?” I asked incredulous. One no nonsense mom laid it out for me while the others nodded in agreement.

“Well if she doesn’t get in there, she won’t get into (the day school), which means that (the private high school) is out of the question and she won’t get into Harvard.” 

“What if she doesn’t want to go to Harvard?” I asked. The other mom laughed, “Oh no,  she’s going to Harvard.” The moms all chuckled.

As one kid in the film said, “If you don’t get into a good school, a four year college, the other kids look down on you.”

There is nothing wrong with having high expectations for your children, but make sure you are considering your child in these expectations and make them appropriate for your child. One woman in the film related a story about her daughter who had just taken her AP French exam. “I never have to speak French again,” her daughter said. I find that really sad. Loading up a schedule with AP classes for the sole purpose of padding a weighted GPA instead of taking them because of a passion or affinity for the subject is what our kids feel compelled to do. One girl said, “Cheating becomes another course you take beginning in ninth grade.” This Machiavellian attitude has become pervasive in our culture. We’re churning out a population that sees nothing wrong with cheating if you don’t get caught, and it gets you into the college of your choice. Fast forward a few years and these people become our policy makers and captains of industry—woefully uninformed and morally suspect.

Perhaps the most haunting bit in the film is the story of Devon Marvin, a 13-year-old girl who killed herself after failing a math test. We’ve placed such an emphasis on success and making sure our kids do everything right-that kids are unable to handle failure. Is that who we want leading our nation in our golden years?  Walt Disney went bankrupt numerous times before creating Mickey Mouse. He had the perserverance enterpreneurs must have to create new industries, and generate the products and inventions that shape our world.

We don't need platitudes we need action.

Kevin March 05, 2011 at 10:34 PM
I agree that we do need to improve our educational system however I am not sure that Finland is the best example since they are such a small homogeneous population. Also, their GDP per captia is far behind ours, which is far behind Norway. (Although Norway does have access to huge oil and gas reserves to be fair.)
Gail Prusslin March 06, 2011 at 02:58 PM
This film raises so many important issues which come at a critical time for the future of public education. Fyi, note that teacher evaluation based on student performance is emphasized in recommendations made by a Christie task force (see below). Of note as well, is the top article in today's NJ section of the Star Ledger. Lots of food for thought on how this will impact schools, teaching, and a student's experience in the classroom. http://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/552011/approved/20110303a.html

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