Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Humanistic Science Inquiry-Oriented Teaching in Finland

Note: This is the second post by Dr. Ingvar Stål, Senior lecturer in physics, chemistry, and science at the Botby Junior High School. In his first post, which you can read here, Dr. Stål gave us an overview of the Finnish educational system, which provides a basic education to all Finnish citizens ages 7 to 16, as well as a higher education.  In the first post, Dr. Stål helped us understand the overall structure of the Finnish educational system, beginning with basic education, grades 1 – 6, followed by lower secondary, grades 7 – 10, and upper secondary, 11 and 12.

Dr. Stål teaches at Botby School, Helsinki, Finland.  He conducts teacher training courses in science at Turku ( 92,6 miles or 149,02 km from Helsinki), School Resources.  He is also doing research in Science Education for his second doctorate at Interdisciplinary Science Education, Technologies and Learning (ISETL), School of Education, University of Glasgow, UK ( 1098,8 miles or 1768,3 km from Helsinki) under supervision of Professor Vic Lally.

In this post, Dr. Stål writes about the methods that science teachers use in Finnish classrooms by comparing the behavioristic teaching of school physics, which is teacher-centered (TCM) to the humanistic science inquiry oriented (HSIO) method, which student-centered (SCM).  This post is based on a research paper by Dr. Stål which you can read in full here.

By Dr. Ingvar Stål

In class, regardless of the country there is always a central figure – the teacher. The teacher knows how to work with students, in order to involve them in teaching process. The teacher is responsible for the organization of curriculum content for the students.  Therefore, the teacher must have appropriate education for this activity.

Finnish Science Teachers and Teaching

Dr. Ingvar Stål, science teacher and researcher, Botby School, Helsinki, Finland. Copyright © | Ingvar Stål 2008-2009

In the Finnish comprehensive school, teachers still have a respectable position in society. The education of physics teachers takes about 5 years and is carried out by local universities, and as additional training to obligatory specialization.

After this training teachers receive a Mastes Degree in a subject and a Teaching Certificate. For example, a teacher may have a Masters Degree in Physics and Certificate of Teaching in Physics at Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary Schools. In order to receive this certificate candidates must have at least 60 credits in Pedagogy Studies and Practice.

In recent years in the Finnish comprehensive schools there has been a shortage of Physics teachers. In the Finland-Swedish comprehensive school year 2008 only 57,1 % physics teachers had a Teaching Certificate [1]. There are several reasons for the physics teacher shortage: lack of candidates, preference to work as a physics teacher at upper secondary school due to problems with discipline and low level of curriculum content, low salary compared to the amount of work and responsibilities.

The common responsibilities of science teachers are as follows : teaching, preparation of lab work and demonstrations, ordering of material and instruments, design of assessment tests for students, maintain contact with students’ parents.

The teaching process in school physics is a teacher-centered activity. It means that the teacher is the presenter of physics content and students are the recipients.  In the Finnish comprehensive schools, the teaching of school physics and others school sciences is a variation of the three stage model of teaching: Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE [2]), and is described as the Teacher-Centered Model TCM [3, 4].
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The Radical Idea of Helping Students Construct Their Own Ideas

Helping students construct their own ideas is considered by some educators a subversive idea that runs counter to the present impetus of the Race to the Top and NCLB Waivers. These Federal programs, especially NCLB, have created a narrowing of the curriculum, a data-driven, test-based school culture, and the despicable use of student tests as the main criterion of teacher accountability.

The theory of learning that underlies these Federal reform efforts is behaviorism.  It’s a theory that is very good if you want to teach behaviors.  But it is a theory that tends to retard the teaching of thinking.  When we want our dog to sit, we hover a treat over the dog’s head and move it backwards so that the dog sits.  Do this a few times adding the work sit, and you have it.
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We Have Low Expectations for American Students in Math & Science!

Who the #@!% would make such a statement? Why would such a statement be made about America’s youth?

If you go the Broad Foundation Education page you will find the answer to the first question.  This is the first of four statements about American youth, followed by “stark” statistics.  The Broad Foundation says:

We have low expectations for American students.

Shame on them!

Image attributed to

This is the foundation that has channeled over $400 million into education, primarily in charter schools, training of administrators, and online education.  It’s a very good time to be in the business of influencing and undermining public education these days, especially if you run a very well endowed foundation or corporation.

For years now, these same foundations and corporations are using statistics that misrepresent and pervert what is actually the case.  Data from tests, especially international test results are used by politicians, foundation heads, the media, and even the U.S. Department of Education to make proclamations about the status the country’s educational system.  Needless to say, American youth are beat over the head for not meeting someone else’s expectations.

TIMSS and PISA: The Super Bowls of Education

Two international assessments are: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Assessment (PISA).  Each of these international organizations test students in mathematics, reading and science.  PISA studies 15 year-olds, while TIMSS assesses students in grades 4 and 8.  TIMSS claims to assess students’ performance on the curriculum, whereas PISA claims to test student’s abilities to apply what they have learned to real-world problems.  But please keep in mind, these are low stakes bubble tests comprised of a pool of questions that in general are without a context.

Since about 65 countries participate in these assessments, there is the general feeling that the results are important, and provide us with a glimmer of the nature of science education in these various nations.  Some would agree, others would argue that the real issues facing any nation’s educational system are masked by looking at average scores, and simple rankings.  Still others report that the findings are inconsistent.  For example, a country might score low on TIMSS, yet higher on PISA.  Most researchers urge that we use caution when interpreting the results, and not rely of simple averages (now someone’s thinking) to make judgements about student performance.

That said, Dr. Svein Sjoberg, Professor of Science Education, University of Oslo, and Director of the ROSE project (The Relevance of Science Education), an international comparative research project that gathers information about attitudes of students toward science & technology, makes this point regarding PISA:

the main focus in the public reporting is in the form of simple ranking, often in the form of league tables for the participating countries. Here, the mean scores of the national samples in different countries are published. These league tables are nearly the only results that appear in the mass media. Although the PISA researchers take care to explain that many differences (say, between a mean national score of 567 and 572) are not statistically significant, the placement on the list gets most of the public attention. It is somewhat similar to sporting events: The winner takes it all. If you become no 8, no one asks how far you are from the winner, or how far you are from no 24 at any event. Moving up or down some places in this league table from PISA2000 to PISA2003 is awarded great importance in the public debate, although the differences may be non-significant statistically as well as educationally.

If a team doesn’t win the Super Bowl, is that team a failure?  What do you think?  What does the public think?

Are our schools failing?  Is is a fair claim to say we have low expectations for American students?  The answer is no!

Let’s take a look.

The Math and Science Conundrum

It is easy to to make a quick decision about what you think about math and science education when you read headlines in the newspaper that report that the sky is falling on our educational system, or that we are experiencing another Sputnik moment.  But the teaching and learning of mathematics or science, as seen by practicing teachers and collaborating researchers is much more complex (and interesting) than the questions that make up the tests that PISA or TIMSS uses to assess mathematics and science in more than 60 nations.

The conundrum is this.  The vision of science that each of these tests measures gives meaning to scientific literacy that looks inward at the canon of orthodox science—the concepts, processes and products of science.  Science is seen through the lens of the content of science.  But added to this the fact that we have a second vision of science.  This vision of science includes public understanding of science and science literacy about science-related situations.  In this vision we are more interested in the context of learning, asvwell as the meaning that students attach to science and mathematics, and how it relates to their world.  The lens we use here to view science is within the framework of socioscientific issues (SSI).

TIMSS, because it is tied to the current traditional curriculum, is likely measuring the outcomes of vision I.  PISA claims to be measuring students abilities to apply what they learned to real situations.  But science education researchers Troy Sadler and Dana Zeidler disagree with this, and suggest that the test items that have been released publicly seem quite removed from the intent of the SSI movement.

Given this analysis, we are quite safe to claim that these tests are measuring Vision I of science education, and do not provide a full picture of what actually is happening in many classrooms, schools and districts.  Science education is more than learning terms, and concepts.  It should include problem-solving and inquiry, and investigations into problems that are relevant to students lived experiences.


Where do we stand?

PISA and TIMSS are favorite sources of data for foundations and corporations, and especially the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to use to show how poorly American students are doing in mathematics and science.  The Program for International Student Assessment ( PISA) is a system of international assessments that tests 15-year-olds in reading, math and science in 65 countries every three years.  The latest results are available for 2009.  The next will be administered in 2012.

Using scores from tests such as PISA or TIMSS to evaluate and assess science education misleads the public into thinking that science learning has been assessed in the first place.  For instance, in the United States there are more than 15,000 independent school systems, and to use a mean score on a science test, such as PISA, or TIMSS does not describe the qualities or inequalities inherent in the U.S.A.’s schools.  Furthermore, as we showed above, there are at least two visions for teaching science, and these tests seem to assess Vision I, ignoring perhaps more relevant and interesting science learning  that is taking place in many science classrooms.   That said, let’s look at two interpretations of data from these international tests.

Interpretation 1.

For example, take a look at these statistics that you can find here on the Broad Foundation website, most of which were based on PISA results from past years.

  1. American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science compared to students in 30 industrialized countries.
  2. America’s top math students rank 25th out of 30 countries when compared with
    top students elsewhere in the world. [PISA Math Assessment, 2006)]
  3. By the end of 8th grade, U.S. students are two years behind in the math being studied by peers in other countries. [Schmidt, W., 2003 at a presentation]
  4. Sixty eight percent of 8th graders can’t read at their grade level, and most will
    never catch up.

The Broad Foundation paints a picture of American education as a broken system, with little hope for many students, especially those who the Broad Foundation claims can not read at their grade level.

Interpretation 2.

Let’s take a look at another way to examine these data.  I have gone to the ED site that presents PISA data, and downloaded Highlights from PISA 2009 in reading, math and science to provide another view of the results.  Here is another interpretation, point by point.

  1. In mathematics, the only country of similar size and demographics that scored higher than the U.S. was Canada.  Most of the other countries that did score significantly higher were small European or Asian (Korea, Japan) countries.  The U.S. score was above the average score of OECD countries. Although there were 12 countries that scored significantly higher, there were only three that are similar to the U.S. in size and demographics.  We are not ranked 25th in math and 21st in science.   (source: PISA Data 2009)
  2. America’s top students’  performance place near the top of all students tested by PISA.  For example Dr. Gerold Tirozzi, Executive Director of the National Association of Secondary Schools, analyzed the PISA data from the lens of poverty, as measured by the percentage of students receiving government free or reduced lunches.  For example, Tirozzi found that in schools where less than 10% of the students get a free lunch, the reading score would place them number 2 in the ranking of countries.  This is very far from being 25th as reported by the Broad Foundation.
  3. Are we two years behind in the content of  math that is being studied by 8th graders?  There is no data that would support such a claim in the form of statistical analysis.  Curriculum differences have great variance from one country to another.  As in other countries, curriculum is implemented in American schools based now on the Common Core State Standards in mathematics, and the high-stakes tests that used in each state.
  4. It is not true that 68% of 8th graders can’t read at their grade level.  In the 2009 NAEP reading achievement-level results, 76% of American 8th graders were above  the basic level of performance.  The graph below shows 8th grade reading results, 1969 – 2011.  Yes, we have work to do, but the claim that 68% of 8th graders can not read is not justified.
NAEP Eighth-Grade Reading Achievement Results 1969 - 2011


 Trends in Performance

Here is the truth.

I have provided  graphs showing trends in science, mathematics and reading for American students as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  You will find that the trends reported by NAEP do not support the Broad Foundation’s opinions of American youth.

Science. U.S. students have significantly improved on the PISA test from 2006 to 2009, as shown in the graph below.  This trend is a positive sign, and disputes the claim that expectations for American students is low.  One of the ways in which data is perverted is to claim that American education, including science education is broken, and that the cause probably has to do with poor performance of “bad” teachers.  It is an unsubstantiated claim.

Average scores of 15-year olds in the U.S. and OECD countries in scienceSource: Fleischman, H.L., Hopstock, P.J., Pelczar, M.P., and Shelley, B.E. (2010). Highlights From PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15-YearOld Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context (NCES 2011-004). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Student performance is affected by a number of factors including gender, race/ethnicity, type of school, family income level.  The figure below shows Grade 4 results on the 2009 NAEP science assessment.  The graph shows relationship between family income (as measured by eligibility for reduced-price or free lunch).  Note that students of families with lower incomes perform lower than students from families with higher incomes.  This is an important factor when we interpret test scores, as Dr. Gerold Tirozzi found when he analyzed the PISA data from the lens of poverty.

Grade 4 Science Results, NAEP 2009 by Family Income. Click on the figure to explore this data in more detail.

Mathematics.  According to NAEP results, mathematics scores for 9- and 13-year olds were higher in 2008 when compared to previous years.  There was no significant change in the White – Black or White – Hispanic score gaps compared to 2004.  However, since 1973, Black and Hispanic students have made greater gains than White students.

Trend in Mathematics scores for 9- and 13-year olds 1973 – 2008.                                                                                                                                                    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1973–2008 Long-Term Trend Mathematics Assessments.

Reading. Overall, the national trend in reading showed improvement from 2004 to 2008 for students at three ages (9, 13, and 17). The average reading score for White, Black and Hispanic students was higher than in previous assessments.

Trend in fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP reading scores 1992 - 2011

Have you visited any of the educators in your community that teach science? Have you heard about any of the projects that they doing with their students? What do you think about the Broad Foundation’s crummy assessment of  American students’ performance in math and science and that we should have low expectations.  

What are they thinking?

Learning to Teach in America: Pathways and Exits

Aspiring teachers can find their way to teaching in one of two pathways, teacher education programs (TE) at public and private universities or alternative programs, such Teach for America (TFA).  Although there are mixed results, there is little to no evidence that the Teach for America teachers are more effective than teachers who graduate from America’s teacher education programs at public and private universities.  Actually, the data shows that TFA educators might be less effective than America’s teacher education graduates.

Teacher Education Programs

According to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) there are 565 colleges accredited, and about 500 more programs that are not.

There is aknowledge gap when it comes to the public’s understanding of the nature of America’s teacher education programs.  All teacher education programs are local in nature.  They are developed by faculty at a local universities.  Faculty at teacher education institutions have built relationships with local public (and private) schools, especially from the standpoint of creating clinical experiences, and internships for aspiring teachers.


In a recent study by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the researchers found that graduates of “traditional” teacher education programs perform better than nontraditional (alternative programs) students on PRAXIS II.  This was a surprise in the sense that policymakers think and hope that nontraditional routes to teaching will help fill the teacher shortage, and these nontraditional students will be better prepared in content knowledge.  As the researchers concluded,

The myth that well-qualified individuals abound who would enter teaching and be effective if only there were no preparation involved is simply that— a myth.

Although the study used test scores to determine the characteristics of programs that were associated with licensure scores (PRAXIS II), the following results are interesting in their own light:

The study found that five characteristics of institutions and programs were indeed conducive to higher teacher licensure scores:

  • Private institutions outperformed public ones.
  • Universities outperformed colleges.
  • Teacher education programs with a higher number of traditional students outperformed those with fewer such students.
  • Teacher education programs with ethnically diverse faculties outperformed those with overwhelmingly White faculties.

In concluding, the researchers suggest that:

institutions of higher education are appropriate as sites for teacher preparation. The fact that so many of the institutions are effective suggests that it is not necessary to go elsewhere. Further, the study shows that prospective teachers benefit from a traditional college experience.

For more than 30 years, I was professor of science education at Georgia State University, and during that time worked  with all of these the school districts in metropolitan Atlanta, as well as many other districts around the state.  While at GSU, I was involved in the development and design of teacher education and alternative programs for aspiring teachers, taught staff development courses in several of these districts, and created in internships for GSU students who were involved in all of the programs listed below.

The kind of work described below occurs all around the U.S. in colleges and universities.  In her book, Creating Powerful Teacher Education, Linda Darling-Hammond presents the evidence that teacher education (courses, programs, etc.) matters for teacher effectiveness through case studies of seven teacher education programs.  The seven programs are distinctive, but as Darling-Hammond points out, were selected from a much longer list of outstanding teacher education programs, from small and large universities, as well as public and private.

Policymakers try and make the case that entry into teaching has “burdensome requirements” and that education coursework should be removed from teacher certification standards.  Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige made such a suggestion in a 2002 report. Reports such assume that teacher education programs today are not effective, and that the “bar needs to be raised.”  Darling-Hammond’s research suggests that teacher education programs are not only effective, but the model programs she studied in Creating Powerful Teacher Education, help us understand the value and effectiveness of the way teachers are prepared.

Paige’s report is indicative of the assault on teachers, and the way they are prepared.  The corporate premise, supported by the U.S. Department of Education, is that teachers are the problem, and if we could only weed out the bad teachers, schools, and program, all would be well with education.  The movement to try and link student test scores to teacher effectiveness by means of the value-added model does not even come close to describing what effective teachers do, and how they help students progress in their courses.  Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has just announced that states can get waivers from the NCLB Law, but only if they raise the bar on expectations, and put into place a program that will tie student achievement scores to teacher evaluation, and potentially, teacher’s compensation.  But many states are skeptical, and questioning whether they will seek a waiver.

There is no compelling evidence to support these assaults, but right now ignorant and politically challenged policy makers and corporate deal makers trump professional educators. 

Teachers, to be effective need to have a strong base of content knowledge as well as a deep understanding of what works in the classroom.  In the research identified here, the clinical experiences that have emerged in the last twenty of so years in teacher education programs represent a major shift in the way teachers are prepared.

Clinical experiences are critical in teacher education programs to help teachers integrate their theoretical knowledge with practical experiences in classrooms over the extent of their teacher education program.  All of the programs that are described below were centered around clinical experiences in elementary, middle and high schools in urban and suburban settings.  Clinical experiences provide the experiential knowledge that teachers need to make decisions, to work with students who have learning problems, and to become aware of pedagogy that works with students in the classroom.

Combined with integrated university course-work and clinical work, teacher education produces, as Darling-Hammond points out, a “new kind of teacher.”

One who is theoretically oriented in her own right: aware of the learning principles that can be considered (and when appropriate, used) to guide practice, as well as the many contingencies that intervene and must influence decisions.

4 Examples of Clinical Based Teacher Education and Alternative Programs

The Phase Program (1970 – 1985) A field based science teacher education program for high school science, in which candidates interned in an elementary, middle and high school.  The program was field based, and the curriculum was integrated within three departments.  This program set the stage for future science teacher education programs at GSU.  Integration of the curriculum combined with clinical experiences was the symbol of the Phase Program.

TRIPS (1987 – 1989) The TRIPS program was based on the AFT Educational Research and Dissemination (ER&D) Program under the leadership of AFT’s Lovely Billups.  This alternative program recruited secondary teachers in foreign language, mathematics and science to teach in the Atlanta Public Schools.  TRIPS was a collaborative project among the Atlanta Public Schools, Georgia State University, Clark-Atlanta University and AFT.  TRIPS programs were initiated by the AFT in several urban settings around the country.  TRIPS teachers engaged in summer institute followed by teaching in an Atlanta high school in math, science or foreign language.  TRIPS teachers were assigned a reduced teaching load (4 classes instead of 5) and a mentor teacher, who also had a reduced teaching load. Each TRIPS intern was also supervised by professors from GSU and Clark-Atlanta University.   The reduced teaching load for TRIPS teachers and their mentors facilitated mentoring, and allowed the mentor teachers to engage in conferences, planning sessions, classroom observations, and reflective sessions.

Alternative Certification Program (ACP)  (1988 – 1992) A program funded by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission characterized by an 8-week summer institute followed by teaching in a public school and paired with a mentor teacher.  Mentor teachers were prepared through a summer institute prior to school year.  Although similar to the TRIPS program, this program was larger, and in the long run lead to the TEEMS program which is the secondary teacher education program at GSU.

The ACP began at GSU with a grant to fund thirty teachers (10 in each field) to attend a fulltime summer institute in Athens, Georgia.  Mentor teachers were prepared for their role for a one-week institute with the ACP teachers.  School districts from around the state participated in the ACP.  In the last three years of the ACP, three universities in Georgia received funding to prepare 30 foreign language, mathematics and science teachers.  The curriculum of the Summer Institute was based on pedagogical content knowledge in the content areas, special education, and foundations of education.  Since the programs were localized, bi-monthly seminars among the ACP teachers were held on the campus of each university (North Georgia College, Georgia State University, and Georgia Southern).

The TEEMS Program (1993 – present) TEEMS (Teacher Education Environments in Mathematics and Science) is a Master’s level program for science and mathematics majors with field based internships in middle and high schools based on a humanistic/constructivist model.  Aspiring teachers applying to the TEEMS program came from science, mathematics, and engineering departments throughout the Southeast, and brought with them high levels of content knowledge, strong interpersonal skills, enthusiasm, and a commitment to becoming a career teacher.  Each TEEMS recruit was interviewed by a team of professors from mathematics and science education faculty, and professors from science and mathematics departments.

The TEEMS program was based on the theory of “realistic teacher education” (Korthagen and Kessells) , an approach that goes from practice to theory.  As much as possible, theory and practice were merged with the intention of diminishing the gap between practice and theory.  This was accomplished by engaging students in real problems encountered by teachers in clinical experiences, both on campus and in classrooms.

The TEEMS program was based on these characteristics:

  • reflective and constructivist models of learning
  • holistically organized pedagogical curriculum experiences
  • learner-centered instruction in which students engage in a series of experiential and field-based experiences to learn about mathematics and science teaching
  • a partnership with the public and independent schools of Georgia by centering much of the instruction in middle schools and high schools

These four programs represent an historical timeline of the evolution of science teacher education experiences at Georgia State University, one university out of hundreds preparing teachers.  You would find similar stories at universities in Boston, Chicago, New York, Valdosta, San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston, and Dayton.  When you look closely at the preparation of teachers around the country, the programs are unique, and based on local conditions and relationships among the university and local school districts.  TEEMS was initially a mathematics and science program, but GSU expanded it to include social studies and English.

Note:  A year ago, GSU agreed to work with TFA, and all of the TFA recruits must follow a teacher education program at GSU—secondary teachers must enroll in TEEMS. 

In a Journal of Teacher Education article entitled How Teacher Education Matters, Linda Darlings-Hammond reviews the literature on teacher education programs and has this to say:

Despite longstanding criticisms of teacher education, the weight of substantial evidence indicates that teachers who have had more preparation for teaching are more confident and successful with students than those who have had little or none. Recent evidence also indicates that reforms of teacher education creating more tightly integrated programs with extended clinical preparation interwoven with coursework on learning and teaching produce teachers who are both more effective and more likely to enter and stay in teaching. An important contribution of teacher education is its development of teachers’abilities to examine teaching from the perspective of learners who bring diverse experiences and frames of reference to the classroom.

In teacher preparation, there various pathways to becoming a teacher, including teacher education programs, alternative programs, or no program.  Based on a large study of 3000 beginning teachers in New York City regarding their views on their preparation for teaching, their beliefs and practice, and their plans to remain in teaching (Darling-Hammond, Chung, and Frelow).  The researchers found that:

  • teachers who were prepared in teacher education programs felt significantly better prepared across most dimensions of teaching than those who entered teaching through alternative programs or without preparation.
  • the extent to which teachers felt well prepared when they entered teaching was significantly correlated with their sense of teaching efficacy, their sense of responsibility for student learning, and their plans to remain in teaching.
  • These are significant finding in the context of the drive to place non-certified and non-prepared teachers into classrooms that typically are more demanding and require more knowledge about learning and student development than these individuals can deliver.  The knowledge base on teaching is enormous, and to think that we can prepare teachers in 5 – 8 week institutes not only devalues what we know about preparing teachers for practice.

Teach for America

Teach for America (TFA) is an alternative pathway to teaching that was started by a college graduate who felt that individuals graduating from prestigious colleges and universities might be recruited to serve urban schools for a two year stint in teaching.

The TFA program recruits individuals from elite universities, prepares them in five weeks, and then assigns them to teach in an urban or rural classroom as full time teachers.  Recruits are selected from universities across America, and placed in school districts around the country and agree to serve for 2 years.  The TFA is well funded, and recruits to teaching receive grants, and low interest loans, and receive compensation from the local school districts in which they serve.

If you go to the Teach for America website, you will find out that the TFA provides benefits to its recruits, including scholarship funds, and low interest loans to help pay off college debt.

When TFA recruits complete their five-week summer training program, they then are provided with moving costs to relocate to the urban or rural school district in which they will serve for two years.

As an Alternative Program, the TFA is not a new idea in the sense that Alternative Programs and Pathways to teaching have been part of the teacher education culture for at least half a century.  Harvard and Standford has Alternative pathways to teaching in the 1960s, and Alternative Programs became a prominent pathway to teaching in the 1980s and into the 1990s.  Prior to TFA, Georgia State University was involved in two Alternative Pathways, the TRIPS program, and Alternative Certification Program, both described above.

But what is different about TFA is that is well publicized, and well funded.  Over the past 20 years they have received millions of dollars of donations from a long list of donors. You might want to look at the list and note how these corporate billionaires are supporting TFA.

But what is problematic is that most TFA teachers exit the teaching profession at the end of two years.  So in urban areas of public education where stability and loyalty would benefit these communities, the TFA promotes instability.

In the next post, we will explore the question: What Does Comparative Research Tell Us About Teacher Preparation? 

What are your experiences with teacher education?  With alternative programs?  Do you think TFA is making a positive contribution to teaching?

Educational Reform: A Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

Educational reform is in need of your attention and help.  The 2012 election is only 11 months away, and I am writing this letter to you and your team for consideration as a policy statement as you outline your views on education, especially as it pertains to the educational reforms that have plagued our schools for several decades.

Strength in Numbers

According to Anthony Cody, there is a powerful source of support to inspire educational reform.  That source is the more than four million teachers who know about how students learn, and what they need to do to help students learn.  If we want educational reform, then the leaders of this movement have to be teachers, and administrators who are on the ground, and know the students that they teach.  In one of his posts, Cody suggests that teachers, along with friends, families and community members could be turned into a very influential political force.

There are a number of educators who have been writing and critiquing the educational reform efforts that have been dominated by corporate billionaires, and a few private foundations.  These educators have brought to the surface the research that shows that most of the reforms being advocated do not work, and are driven by corporate interests, rather than in the genuine interests of teachers and students.  You might visit the websites of these educators: Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan,  P.L. Thomas, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, Mel Riddle, Vicki Davis, and Chris Guerrieri.

For instance, the fact that our students are required to take high-stakes tests as a measure of their learning has brought enormous pressure not only on the students, but their parents, teachers and administrators.  This pressure has led to behavior in schools systems in which a culture of fear has been perpetuated, resulting in cheating.  The educators that participated in the cheating scandal were wrong, but what is really misguided is the misconstrued notion that the only way to measure student learning is with a one-time bubble test in the spring of each year.  In the Atlanta school district, teachers were told to make sure their students passed the CRCT (Test), at any cost.

One policy recommendation that you might consider in your re-election bid is as follows:

As simple as this sounds, this one action would have significant effects on education today, and would result in real change in our schools.

Anthony Cody documented your own views on testing during a town hall meeting when  you were asked about ways to reduce the number of tests that students experience in schools today.  Actually, I am not suggesting that tests not be used, but that the use of high-stakes tests as the measure of student learning, or teaching effectiveness be banned.   Here is what Anthony Cody quoted you saying about testing that I think relates here.

So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.

High-stakes testing is the cause of teaching to the test, and was the root cause of the cheating scandal in Atlanta, and in other districts around the country.  Vicki Davis, a prominent technology teacher in Georgia suggests that the use of these high-stakes and standardized tests is the equivalent of “modern bloodletting.”  Let’s get rid of this practice.

Starting Points

We know you have a lot on your plate—a re-election compaign, the effects of the Great Recession, two wars in the Middle East (one of which ended today), health care reform angst, extreme partisanship.   Yet the one area that that is essential to our well being as a nation–education–needs to become center stage. I know it is a high priority of yours, and I know when you think the time is right, you will bring it forward for open discussion. I believe that teaching is an art, and that teachers in our culture should work with their students creatively in classrooms characterized as humanistic, experiential, and constructivist.

One of the major problems facing education today is the nature of the High-Stakes Testing and Standards-Based Reform.  The reform is top-down, and is driven by several corporate billionaires, and on the surface one not-for-profit company, Achieve, Inc.  The reform has become mean spirited, casting teachers and administrators aside if they do not perform in a way dictated by the reformers.

This letter is an attempt on my part to think out loud, and share with you views held by many teachers across the nation that believe that their work is a calling, and that their work with students should be grounded in the latest research that supports an active learning environment in which students explore, innovate, and solve meaningful problems. I believe that you would share these views that are held by many of my colleagues.

Reform Needs Reform

Your beliefs and your experiences are clearly explored and described in your books, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; and The Audacity of Hope. I read them in the order of their publication, and the books helped me understand your ideas, and it convinced me that you would be open to reforming education from a humanistic tradition.

Although you do not have a chapter in either book specifically related to “education,” your thoughts about education, your experiences with your own schooling and educational experiences, and your work in Chicago as a community organizer provide the reader with your fundamental views of education and the reform that is needed.

Those of us in the science teaching community have followed your views on science and technology in our society and in our schools, and many are more than satisfied with your appointments as members of the Science and Technology Advisory Council. I think there was much support within the community for your appointments of Dr. John Holdren as director of the Office of Science & Technology, and Dr. Stephen Chu as Secretary of the Department of Energy. Further, the stimulus package that was put into law provided an additional boost to the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Education has received nearly 100 billion dollars for America’s schools, and educational infrastructure.

Unfortunately, The Race to the Top Fund (RTTT) does not reflect the humanistic paradigm that I am suggesting here, but instead further reinforces the top down reforms that have plagued us for decades.  For example, in the RTTT request for proposals, states were essentially required to accept the Common Core State Standards, and insure that student test scores would be the basis for teacher evaluation, and in some states tied to teacher salaries.  There is little support for this, yet the Department of Education went ahead and told states they must base teacher evaluation on student achievement test scores using the Value Added Measure, even after the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council advised against this in a letter sent to the Department of Education.

The reform of teaching that needs to be considered focuses on a paradigm shift from a traditional view to humanistic science. This paradigm centers on the way in which students and teachers interact in the classroom. The humanistic paradigm implies that teaching, at its core, is a creative and courageous profession that needs to reform itself from the bottom up—from the local school upward, not from Federal mandates downward.

I think we’ve lost our way in this regard, and I am hoping that your personal school experiences in Djakarta, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Cambridge will inform you, and that the community organizing work you did in Chicago as a young man will be brought into the dialogue. Your sharing of these experiences can have a profound impact on how others view teaching, and help us chart a humanistic course.

Reflecting on Your Personal Views of Education

In Chapter 13 of your book, Dreams from My Father, you talk about your desire to become involved with the public schools in the area of Chicago that you were doing your work–on the southside.

I want to recall a section in that chapter for my readers that was very powerful, and supports the humanistic paradigm that I am proposing here. You and your colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced you to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school.

In his office, which was decorated with African themes, you discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of your short meeting with Mr. Moran, he clearly told you that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered you his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).

Starting with the child as he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of humanistic teaching.  Most teachers know and try and act on this humanistic philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle.

The locus of control is far removed from the individual teacher’s classroom. The control is centered in state department’s of education, and the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). And much of that control creates a conflict for innovative teachers. As responsible professional teachers, they want their students to do well on the high-stakes, end-of-year exams, yet know intuitively that this persistence on testing leaves creative teaching behind.

There is a need to shift the locus of control away from the Federal and state power centers, and move it to the vast number of communities of schools (there are about 15,000) around the nation. These 15,000 districts have a better understanding of the nature and needs of its students, and has a cadre of teachers who, I submit, are quite able to formulate curriculum, and design instruction that favors a humanistic paradigm. I am not suggesting that we erase the Standards. I am suggesting that professional teachers are able to interpret the Standards, and create educational experiences grounded in constructivist and humanistic theory, and provide in the long run, meaningful school experiences.

I believe that you understand what I am talking about. Your motivation to leave New York City and move to Chicago to become a “community organizer” was because of your belief in “grass roots change.” In fact, in your first book, here is what you said:

In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer. There wasn’t much detail to the idea; I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots (Dreams for My Father, p. 133).

Its All in the Context

Humanistic education is not a new perspective on teaching. It has had to compete with the pipeline ideology of traditional schooling, which has been ineffective for most students. Pipeline ideology is primarilly based on training for the scientific and technological world, and the organization of the curriculum tends to a strict adherance to canonical science.

A humanistic  perspective tends to be context-based, and related to the lives of students.   Instead of a concept being the starting point for learning, the humanistic  teacher starts with contexts and applications. Concepts are explored within these contexts. Humanistic teaching trives in web-based collaborative programs, environmental projects, gender projects, and culturally focused investigations.

These experiences shed light on social content for students, and often focus on the affective outcomes of learning, how students feel about learning, how it impacts their lives, and what they can do to solve real life problems. Many teachers know from experience that projects like these help students see themselves as problem solvers.

Recent results on The Nation’s Report Card show that there has been little change in 17 year old’s performance in math and reading from 2008 to 2004, and 1973. Although there were slight gains in achievement among all students, the achievement gap between white students and black & hispanic students has not changed. And the NCLB act was intended to close the gap. Your Education Secretary,  Mr. Arne Duncan has said that he wants “real and meaningful change” in the nation’s schools. Real and meaningful change can not be more of the same—longer school days, the same curriculum and standards.

I suggest that for meaninful reform in teaching, there needs to be an openness to new ideas, and there needs to a very strong involvement of grass-roots teachers for this kind of reform. Teachers and students should not be on the receiving end of decisions made by academic vice-presidents, governors, and commisioners of state departments’ of education. These constituencies are important, but the reform must be grounded in practice & related education research; refom needs to be on the hands of professional teachers.

Well, there you have it. Am I totally off-base here? Can meaninful reform be a grass-roots effort? What are your thoughts? I hope you will be willing to share them.

Resources: Grounding Humanistic Education in Research—Starting Places: