Curriculum Opinion

Let Schools and Districts Defend Their Solutions

By Deborah Meier — May 01, 2008 4 min read

Dear Diane,

I agree, Finland is not the answer. That’s my point! There isn’t one. Or even two or three. We can learn from others, but in the end we are responsible for using what we learn in our own setting—place, time, history and, of course, values.

It’s instructive—for me—to realize that the Finns focus on a playful and wonder-filled childhood, and postpone teaching reading until kids are 7 or older. It might be, as one blogger commented, that Finnish phonemes are simpler and thus one can learn to read faster there. Or it may be that they learn to read better because they haven’t been bored and defeated by too early an introduction to a passive learning process.

It may be that the common core curriculum that the Finns use could work anywhere or it may be that it’s a different thing altogether to discuss a common core for a country smaller than NYC (5 million), in which almost everyone is native born—and has been so for generation upon generation—versus a nation of 300-plus million in which the majority cannot trace their history in the USA back more than a hundred or so years.

(NY State has had a common core (with exams) for a century, and Massachusetts has had no state regulation—just elected school boards. Yet Massachusetts test scores compare well with most OED nations!)

It may be that the Finns’ common core of academics is assessed in ways so different from ours, and far less frequently, that to call them both “tests” is to confuse matters.

It may be that in a nation in which 80 percent are members of the same state-established church one can presume a level of “consensus” that a religiously divided nation like ours can’t.

It may be that the fullness of Finland’s welfare system—universal health care, relative income equality, etc.—would make them successful regardless of any of the above.

What we agree about, Diane, is the need to discuss the purposes of schooling. What shared criteria might we “answer to”? There are many ways to get at the latter without developing a detailed curriculum about what should be taught (at what age, in what sequence, and in what detail). Democracy is a form of accountability and maybe we can develop acceptable public bodies that we agree to answer to.

The quoted three paragraphs of Finland’s “mission statement” sound fine to me. Central Park East Secondary School and Mission Hill would be happy to defend our work as a response to such a mission. But supporting “his or her mother tongue” and “cultural identity” is a mission, for example, that some Americans might not support. “Develop a democratic society”—would such a phrase appear in many a U.S. mission statement, rather than the paler “be a good citizen”? The Finnish mission suggests skills like “evaluate critically”, “create new culture”, “revitalize ways of thinking and acting” that some conservatives would argue don’t belong in mandatory K-12 schooling. It’s a radical statement that might not sit comfortably in our culture. (Sol Stern of The Sun might be nervous, for example.) (Editor’s note: See this guest column by Sol Stern in eduwonkette.)

I can hear a lot of folks to the right and left of me feeling that Finland’s mission is insufficient/ wrong-headed or even evil. (Humph: “self-esteem!) Let’s put it out there for discussion for starters.

But even if we could unite behind a similar statement, it hardly leads to a single approach to either pedagogy or curriculum! Then, comes the hard part—of course—what subjects and pedagogies best achieve such ends? My solution? Let schools and districts defend how their solutions meet such a broad description of the role of K-12 education. Erin and Diana (two of our readers) raise the importance of “external” reviewers. Both make good points, and perhaps what was important about CPESS and MH’s graduation requirements was the way they included such public reviewers. It’s not a “do your own thing”—it’s the responsibility of any public institution to defend its “own” solution to democratically selected bodies in a publicly agreed upon manner.

Note also, Diane, that when I urge us to include the cultures that surround us, I am not suggesting that we applaud—or condemn them. What I’m arguing is that we won’t influence the minds of the young if we insist they park their ideas outside our schools, to be picked up at 3 p.m.. We don’t want to perpetuate the idea that there is a strictly “academic” way of reading, writing, and thinking. Persistently ignoring the cultural norms they are exposed to leaves them defenseless.

Making room for these realities (which includes the “ideology” of the market place, the political scene, and the arts) is risky. It’s safer to avoid them. But it’s precisely when teachers and students are passionate that their best and worst habits of mind emerge. That’s when I can really “assess” how my colleagues and my students use their minds! Sometimes it scares me, but it’s also what “educating” for democracy needs to tackle. I fear that it won’t happen “somewhere” else if we are afraid to let it happen within our schools.


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