I have the privilege to be one of two Finnish teachers who were chosen to take part in the Fulbright Distinguished Teaching Program in Bloomington, Indiana, from August to December in 2015. In Finland I work as a pedagogical specialist in MERCURIA Business College in Vantaa. My interest here in the U.S. is to study which learner-centered teaching methods used by U.S. secondary education teachers enhance student motivation and engagement. I addition to that, I want to encourage teachers to share their good teaching practices with other teachers. In this blog I will share some observations I have made of the school system here in the U.S. and back home in Finland.
The Fulbright Distinguished Teaching program consists of school visits, auditing courses at the School of Education at the Indiana University, and working on our inquiry project, which synthesizes the study, inquiry and professional development activities we have undertaken during our visit. We have been fortunate to visit different schools in Indiana and also in other states in the U.S. We have visited public and private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, elementary schools and high schools. We have met lots of students and teachers and have had many discussions with them.
After a few visits to different schools I was quite confused about the different funding systems schools have in the U.S. In Finland education is free at all levels from pre-primary to higher education. The responsibility for educational funding is divided between the state and local authorities. The funding is based on the amount of students in schools, and the funding schools get per student is the same for all. I have learned that in the U.S. funding comes partly from federal, state and county levels and it can vary depending on the amount of property tax income in a county. So, the money that is allocated to schools is not the same for every school. As a part of a management team in my school, I have been wondering how difficult it must be for the schools that get less money to meet the same standards compared to the other schools in other counties or states.
Another big difference I have discovered between schools in the U.S. and in Finland is testing. The Finnish national strategy for student assessment is based on the principle of diversified evidence in which test-based performance data are just one part of the whole. Pre-primary and basic education are evaluated with learning outcome evaluations (only 5 – 10 % of the cohort takes these tests) and various thematic and system evaluations. The aim is to produce knowledge for developing teaching and decision-making. The evaluation also aims at ensuring educational equity and the quality of teaching. The only external standardized assessment of student learning is the National Matriculation Examination that students take at the end of upper-secondary school (high school).
I have heard a lot of discussion about testing in schools during the past few weeks I have stayed in the U.S., in schools and outside of schools. Indiana Common Core Standards were dropped in 2014 and Common Core Replacement Standards were approved. The standards lay out what students should know from kindergarten through 12th grade. The issue is a hot topic also in the media: this week I have read several articles in New York Times about testing, test results and a federal plan to reduce testing. My observations in the classrooms confirm that testing plays a big role in education in the U.S. The goal of teaching is to help students get prepared for the tests. The importance of grades received from the tests is stressed continuously by the teachers.
What is common for teachers in the U.S. and in Finland is their love for teaching and working with students! Most of the teachers I meet are deeply committed to their work. Teaching is one of the most powerful professions, teachers have a great impact on every child´s and youth´s life. This is why teaching is such a responsible profession in the U.S., in Finland and in every country in the world.
Text: Tarja Mykrä