Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Finally made it! Finland Day 1 @ the University of Helsinki

Arrived at Logan Airport at 5pm on Saturday night for a 7:30pm flight. All told this wound up being 12 hours of travel time and 10 actual hours in the sky. With the 7 hour time change this basically took away a day of my life.

Flight was long. Unfortunately got stuck in the middle seat. Nothing like being squished in a middle seat for 10 hours that makes you realize it is time to really hit the gym and start eating better. Ha.

Finally landed in Helsinki at 1:20pm on Sunday morning. We were promptly greeted by our international tour director Aidan (originally from England) and two members of EF tours.

Our group of administrators from MA included Supts.; Asst. Supts., Principals, and Asst. Principals from Weston, Holliston, Groton, Needham, Wrentham, Whitman-Hanson, Chelmsford,  Tyngsboro, Wellesley, and of course Assabet Valley. It feels good to be sharing ideas and rubbing elbows with educators from some of the highest performing schools in Massachusetts. I was very happy to say that all of my colleagues were very interested in our structure at Assabet yet I was surprised at how little they really knew about the structure of vocational education in general. They all had a positive picture of vocational education in general.

Had reindeer for dinner Sunday night. That was a bad choice. If you haven't had reindeer yet consider yourself lucky.

Monday Morning 
University of Helsinki
Najat Ouakrim-Solvio- Counselor of Education

Something interesting: every baby born in Finland gets to go home with this special "baby basket" as a gift from the government. This is the first step in Finland's goal to set-up all children and families for success. Kind of neat. I would have liked to have a baby basket for Rob!

After the two minutes we discussed the baby basket we learned about the central features of Finnish education policy. While some things are much different then the US the important things I took away were this:

We shouldn't just chalk it up that the US is so very different then Finland so we can't possibly do what they do.

Don't compare Finland vs. the US in terms of overall population (5.5 million vs. 300 million) but look at Finland in terms of comparison with Massachusetts. This makes sense in terms that the majority of educational policy comes from the state level. This was a very important note.

Teacher Preparation

Another critical point was the rigor of teacher education in the United States. Teacher education in Finland more closely mirrors that of those receiving law degrees in the US. You must have a Master's degree to start teaching. There are only 8 universities in the entire country who have teacher preparation programs. Admittance to teacher educator programs are extremely competitive and many prospective educators are simply turned away (in 2013 only 453 prospective teachers out of 766 gained entry into teacher education programs).

The teaching profession is equivalent to doctors in prestige. Wouldn't that be nice?! While I was encouraged to hear this I realized how disappointing it is in the US that teachers are not looked at as important as they should be and certainly not paid what they are worth.

Take away: while we cannot oversee higher education teacher preparation programs we can make sure that we hire educators who have gone through respected teacher preparation programs and have initial and professional licensure. For those that only have preliminary licensure we can work with them to make sure they are taking additional coursework.

More importantly we can continue to structure our new teacher program around teaching strategies and pedagogy discussion. We have started this. We have already had a session discussing formative assessment. However, building a full curriculum for new teacher meetings is a great idea. Our teacher mentor liaison and Dean overseeing the new teachers have begun this. We are going in the right direction.

Other ideas: Use in-service days to put new teachers into specific trainings on classroom management, pedagogy, differentiation, formative assessment, etc. Create a year long list of PD opportunities for new teachers that you do every single year. We do this in pockets now but a more streamlined approach would make more sense.

Discussion about a reduced course load for new staff: adding that one period for training and observation of veteran staff would be beneficial. This would be a major change but it makes sense. The MA Tells Survey actually had a question about a reduced course load for new teachers. A drastic change but worth discussing.

Another idea would be to have a summer program for new teachers. Structure 3-4 days over the summer taught by current staff or admin on different pedagogical topics. This would be a great way to set-up new hires for success.

Standardized Testing

Another major difference is their relative disinterest in standardized testing. They highlight the importance of growth and autonomy in teaching  vs. the US model where we are basically obsessed and driven by standardized testing results.

Take away: unfortunately in Massachusetts standardized testing is published, school levels are based upon standardized testing, and students not passing standardized tests cannot graduate. This is not going away anytime soon.
There is no doubt that teachers and students at AV feel a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety when it comes to standardized testing. It is critical for administrators and teachers to discuss and find ways to give additional time to math and literacy for our students. More time dedicated to reading, writing, and problem solving will allow for less time to be spent on specific standardized testing strategies. Having more time to teach the critical reading and writing standards will certainly alleviate the need to "jam" everything in so quickly. Discussions have started on looking into ways of doing this at AV.
Most importantly we as a district need to come to a conclusion on how important the scores are to us. Obviously we want our students to pass and move onto bigger and better things in life. However, should we be talking more about growth scores vs. overall achievement? That would really change our focus on standardized testing and put less pressure on the students and teachers.

Monday afternoon
Primary teacher education: towards professional autonomy
Dr. Heidi Kryzwacki

Visited Dr. HeidI Kyzywacki at Helsinki U. She went more in-depth about teacher training. Explained that the autonomy given to teachers comes from the understanding that  all teachers have already gone though a serious, rigorous teacher practicum. They do not evaluate teachers in Finland like the US does.

Take away: Trust and autonomy are crucial to the admin-teacher relationship and morale of a school. The issue is the US model has teachers coming from a variety of undergraduate schools and many times from the private sector. We really don't know what they truly know and don't know based only on an interview or two and a 30 minute mini-lesson.
This is critical. Again this is why it may be worth looking into a full year curriculum for new staff. Setting them up for success is critical. A person coming from the private sector may become a great teacher (we have several examples of this currently in our building) but its going to take them some time to adjust to the classroom. How can we help this process more?

All teacher training in Finnish Universities is Research based. Education for all prospective teachers is based on research. Again another big change to what we see at the majority of US college and universities.

Monday evening
Dr. Kirsi Kettula- University of Helsinki
- discussion on continued professional development and education for Finnish teachers

Finnish educators are life long learners but due to the rigorous undergraduate training most teachers have choices of professional development. Admin are not as concerned about PD because they know the universities have covered everything.

  • in the US a lot of teachers have the idea that PD is done to you vs. a model of asking what PD do you need? Or having PD start from the ground up or being taught by teachers. 
  • We are getting better at this at AV as shown in the most recent TELLS survey numbers by staff on our PD. We are nearly 30 percentage points above the state average on PD satisfaction from staff.

A note on vocational education: After 9th grade school students choose their path: vocational or academic academies. 

Universities educate the vocational educators specifically - there are specific programs and schools just for vocational teachers. Interesting. More on Voc-Ed tomorrow.

Lots of things to think about. Currently on education overload. Going to two schools tomorrow to speak with admin, teachers and students!

I hope to discuss some of the most important parts of the PD on October 14th with academic staff. Thanks for reading!

P.S. Luckily there is a 7 hour time change here and I was unable to watch the Patriots. I heard it was painful! This is how I felt when I found out I didn't have an aisle or window seat. 

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