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Newark Teachers Fall for Merit Pay; Finland Succeeds with Cooperation, Not Competition

Alas, even my fellow teachers can get policy wrong. The Newark, New Jersey, teachers union just voted to accept a contract that includes merit pay. Of course, if you back teachers to the wall and drag them through two years without any contract, you can pressure them to accept all sorts of bad ideas... including a program dependent on private donations from millionaires with their own self-serving agenda for education.

Governor Dennis Daugaard will surely point to the Newark teachers' vote as justification for his inevitable push for more bad education reforms. Never mind that merit pay still hasn't been tied to any consistent improvements in student achievement. Never mind that merit pay will go to the wrong teachers. Never mind that if we really want to improve our education system, we need to move in the absolute opposite direction from the merit pay, competition, and testing that Newark teachers have been driven to accept.

See also: Finland. Pasi Sahlberg, the floor is yours:

Pasi Sahlberg, an official with Finland's Ministry of Education and Culture, is in Seattle this week to share the story of Finland's success, and what states like Washington can learn from it.

Sahlberg's message, although he is too polite to put it so bluntly: Stop testing so much. Trust teachers more. Give less homework. Shorten the school day.

Finland, in other words, has become an education star by doing the opposite of what's happening in many U.S. schools and school districts, including many in Washington state.


Rather than judging teachers and schools based on test scores, he said, Finland puts trust in its teachers and principals. Teachers develop the curriculum in Finland, and design their own tests. There are no national tests, except one at the end of high school.

That's just the start. Along with a shorter school day, Finnish students don't even start school until they are 7 years old. Many primary schools have a policy against giving homework.

...Sahlberg spoke almost harshly about charter schools, which Washington voters have just approved, saying they privatize the public-school system. In Finland, he said, parents don't angst over where to send their children to school. All the schools, he said, offer the same high-quality program [Linda Shaw, "Finland's Educational Success Story: Less Testing, More Trusting," Seattle Times, 2012.11.14].

Nix Newark. Let's follow Finland!


  1. Charlie Johnson 2012.11.16

    Amen to Finland. Education should be about learning. Developing the ability to think in a critical matter is so important for any young person. Learning to fill in "bubble tests" is not fair for students.

  2. John 2012.11.18

    Yes!! Let's follow Finland, or South Korea, or Singapore, or Denmark - or any world-leading model other our outdated, decrepit, over-tinkered with, once great but failed to keep up model.

    Companies are having to do what schools and school boards now refuse to do - educate our future workers. Employers too frequently tell us there are jobs if folks have the skills, but alas too few have the skills.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.18

    John, let me be a little contrarian here. Is it really the job of public education to teach all the skills the private sector wants? From what you and Friedman say, the private sector is providing the training for the jobs it needs. Hearkening back to the public sector, shouldn't the government focus on providing the public goods that the private sector cannot or will not provide? The private sector has a motivation to teach people high-tech welding and programming; it does not have the same motivation to teach kids history, art, or civics.

    Loosening my contrarian hat, I will agree that public schools need to prepare students to be successful workers. We can and should teach the big-picture skills that will help in almost any job: communciation, critical thinking, math... (any others?).

    But check out that Friedman article: he seems to be saying that the big workforce problem is that the specific skills in demand are changing so quickly that the education system hasn't been able to keep up. Who's to say that, if Spearfish High School did engage in some curriculum crash-revamp to provide those specific in-demand job skills, our graduates wouldn't enter the workforce five years from now to discover their skills already obsolete?

    Friedman also says that a big problem is that colleges and universities (not to mention high schools) can't keep up with the workforce changes when we cut their budgets. Making the school system more responsive to workforce needs would require investment in more personnel. Friedman talks about sending teachers out into the workforce to learn what skills kids need. If you want to send me out to regularly survey the workforce on their French needs, that's great. But you'r going to have to hire a second French teacher to cover my classes while I spend time (an hour a day? a week each month? plus time for planning and curriculum writing, since no textbook will come out fast enough to cover what I learn in the workforce that I need to teach my kids right now?) interfacing with industry?

    I'm not saying we can't meet the challenge of preparing students for a swiftly evolving workforce. I am questioning whether specific workforce skill training in the public school system is the best way to meet that challenge. I am also going to remind everyone that whatever approach we take will require more resources.

  4. Les 2012.11.18

    Hmm, nothing new about Finland, it sounds like my mothers methods until the state got smarter than her in the last few years of her 40 year career which ended in the early 70's.

    But, she was an old die-hard. "Kids don't fail, teachers do" was her ironclad motto.

    I believe we've forced our teachers to fail by tying their hands in addressing their students needs.

  5. David Newquist 2012.11.18

    From "Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy" by Bill Ivey;

    "Some years back, the marketplace business came into the world of education. And education asked, what do you want? And business said, we want workers. And now education has become all about training workers and all about income and all about salary and career."

  6. John 2012.11.18

    Les, exactly. Napoleon's version is, "There are no bad regiments, only bad colonels." I suspect that is more apt because most of our education failures are larger than mere teachers, but rather trace to the principals, school boards, state agencies, and legislatures that tolerate our present education output mediocrity.

    Education is for outcomes. One outcome is an educated productive citizen capable of intelligently questioning and improving her/his government. Another outcome is to learn enough to be able to provide for oneself. Friedman and Tapani bemoan that high school shop used to teach welding (which likely isn't occurring much now) but the skill-set need progressed to where welders now must understand and apply the science (metallurgy) behind the skill (which isn't being taught at all). If it's the employers job to "teach and train" their workers then we could extend that argument to French or virtually any subject in the high school or college curriculum. At some point our education institutions are responsible to show their relevance more than knowledge for its own sake - or they can return to teaching Latin, bleeding, mercury treatments, alchemy, etc. The schools need resources. They also need year-round, 250+ contact days per year. But more than resources, they must fundamentally change their model, vision, and leadership.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.19

    John, if you want year-round school, you're going to have to pay year-round wages. And I would like to know just how much science those welders need to know. If we teach that science, what percentage of students will use it?

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