Lessons for Chicago schools from Finland and Mission Hill

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Diane Horwitz

Diane Horwitz

Recently, over 400 people attended events in Chicago that were focused on the critical question of what a quality education should look like. Teachers, parents, teacher educators, students and community members came together, to discuss a bold vision for classrooms, schools and larger education systems.

The discussions yielded a wealth of ideas but one strong conclusion: A high-quality education has little resemblance to the “reforms” being carried out in Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S.

As part of a research project, the parent group Raise Your Hand brought in Finnish educator and policy expert Pasi Sahlberg to talk about what the world’s highest-achieving education systems do to reach that success. Raise Your Hand is creating a research-informed framework for parents so they can better understand what education professionals say is important for school improvement, and give them ammunition to better advocate for change.

Sahlberg said that the policies that have currently shaped education in the U.S. are part of a global education reform movement, or GERM, that “behaves like a virus” and in fact, weakens education systems. The main drivers of GERM are a focus on competition, high-stakes testing, standardization, narrow definitions of accountability, choice and privatization, an overemphasis on basic numeracy and literacy as a means to improve test scores, and fast-track teacher programs. Sahlberg, who is well-respected around the world, said no high-performing education systems follow these practices.

Equity and solutions to broader problems

 Instead, excellent systems like Finland’s focus on equity and well-funded schools for all kids. Finland emphasizes teacher collaboration, not competition, and has policies to insure that all teachers are highly qualified and well trained. The public has a strong respect for and trust in the teaching profession.

In his talk, Sahlberg advocated for a rich curriculum that integrates arts throughout each subject and pointed out the necessity of giving children time to play. By law, 15 minutes of every hour of instruction is devoted to recess or a time for students to choose what they want to do.  Every classroom has a piano, and all teachers are trained in at least one musical instrument.

Sahlberg feels the U.S. is obsessed with getting children “ready for school.”  In contrast, the focus in Finland is to “get schools ready for children, to meet their needs wherever they’re at.”  The goal of Finnish schools is to prepare children to be “innovation-ready and ready for life.”

It’s interesting to note Sahlberg’s point that equality and a sense of social responsibility are important values in Finland and these inform the mission of education. Another point is that Finland has virtually no private schools, and even a university education is free.

Sahlberg argues that we can’t discuss education reform without addressing the  broader problems that impact children:  child poverty, income inequality, and lack of access to equal resources.

When Finland decided to reform its education system over 50 years ago, they looked to U.S. education research.  Many teachers in Finland will tell you that their leadership models, teaching methods and assessment practices came from established research.  America has the information and solutions, Sahlberg said, but we have gone in the wrong direction with GERM.

Parents at Raise Your Hand have asked ourselves: how do we know if an educational practice or policy is high quality. We have some beginning answers in this document for parents that can be accessed on our website.

Mission Hill’s mission

Earlier in the week of Sahlberg’s visit, a two-day series of events was held, called Promoting Progressive Democratic Education in an Era of Standardization. The events featured Principal Ayla Gavins and seventh- and eighth-grade teacher Ann Ruggiero of Mission Hill public school in Boston. Mission Hill is an elementary school created and opened over 17 years ago by the progressive educator Deborah Meier.

Many of the educational practices at Mission Hill echo the ideas of Sahlberg. The school has a broad mission: “The task of public education is to help parents raise youngsters who will maintain and nurture the best habits of a democratic society: to be smart, caring, strong, resilient, imaginative and thoughtful.”

Based on the vision, Mission Hill’s curriculum is deep and relevant and is meant to foster the academic, intellectual, artistic, social, emotional and civic growth of each student. School -wide themes are woven into social studies, reading, science and the arts. An assessment process that uses multiple measures (observations of students and student work) is ongoing, diagnostic and based on a portfolio approach. Graduation is via a portfolio review. Instruction is child-centered and project-based, using active inquiry that stresses the development of “habits of mind” and “habits of work.” 

A central feature of Mission Hill is its professional learning community, in which teachers develop relationships of trust and work together on curricula and planning. These and other approaches contribute to a powerful learning environment for children and adults.

While Mission Hill must comply with district and state-mandated testing, it is part of a group of Boston “pilot schools” and so has considerable autonomy over its budget, staffing, curriculum development and instructional practices.

The educators from Mission Hill spoke at a forum at the College of Education at DePaul University, showed the new film “Good Morning Mission Hill” at Francis Parker School and met separately with a group of teachers and a group of principals to explore how these approaches could be used in their own practice.

Suggestions for deep change

 We brought the Mission Hill educators to Chicago to spark discussion about a student-centered education philosophy. And spark discussion it did!  Most who attended the events were inspired. But questions were raised about the possibility of instituting democratic practices in a non-democratic system. 

Some said that the hopeful vision and child-centered schooling that was offered by Mission Hill felt like another language, far removed from current policies in Chicago. Others grappled with ways to find space – perhaps within the “cracks” of existing mandates, prescriptive policies, testing schedules, and narrow measures of accountability – to enact and grow some of the progressive practices and ideas embodied in the Mission Hill School.

We find that in our conversations with teachers, parents and students, we are all searching for alternatives to today’s current “reform” strategies. We were inspired by the discussions that took place recently and by the hunger we saw—hunger to provide children with an educational experience that is grounded in child development theory, informed by expert research, and with a vision of teaching children to be active participants in a democratic society.  We have also noted with great interest the recent call by principals for increased attention to education that is evidence-based and collaborative.

It’s an exciting time as parents, teachers, and principals are speaking out about the need for change. We encourage people to learn about Mission Hill, to get Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons and start conversations with parents at schools and local school council meetings as well as among teachers, sharing their ideas of what a truly high-quality education would look like.

Chicago isn’t Finland, and we don’t think that with the prevailing mindset, we are going to get Mission Hills in our neighborhood schools anytime soon. These are simply examples, suggestions for deep change, a possible starting point for discussion–much as they were for the over 400 people who gathered in Chicago last month, eager to change the conversation about education policy.

Diane Horwitz is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Research at the College of Education, DePaul University and is the coordinator of quarterly education issues forums for the college.

Wendy Katten is a parent of a fifth-grader in CPS and the director of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education. She worked in social services prior to forming the group.