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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Finland Schools Are Fine, but Helena Schools Are Heavenly

By Guest Blogger — May 21, 2015 6 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA), president of the National Education Association.

Yes, I am a fanatic for Finland, the land of common good and good schools that rejects toxic testing, privatization and de-professionalism. But it’s expensive to visit. And you need a passport. And time to fly over the Atlantic Ocean. And it’s really cold. I have a suggestion. Drive to Helena, Montana.

Montana has proven to me that if you keep your eyes on the prize of serious school improvements, and if you resist the crazy crop of “reformers” on the right and left who are easily enamored with the sales pitches of privateers and the big tests for big profits lobby, your students will shine like the northern lights that glow over Helsinki.

Helena is a verifiable educational cage-buster. I visited Helena at the invitation of Montana Education Association - Montana Federation of Teachers president Eric Feaver. The man is a shameless showoff, but we forgive him because he has something quite wonderful of which to be proud. For years, MEA-MFT has fought back privatization, standardization, and de-professionalism that creeps up like crabgrass wherever the legislature is in session. Eric and his activists have brought together educators, public employees, parents, and communities to really look at what works for students. Montana is famous for Yellowstone and uncommon common sense. Eric’s tireless efforts have borne fruit. And Montana’s students are the apple of his eye.

I met with the teachers, support professionals and the principal of Bryant Elementary. Bryant is a Title One School, which in edu-jargon means that most of the students come from families who struggle financially. However, Bryant is referred to as a “high-performing” Title One School. Its students succeed on many indicators. I wanted to find out how Bryant did it.

Lots of test prep? Pay by test scores? Drill and kill instead of recess, art, or P.E.?

None of the above.

I asked this experienced group of professionals, most of whom had served this school community for decades, how they made the magic. They were quiet for moment, not sure how to answer.

A teacher said quietly, “Compassion.” She told me, “These kids know we love them. They know what we expect of them and what they can expect from us. They know we care.”

Then they began to open up. Another explained that she led the team that helped develop their positive discipline program. She said that the children are immersed in knowing their part within this caring community. They learned how to respect others and respect themselves as learners. She said that every adult in the school—the teachers, the lunch ladies, the principal, the custodian—all had a role to play in recognizing the little things that happen in a school day that might go overlooked, like a child helping another child pick up a backpack that spilled out or a please or thank you or kind word to someone who needed it. They believe that building a culture of respect for each other and respect for learning must be the foundation of the learning process. She said, “I guess it looks like we’re spending instructional time on this, but if you get this right, kids are ready to learn. You can’t shortcut this.”

Another teacher told me her team worked on community service projects. She said that project-based learning brought relevancy and enthusiasm into the school. The teachers are organizing a giant yard sale. It’s a lot of work. They have to get donations and volunteers and advertise it. They have a goal of raising $1,000. But they plan on only keeping $500 for the school and having the kids decide to which organization in the community they should donate the other $500. They want the kids to investigate who could use their help so that they can learn their power in giving back to their community.

As I walked through the school, I popped my head into one classroom and saw the principal serving breakfast. My teacher guide told me that they all pitch in where needed. And the time they spent letting the kids have a little orange juice and a breakfast sandwich was essential to getting kids ready to learn. She said, “Some of these kids didn’t eat last night. They know there’ll be food here. No stigma. Everybody eats. Then everybody’s ready to learn.”

I went to Capital High School and saw the “shop” class. I put quotation marks around it because this is a state-of-the-art welding and mechanical engineering class. These kids are learning how to use cutting-edge technology that will prepare them for a number of high-skilled jobs after graduation. They work with unions to make sure they have their qualifications at graduation. College credit. Credentials. Apprenticeships. Before graduation. One young man told me that he could get a good job as a machinist right off the bat, but he planned on going to a university to become a mechanical engineer.

I asked what he was working on as he put a slender metal tube in his machine. “Well, I have a friend who was born without a finger. I’m designing a mechanical prosthetic finger for him. He’ll finally be able to pinch something between his finger and thumb when I’m done.”

He’ll earn college credit and be ready for a dozen jobs or to continue to a university. This is what ready for college and career looks like.

I walked to the gym with the coaches. They showed me the physical education program and how they’ve incorporated Smart Boards on heart rate and nutrition. They showed me everything from the award-winning wrestling program to their ballroom dance class. Boys and girls both could elect spinning classes (which I learned had nothing to do with wool yarn). They were so proud of the healthy kids who were going to graduate with a real sense of how to stay that way.

And none of this is driven by a standardized test.

Not at Bryant. Not with the future welders, machinists, and Freds and Gingers at Capital High. Their success is measurable and driven by the same elements that drive schools in Finland, Canada, and Singapore: highly prepared and respected career educators who are determined to have their children succeed on many different levels (mind, body, and character) and who have the authority to design something that’s meaningful, relevant, and personal to the whole children in their care.

Ok, before you ask, the test scores of these children are actually pretty good. But not because the district is obsessed with test and punish regimens, and not because the teachers are forced to use scripted commercial programs. When you focus on the whole child, all kinds of indicators go up! These amazing professionals know that you don’t sacrifice the child to hit the cut score.

Montana was wise to reject privatized franchised charter schools. They were wise to reject the test obsession fad that drains time and resources from real learning. They were wise to focus on deeply prepared career professionals who aren’t distracted from racing around to catch the testing tail that’s wagging the education dog. Students are succeeding on measures that matter.

Finland is fine. Helena is heaven.

--Lily Eskelsen García

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.