Bonus Material: Kurt Wootton and “Teach Your Children Well”

Tuesday night’s Parent Book Club on “Teach Your Children Well” was so packed with information that Kurt and I decided to cut a part of his terrific essay, “Dance Like No One’s Watching.” But after re-reading the parts we cut, and talking with my father, who (also) taught public school for his entire career, I decided that these small but important bits are vitally important to another part of the discussion: if we are going to foster true learning and help kids develop a roadmap for authentic success, we’re going to have to talk about teaching, too.

Here’s the part of Kurt’s essay that didn’t make it:

My father, who was a public school teacher, told me once that teaching in a large, traditional, neighborhood school isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon. One of my colleagues who teaches English in a Boston Public School sees 140 students every day. We know that giving students multiple choice tests, pop quizzes, and other quick assessments doesn’t truly measure their learning, but you can imagine how long it takes to grade an essay. Let’s do some quick math: 140 students x 10 minutes to read and grade a paper = 23.34 hours. That’s time spent outside of school and doesn’t include the planning time needed to prepare classes. You can see why teachers and school districts might take shortcuts by giving students multiple-choice tests that can be graded by a machine. 

The morning after Parent Book Club, my dad called to talk about ‘authentic success’ and the innovative classroom teaching that leads to tinkering, investigating, and deeper learning for students. When I told him what Kurt’s dad had said, he backed it up, and added, “There are teachers who are taking the material and presenting it in innovative ways; there are lots of creative teachers out there, no doubt. But the combination of factors that a teacher faces on a daily basis make it extremely difficult to sustain.”

We forget many times that teachers are people, too; they have families and friends and bills to pay. I know an extra unpaid 23+ hours a week would make me cranky. Yet if we are gearing our kids toward authentic success, and want them to be less focused on grades and test scores (and therefore less stressed out, depressed and freer to enjoy learning), then we must address the way the current system works – and its dogged chase of, well, grades and test scores. After re-reading this cut paragraph a few times, I got frustrated and emailed Kurt.

“What can we do about this?” I typed testily. It was only a few minutes later that I received a long, detailed list of why the school system is unable to support the kind of open-ended learning we are talking about in reference to Levine’s book – besides the obvious time constraints. He rattled off ways in which teacher development could be better, more creative, and involve teachers’ self-reflection more, and Kurt was quick to mention that it’s a complex issue and shouldn’t be looked at in clear black-and-white, but still I wanted to share a few key nuggets of the long list he wrote at 10PM:

  • ” A radically wrong-minded emphasis on testing and the results.”
  • “High student workload and little planning time. Some teachers teach 140 students a week with a 45 minute planning period during the day. They are exhausted and they are just trying to get by.”
  • “Lack of possibility and opportunity. Many teachers don’t know about and schools don’t support radical teacher professional development (like the Habla Teacher Institute.) Teachers should have the chance to travel, to take summer courses in universities, and to work with diverse organizations—and schools should pay for it!”
  • But here’s the kicker, the one that really got me: “Lack of valuing exploration and creativity from a policy and administrative level. This relates back to 1 (testing and results), but creativity can’t be quantifiably measured. It’s more difficult to evaluate learning in a creative space, and therefore the “effectiveness” of an education environment.  Great teaching and learning is messy and a bit chaotic.”

Hmmm. It seems that administrators and policy makers should join our Parent Book Club, so they could also read “Teach Your Children Well,” and see what lack of valuing exploration and creativity is doing to our kids in the long haul.

Parent Book Club: Intro to “Teach Your Children Well” with Guest Moderator Kurt Wootton

Welcome to the real-time Parent Book Club chat! To have access to all the comments and replies, please click on the title of this post; the post will go to a new page, and comments will be located at the bottom of the post. To see new comments/replies, just hit your refresh button from time to time. For more discussion, follow me on Twitter here or on Facebook here. Thanks!

Tonight’s discussion will be led and moderated by 20-year teaching veteran and author Kurt Wootton. He is cofounder of the ArtsLiteracy Project in the Education Department at Brown University, and he is currently the director of Habla: The Center for Language and Culture, an ArtsLiteracy lab school in Merida, Mexico. His first book, A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts, was written with Eileen Landay and recently published by Harvard University Press. He is also a relatively new parent: his daughter is a little over two years old. (Go here for full bio.)

Kurt has so kindly written tonight’s post and discussion question on the introduction to Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well.   He will also be around to comment and reply to your thoughts and questions. We are so excited to have him! Welcome, Kurt!

Dance Like No One’s Watching, by Kurt Wootton

Think back to a classroom experience that looked something like: a) read a chapter in the textbook; b) fill out some worksheets; c) listen to the teacher lecture; d) take a multiple choice test; e) repeat the process throughout the entire school year. This was my, and probably your, experience in many classes: algebra, history, physics, biology, chemistry. We view students as “successful” if they are able to consistently and quickly memorize large quantities of information the night before a test. If students do this throughout their school career their classmates and teachers will call them “smart,” even if they can’t think through a complex problem, collaborate with classmates, or create something original. The formula of teaching students facts and then testing them is very easy. We know who is the “best” student and who is the “worst.” We know who should be in the honor society or who is the valedictorian, but we aren’t developing and rewarding the broad range of diverse skills and talents our students bring to the academic environment.

Madeline Levine, in her book Teach Your Children Well, encourages us to move beyond valuing such superficial accomplishments and push ourselves and our children to embrace what she refers to as “authentic success.” Madeline notes that, “We know far too much about promoting healthy child development to continue to tolerate the myth that success is a straight and narrow path, with childhood sacrificed in the process. The truth is that most successful people have followed winding paths, have had false starts, and have enjoyed multiple careers.” We spend so much time in our schools assessing our students with micro-tasks—problems sets, quizzes, tests, papers—we either push students away from school, or, for those that choose to play the game, as Levine notes, they often become sleep-deprived, stressed, anxious, or even depressed.

Learning should be about taking the time to contemplate the questions of the universe. Imagine a physics teacher walking into her classroom and explaining to the students, “This year you will work in groups to try to do what Einstein wasn’t able to: to construct an overall physical theory of the universe. First you need some background information. Let’s start with Newton.” Or imagine an English teacher saying, “We read to understand who we are as human beings. We’ll consider what Hamlet’s problems have to do with our own, and by the end of this course you just might see your life in a different way.” In these classes the chance at arriving at a “correct” answer is largely out of the question. But imagine the journey!

Contrary to what many parents might think, even the road to external success is windier than it would appear. I taught for many years in an Ivy League school. Most of my students weren’t perfect academically in high school, but they were nearly all interesting. It seemed that the admissions office was not looking for the seemingly perfect student, the ones who always filled in the correct bubble. There were plenty of those applying. They wanted students who had a strong sense of integrity and a passion for something. There was Daveed the fabulous hip-hop lyricist and Jody who could dance like Michael Jackson. I remember one of my students, Liz, who wrote a top ten list of why the school should accept her, rather than writing the college essay. When I asked her about it for this article, she wrote me:

I did write a top ten list for my college essay; how on earth do you remember that? I’m pretty sure it was full of “dance like no one’s watching”-esque nuggets and Bob Dylan lyrics, though for some reason they let me in anyway.

These were students who had followed their bliss, to use writer Joseph Campbell’s term, and it showed.

Perhaps all of us as teachers and parents must work to do less talking and more listening—less cajoling and more observing. We need to help our young people find what they are passionate about and nurture those passions at home and in school. Madeline offers this definition of “authentic success”:

“Authentic success is being ‘the best me I can be’ not simply in isolation, but as part of a community, and it always includes a component of meaningful contribution and connection with others.”

Tonight’s Talk: What are authentic successes and what are the various ways we, as parents and teachers, can work to help our young people achieve them rather than the superficial ones our schools and society often demand?

I look forward to the conversation.

“Teach Your Children Well” #PBC Resources

We are gearing up for a very exciting Monday night Parent Book Club discussion led by author and educator Kurt Wootton. I have seen Kurt’s post introducing the book and covering the introduction, and it is outstanding! You are not going to want to miss this exciting discussion! Join us at 8:30 PM CST this coming Monday, October 22. Invite your friends. We are going to talk about education, parenting, and what it means to own”authentic success.” 

In the meantime, here are some related resources I thought you might enjoy. If you haven’t done so, grab the book and join us Monday night!

New York Times Review of “Teach Your Children Well” by Judith Warner

Warner writes, “This message — that, essentially, every­thing today’s parents think they’re doing right is actually wrong – is the most noteworthy take-away from… this book.

“The Ego in Raising Successful Children” at NYT Motherlode blog

Motherlode editor KJ Dell’Antonia notices, “I begin to suspect that we do all this discussing and ruminating, as Ms. Levine put it, ‘out of our own needs rather than theirs.’ How egotistical is it to think that my parenting skills shape my children’s every action?”

“Teach Your Children Well: An Interview With Psychologist and Author Madeline Levine” at HuffPost

I liked this bit of the interview so much, I posted it on my Facebook page, but here it is again, straight from Levine’s mouth: “When I say overparenting is not a great idea, I’m really talking about three things: Don’t do for your kid what they can already do. Don’t do for your kid what they can almost do, because that’s where they have those successful failures. Sometimes they make it; sometimes they don’t — but that’s where they learn. And don’t do for your kids out of your needs, not theirs. That’s my quick definition of overparenting.”

Browse Inside “Teach Your Children Well” by Madeline Levine

Harper Collins give you a chance to read a bit of the book before you buy; also provides links to online booksellers

Parent Book Club book “How Children Succeed”

Parent Book Club’s take on a related book, “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough, and research on how character traits like grit and perseverance may prove to be more important to success than academics, test scores, and IQs.

Guest Moderator Kurt Wootton Joins Parent Book Club

Parent Book Club is very excited to announce that educator, author and consultant Kurt Wootton will blog and moderate the introduction segment of  Madeline Levine’s “Teach Your Children Well” on Tuesday night, October 23, at 8:30 PM CST. Here’s a little bit about Kurt and why you need to join us for this exciting, enlightening discussion!

Kurt Wootton is a 20-year veteran teacher and expert in integrating literacy and the arts. He is cofounder of the ArtsLiteracy Project in the Education Department at Brown University, and he is currently the director of Habla: The Center for Language and Culture, an ArtsLiteracy lab school in Merida, Mexico. His first book, A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts, was written with Eileen Landay and recently published by Harvard University Press. He is also a relatively new parent: his daughter is a little over two years old. (Go here for full bio.)

Kurt is also my friend. We performed in high school productions of “The Music Man” and “Hello, Dolly!” together; we both have fathers who taught public school. But, most importantly, we have had many discussions about the role of education in children’s lives (especially over email); he has guided much of the thinking that helped me become the education writer I am today; I attended an Habla conference put on by Kurt and his wife Marimar that changed the way I thought about learning. It is for all these reasons that I thought Kurt was the perfect person to investigate the introduction to psychologist Levine’s guide to authentic parenting. I can’t wait to hear what Kurt has to say about the book – his perspective as a teacher and a parent, what he thinks are the biggest takeaways, and how he thinks parents might be able to use Levine’s argument going forward.

So, why wouldn’t you join us for Tuesday’s intro session on Teach Your Children Well? Get your book today and dig into the introduction, then come back Tuesday night at 8:30 PM CST to share your thoughts!

The Next #PBC Pick: Teach Your Children Well

“This message — that, essentially, every­thing today’s parents think they’re doing right is actually wrong – is the most noteworthy take-away from… this book.” Judith Warner, The New York Times

From reading How Children Succeed, we learned our kids need grit – perseverance, optimism, and self-control, too – but how do we go about teaching that? What’s the best way to give our kids the tools to be independent, strong and happy?

With this in mind, I am thrilled to introduce our next book club pick: child psychologist Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well. The book’s jacket says, “Parents, educators, and the media wring their hands about the plight of America’s children and teens—soaring rates of emotional problems, limited coping skills, disengagement from learning and yet there are ways to reverse these disheartening trends. Teach Your Children Well acknowledges that every parent wants successful children. However, until we are clearer about our core values and the parenting choices that are most likely to lead to authentic, and not superficial, success, we will continue to raise exhausted, externally driven, impaired children who believe they are only as good as their last performance. Real success is always an inside job, argues Levine, and is measured not by today’s report card but by the people our children become fifteen or twenty years down the line.”

Parenting, Levine says, is a long-term gig, but today’s parents might be too focused on immediate rewards. It’s no mystery that many upper- and upper-middle class parents are confused about what to give their kids: Paul Tough himself used the words “the trophy generation” on national TV to describe the culture of reward, outward success, and constant achievement engendered by parents who only want the best for their kids. Yet, in the haste to produce successful children, are we parents pushing too hard, and pushing the wrong things? Are our kids learning the wrong lessons – both about their relationships and their futures?

Sure to be controversial and engaging, challenging our deepest questions about parenting and the role of parents in an uncertain world of constant change, Teach Your Children Well should be an exciting read for parents who want to change the path that they are on, or add new tools to a parenting style that favors the long-term goals over short-term success.

Get the book now! We will have our first real-time, online chat Monday night, October 22 at 8:30 CST. 

 

 

Book Club: How Children Succeed, Conclusion

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If you are interested in receiving the new *Parent Book Club Newsletter *- a once-monthly recap of the books we’re reading, the books coming up, and some secret surprises, too (like how about some author interviews?) -just shoot me an email with “newsletter” in the subject line and I’ll put you on the list to be one of the first to get Parent Book Club in your inbox!

Well, parents, here we are at the end of our very first Book Club book. Before we get started, I want to say thank you to all who read and who commented, I got so much more out of this book because *you* were here to talk about it, analyze it, and apply it to your own life, along with me. Thank you.

The last two chapters of How Children Succeed were bittersweet, did you think that? I found myself getting weepy in more than one section – wanting to give Kewauna Lerma a huge hug because she is working so hard to overcome her background and her education, especially considering her attitude toward her own learning. I want to hear about where Kewauna ends up, because I just know it’s going to be somewhere, doing something wonderful. Tough quotes researcher Carol Dweck, how she found that “”students who believed intelligence was maleable did much better than students who believed intelligence was fixed.” Kewauna seems like she believes it, and that gives me a tremendous amount of hope, both for education and for kids who don’t have access to many advantages.

I found myself equally as moved by the thought of high-achieving kids choosing unfulfilling careers because they are afraid of taking risks. Tough writes,  “I often felt I stumbled upon a pervasive, if still somewhat inchoate, anxiety with within the contemporary culture of affluence, a feeling that something had gone wrong within the traditional channels of American meritocratic pursuit, that young people were graduating from our finest institutions of higher learning with excellent credentials and well-honed test-taking skills and not much else that would allow them to make their own way in the world.” Surprisingly, he goes on,”There are fewer entrepreneurs graduating from our best colleges these days; fewer iconoclasts; fewer artists; fewer everything, in fact, except investment bankers and management consultants.”

How did you feel about the conclusion? And what about the book will stick with you?

And now…. I’m very excited to announce the next Parent Book Club book: child psychologist Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well – the subtitle “Why values and coping skills matter more than grades, trophies or ‘fat envelopes'” truly says it all! The New York Times‘ Judith Warner says about the book: “This message — that, essentially, every­thing today’s parents think they’re doing right is actually wrong – is the most noteworthy take-away from… this book.” Sparking tons of conversation, Teach Your Children Well’s first #PBC chat will be Monday, October 22 at 8:30 PM CST. I hope you will get the book and join us!

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Tonight’s Talk: Kewauna Lerma, a young woman in the book from an extremely disadvantaged background who works her way to college, tells Tough: “No matter how overwhelming it is, no matter how exhausting it is, I’m not going to give up,” she said. “I’m never the type to give up. Even when I played hide-and-go-seek when I was little, I would be outside till eight o’clock, until I found everyone. I don’t give up on nothing, no matter how hard.” He contrasts her efforts with his own – how he dropped out of Columbia to pursue a variety of different things, but still encountered a great deal of failure and dead ends – and still ended up a success. What is the path for success in our ever-changing 21st Century world? Are there lessons from this book you will take home with you? If so, what are they? 

Is “Grit” Just Puritan Work Ethic in Disguise?

Before we reach the conclusion of Paul Tough’s bestseller How Children Succeed tomorrow night, I wanted to inject an opposition view into the conversation: a recent article by parenting and education author and expert Alfie Kohn. Kohn’s piece “Do kids really learn from failure? Why conventional wisdom may be wrong,” featured on The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post, questions why exactly we think grit and perseverance are good qualities to engender and develop.

“When you hear about the limits of IQ these days,” he writes, “it’s usually in the context of a conservative narrative that emphasizes not altruism or empathy but something that sounds suspiciously like the Protestant work ethic. More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseveranceself-discipline and will power. The goal is to make sure they’ll be able to resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, and put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do.”

Kohn asks, “Is failure useful?” He says that no research actually shows that failure makes kids better learners, or more successful. “In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure. (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.) In one study, students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure. Then they were asked to solve problems that were clearly within their capabilities. What happened?  Even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion. By the same token, if an adult declines to step in and help when kids are frustrated, that doesn’t make them more self-sufficient or self-confident: It mostly leaves them feeling less supported, less secure about their own worthiness, and more doubtful about the extent to which the parent or teacher really cares about them.”

He notes that often, the reason kids fail at tasks is twofold: because they don’t see a good reason for doing them, or because they were ordered to do so, without any context or decision-making power of their own.

But this is my favorite, and perhaps most substantive, of Kohn’s reasons he believes kids fail at school: “Maybe the problem is that the educational environment emphasizes how well students are doing rather than what they’re doing: It’s all about achievement! performance! results! rigor! and not about the learning itself. Educational psychologists have found that when students are induced to think about grades and test scores — particularly, though not exclusively, when the point is to do better than everyone else — they will naturally attempt to avoid unnecessary risks. If the goal is to get an A, then it’s rational to pick the easiest possible task. Giving up altogether just takes this response to its logical conclusion. “I’m no good at this, so why bother?” is not an unreasonable response when school is primarily about establishing how good you are.”

Putting this in perspective of our Parent Book Club book, what do you think of this? Do you think developing grit is just a way to teach our kids to be compliant with orders? Or, do you think that grit and perseverance offer something more?

Book Club: Chapters 2 and 3 in “How Children Succeed”

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I don’t know about you, but I found chapters 2 and 3 – “How To Build Character” and “How To Think,” the best ones yet. I couldn’t stop thinking about the IS 318 chess team, about their teacher (she reminded me very much of my high school theater teacher, Andy Lindauer, who believed strongly in pointing out mistakes in order to get it right – and the results were similarly fantastic), and about what it really takes to get good at something: a mix of smarts and dedication, perseverance and grit. The story of those boys becoming national chess champions (and chess masters) is truly inspiring – even including the depressing realization that the same kids who are clearly brilliant at chess are lagging behind in school, due to a lack in accumulated knowledge. (This is a discussion for another time: did you find yourself asking, how did these smarty-pants get to eighth grade without knowing the name of a single European country?)

Yet the thing that has hung with me, and that has affected me the most, is Chapter 2, “How To Build Character.” I was fascinated by the contrast of the KIPP school list of character traits and the Riverdale School’s list – how different they were, how different cultures and groups put different character traits at the forefront for different reasons, and what this says about us. I couldn’t stop thinking about the cheating scandals at Stuyvesant, Harvard, the entire Atlanta school district – and how our over-importance on some things could be contributing to a lack of oversight in others (namely, “success” and “integrity”). I thought about what has transpired on Wall Street over the past five years. I couldn’t help but wonder: what character traits am I emphasizing to my kids, whether unwittingly or not? How can I weave in some others that I find important but haven’t really considered until now?

The Book Club will re-convene next Monday night, October 2, at 8:30 PM CST, to discuss the end of the book – Chapter Four: How to Succeed, and Chapter Five: A Better Path. It’s about 60 pages, and shouldn’t be too tough to tackle in a week. Come back and join us, would love to hear your thoughts!

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Tonight’s Talk: Which character traits are most important to you, and why? Tough breaks character traits down into two groups: the “virtues” like honesty, kindness and inclusion, and the “success” traits like grit, perseverance, and my personal favorite, zest. Which ones is your school teaching? Which ones do our kids absorb: the need to persevere at all costs? Or to be kind, to be honest? Which character traits does our society support? 

Book Club: Intro and Chapter One in “How Children Succeed”

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Sooooo — how did you like the intro and first chapter to How Children Succeed? Is it what you expected? I had read the original NYT Magazine piece this book was based on, titled “What If The Secret to Success Is Failure?”, so I kind of knew where Tough was headed. He writes early on that we are a culture fully immersed in the “cognitive hypothesis” – or, “the belief, rarely expressed aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills – the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, the detect patterns – and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.” Yet he then unravels the hypothesis, backed up by lots of research that suggests the opposite: it’s character traits like grit, perseverance, persistance, and curiosity that are better predictors of future success.

Why don’t more kids develop these character traits that put them on the road to success? Two large factors are poverty and stress – or, really, how our bodies react to deeply stressful situations, which many kids face every day. Particularly upsetting to me is the research on what early stress and poverty does to a child’s brain – as Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University, tells Tough, “the process of managing stress, which he labeled allostasis, is what creates wear and tear on the body. If the body’s stress-management systems are overworked, they eventually break down under the strain.”

Yet even though research shows that the effects of early stress can last a lifetime, there is also hope. Tough writes in Chapter One: “But there is also some positive news in this research. It turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects of early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators but from parents. Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment.” He reiterates,”The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical.”

The Book Club will re-convene next Monday night, October 2, at 8:30 PM CST, to discuss Chapter Two: How to Build Character, and Chapter Three: How to Think. It’s about 60 pages, and shouldn’t be too tough to tackle in a week. Come back and join us, would love to hear your thoughts!

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Tonight’s Talk: A subject that is often left out of conversations about education is the stressful, unstable lives that children live at home. As Finnish Education Minister Pasi Sahlberg recently told American educators, academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority when the Finns were redesigning their world-class education system; equality was. Yet we Americans shy away from talking about equality when it comes to children. Why? Leaving politics at the door, please, why do we so want to not face this reality: that improving the home lives of poor children has been shown to improve their chances for a lifetime of stability and success?

And, what’s more – what can WE do about it? (One of the things I choose to do about it is keep this blog – I feel that informing parents about issues like these is paramount!)  

The “Finnish Miracle” in Education: We Are the 47%

Recently, I found this incredibly thoughtful piece in The Atlantic called “What Americans Keep Ignoring About the Finnish Miracle.” Finland has scored at or near the top on the international-standard PISA test since 2000, with the likes of Shanghai, China, and South Korea. Their Westernness has Americans all-aflutter as to what they’re doing so well that we’re not. We’ve been speculating here and here and here. But the real answers, according to the Finns themselves, may surprise you.

According to the Atlantic piece, Pasi Sahlberg, “director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?,” recently came to America to describe Finland’s reform efforts and present success to our education leaders. Sahlberg talked about what we may know by now: teaching is a highly respected career in Finland, and very prestigious (grad students in education get picked from the top 10-13% of applicants; here in the states, the majority of teachers are supplied from the bottom 1/3 of graduates). Finland gives no standardized tests (until you are ready to graduate from high school), or maintains lengthy formal report cards – each teacher designs individual assessments for their class. All of these are well and good, and Americans should take note, but that wasn’t the core of Mr. Sahlberg’s message. As the article’s author, Anu Partanen, put it, “Academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority” to Finland when they reformed their school system; equality was.

There are no private schools in Finland, no magnet schools, no special-entrance lottery charter schools; there are a handful of independent schools, but they receive their money from the government. The first priority of the now-famous “Finnish Miracle” was that all students have the same opportunity to learn in a well-resourced school. They feed them nutritious, free meals at school. Pre-school and college are also free, so parents aren’t stressed out about resume-building to get into a name-brand school that provides a superior opportunity. Parents don’t have to stress because their kids’ school is falling apart, or the teachers don’t care, or the state test is dumbing down their child’s opportunity to learn. Because every kid is offered a superior opportunity to learn. All the schools, regardless of neighborhood, rural/city environment, and income bracket are excellent. This is why they are doing so well.

Critics of the Finnish system say that Finland is very homogenous with little immigration and no language differentiation, making their children easier  to educate. But Finland does have immigration, and, according to the PISA score, even neighborhoods that are highly diverse, with lots of immigrants and income disparities, still do extremely well on the test. Why? Because the schools of immigrant children are just as good, just as well-staffed and cared for, as the schools in homogenous neighborhoods.

Critics have also attacked Finland’s social-democracy model that favors an equality where no one stands out, but everyone does well. (One blog commenter said something to the effect: Who is Finland’s Steve Jobs? Famous musicians? Scientific geniuses? We can’t name one.) Finland’s system couldn’t work here, detractors argue, because America’s obsession with outliers and competition is too precious. Competition is what makes us who we are.

Yet we willfully choose to ignore one important fact about our American need for unrelenting competition: in order for there to be winners, there have to be losers. In order to reform American education, we have to talk about the losers, and we need to put ourselves in their shoes. We already know that many who score at the bottom are poor; we know schools in poor neighborhoods don’t get the same resources as the ones in better neighborhoods. Yet, in American reform efforts, we have made competition for great schools the cornerstone anyway. As Sahlberg puts it, in the States, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

Competition is great for business (the Finns have a capitalism-based business economy, too), but terrible for an education system. When we talk about competition, what we enjoy talking about is the winners. The success stories. But what Americans hate talking about is who loses in the competition. Who doesn’t get into the charter-school lottery. Who doesn’t have the opportunity to move out of the neighborhood. And the numbers show that the kids from these environments are more likely to drop out of high school, not finish college, or, at worst, end up in prison. Is this how we see ourselves?

This is a model we explicitly accept when we accept the school choice, competition and accountability model. (Sahlberg tells a group of Columbia Teachers College students that the word “accountability” doesn’t exist in Finnish: “Accountability is what’s left when you remove responsibility,” he is quoted in the piece.)

What do you make of this? From what I can tell, Finnish education looks a lot like Waldorf education. Children learn to play and get along first and read later, and there is as much thought and focus put into recess, nutritious food, creativity and making learning fun as hard work and doing well. But it’s the distinct lack of competition, and making sure that all children have equal access to resources, according to Minister Sahlberg, that has created its success.