One of our country’s best ideas: public education.

By Roy Getchell, Ph.D., Superintendent, Haines Borough School District

How many of us have built up something in our minds so much that, once experienced, it proved to be a disappointment? Sometimes life’s most pleasant surprises are just the opposite, like being dragged to a movie that turns out to be pretty good. When Harry Met Sally rings a bell in that department for me, but I digress as I show my age! It is always a good practice to discover if commonly held opinions are based upon facts or if they are just a product of false perceptions.

American educators have heard over, and over, and over again how broken, subpar, and ineffective our schools are. Poorly analyzed assessments are often weaponized by some for political gain to shame both students and teachers alike in order to tear down one of our country’s best ideas: public education.

As a lifelong educator, I also fell into that trap of believing the definite shortcomings of American education when I became the campus director of an international private school whose staff hailed from over 20 countries. While I will always consider it to be one of the most enriching learning opportunities of my lifetime, I also gained a much more realistic and informed view of our own education system and now consider it to be the international gold standard. That said, the model of education in Finland is commonly aspired to worldwide due to their high performance on the PISA (Programme for International School Assessment).

The school systems of Finland and Sweden were neck and neck during the 1990s. Scandinavian nations were at the forefront of high performance, and the pressure was on to outpace the other to solidify their vaulted positions in education on the world’s stage. As a result, Sweden adopted policies for high-stakes assessments, established a formal school inspection system, and provided vouchers for independent private schools. They unknowingly adopted the American accountability model as a sure bet to move them well beyond their competitor, confident that something built for business would easily work for schools.

In contrast, Finland scoffed at the approach of their neighbor and adopted strategies based on American research for education in their schools instead. The results spoke for themselves. The Global Education Reform Movement, labeled GERM by Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg, failed the Swedish education system. It caused a complete collapse when compared to other systems around the world with no turnaround in sight. Finland, using what we know to be best practice, had a very different result. Nothing magical was implemented except that teachers were allowed to teach, communities were given local control of their schools, assessments were used for instructional decisions, and their national school inspection system was abolished. This philosophy produced the best results in the world.

Don’t just take my word for it, listen to Dr. Sahlberg’s Ted Talk on the subject.

I am hesitant to fully embrace using any one assessment like the PISA to make a point either way. It is true that I worry we rush to reform when what we ought to do is rush to empower. We need to completely and unashamedly empower our professional educators to do what they know works, develop their talents, and maintain high expectations for all of our learners. Using strategies like fail-safe Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), quality formative assessments, and a holistic view of our children, I am confident that we will have results that look more like Finland and less like Sweden.

In Alaska, we know that we all have work ahead to provide the best education possible to every student, every day in order to achieve the goals set in Alaska’s Education Challenge. Here is to rolling up our sleeves, having the courage to do what we know is right, and resisting any urge to further the ineffective Global Education Reform Movement in our great state.

# # #

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.