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Answer Sheet
Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 09/28/2012

What was Romney talking about at Education Nation?

Mitt Romney appeared on NBC News’ Education Nation Summit in New York City on Tuesday and gave a long interview to network anchor Brian Williams, which you can read here.

His comments had plenty of critics, including Dennis van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers
Mitt Romney is interviewed by Brian Williams at NBC News’ Education Nation Summit. (Evan Vucci/AP)
union in the country, who writes a response below.

Incidentally, during his interview Romney mentioned that he remembering reading a report by an organization called McKinsey&Company about high-achieving school systems around the world. I asked McKinsey, a global management consulting firm, about the reports and a spokesperson said there were actually two: one in 2007 which looked at 25 education systems around the world and another in 2010 which looked carefully at Singapore, South Korea and Finland.

Romney made a number of comments about the high-achieving Finnish system, which van Roekel addresses in this critique:

The irony of Mitt Romney having the audacity to lift up Finland as an example for how we can improve education here in the United States is not lost on me and millions of other educators across the nation. I spent 23 years in the classroom teaching mathematics, and I have to tell you — Romney’s new focus on Finland just doesn’t add up. There is little in the Romney-Ryan corporate reform plan for education that would support the essential elements necessary to replicate Finland’s educational success.

In fact, I feel compelled to offer Romney a civics lesson on public education since Finland’s educational success disproves every key element of the Romney-Ryan platform on education and the corporate reform model they want to impose on our country’s schools.

Romney’s relentless attacks on the right of educators to come together and advocate for their students and their profession through their union couldn’t stand in more stark contrast with Finland’s approach. Finland tells a completely different tale: their teaching force is totally unionized and the union serves as an equal partner, working to shape the successful system that Mitt Romney lauded. Where Finland is a model for collaborative progress, Mr. Romney is all too comfortable continuing his divide and conquer strategy.

Finland intentionally decided to make teacher preparation far more rigorous so that educators are prepared to teach when they become responsible for a classroom full of kids. Only eight universities in Finland are permitted to prepare teachers, and admission to these programs is highly competitive. Future teachers receive a strong academic education for three years and then enter a two-year master’s degree program focused on how to effectively teach what they know to all of their students. There are no alternative ways to earn a teaching license in Finland and every candidate prepares to teach all kinds of students, including students with disabilities and those who bring other unique strengths and needs to the classroom. Teaching is an elite, respected, and highly sought- after career in Finland.

Another lesson for Mr. Romney comes in looking at the way in which Finland approaches teacher evaluation and ensuring that the highest quality educators are in its system. Mr. Romney appears bent on pushing educators out of the classroom after they have been there for some period of time, instead of stopping to make sure the right people end up in the classroom in the first place. It is the wrong mental model to say you can let anyone into a classroom and then focus on finding better and faster ways to fire them. That’s backward logic. NEA believes that, as in Finland, we need to ensure that only the best trained, most qualified teachers should ever be allowed to teach our students in the first place. Education professionals need to demonstrate their ability to teach students BEFORE they are hired.

Contrary to Romney’s education policy positions, he won’t find merit pay in Finland; but he will find that teachers are compensated like the professionals they are, and teacher evaluations are comprehensive and based on the full breadth of student learning—not just on standardized test scores.

Finland also offers lessons for Romney on how to approach the quality of student learning and enhancing the effectiveness of their public schools. Unlike the narrowly defined high-stakes testing that has come to supplant real learning and creativity in our classrooms, beginning as early as kindergarten in some places, Finnish students do not take a standardized test until the end of high school. The only tests students take before then are created by their teachers to assess what they know, discover where they are struggling, and highlight their strengths in learning.

It’s also important to point out that while Mr. Romney used the Education Nation platform to again profess his belief that class size doesn’t matter, it is a major part of student success in the Finnish system. For example, most elementary schools in Finland have two teachers per classroom in the early grades. One teacher leads the class and the other teacher concentrates on helping students who have fallen behind in any subject.

Rather than draining vital resources from public schools to fund untested “silver bullet” initiatives, the Finns have chosen instead to invest in their public education system to ensure that every public school in Finland is a great school. They don’t have charter schools, vouchers, or private management of public schools. They also see to the well-being of their students, ensuring that all Finnish children have access to comprehensive health services and free lunch every day. The Finns understand that children need to come to school ready to learn.

Only about 4 percent of the children in Finland live in poverty, compared to 20 percent in the United States. This last point about poverty is crucial. On the most recent international test, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), American public schools in which fewer than 10 percent of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan, and Korea. Even when as many as 25 percent of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations—a testament to the tremendous potential of our young people and the quality and dedication of the educators serving them.

Mitt Romney has said everyone should “get as much education as they can afford” and so far his other statements about public education validate this philosophy. For example, instead of ensuring that every child has access to quality early childhood education, Mitt Romney’s solution is “private” model. The Finns themselves have learned from this mistake—before becoming number one, fewer than 40 percent of children were enrolled in early childhood education. Now, as the world leader, approximately 95 percent of children have access to early childhood education. Certainly poverty does affect a child’s education, but the key is in ensuring it doesn’t limit it. This is the lesson we should learn from Finland, and it seems to be entirely lost on Mitt Romney.

As a teacher and life-long advocate for public education and children, I left Education Nation with an even firmer grasp of the clear choice voters have this fall and the two visions of our education system painted by Romney and President Obama.

When it comes to truly creating success for all our students, not just a few, Romney may like to talk about Finland but he lacks the commitment to the ideas that make it a model for the world. Only President Obama has embraced and fought for the equality of educational opportunity, individualized instruction, and cooperative learning — essential elements of Finland’s success.

While I can hope Romney will do his homework and see the true lessons of Finland, I’m sad to say his speech showed once again just how fundamental his disconnect is with the needs of our nation’s students. As an educator, I’m always looking for teachable moments, so I’m going to conclude with a lesson in Rhetoric and Debate and a word of advice — Mr. Romney, in next week’s debate, you might want to stay away from using examples of countries and programs we should emulate when they couldn’t be any more different than your own platform.

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What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland

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