Category Archives: Teacher Effectiveness

Finland and a Pandemic Taught Me That It’s High Time We Start Trusting Teachers

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

For years, Finland has been known for having one of the best education systems in the world. Much of this attention has stemmed from Finnish students’ high performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In the most recent PISA, conducted in 2018, Finland ranked sixth in reading, seventh in science, and 16th in math worldwide. The United States ranked 14th, 19th, and 38th, respectively, spurring yet another discussion about what Finland is doing right.                                                              

In 2016, when I decided I wanted to study education, Finland was an easy choice. A product of the U.S. public education system, it was hard for me to fathom a country where children didn’t start formal schooling until age 7, had little to no homework, and didn’t sit through yearly standardized tests. Finland was intriguing and I needed to find out what the buzz was about.

I spent five years as a student in the Department of Education at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland’s first teacher training college. I gained firsthand access to Finnish teachers and students, and quickly realized that the Finnish education system had earned its hype. I immediately noticed many of the things that I had read on the “top 10” global education lists such as well-resourced schools, nutritious (and appetizing) school lunches, and students who worked hard but played even harder. But the one thing that stuck out to me more than anything, was hearing people from all parts of the country say, “In Finland, we trust our teachers.” I didn’t realize that such a simple and straightforward statement could be so impactful. But as a former teacher, it was. 

Teachers in Finland are viewed as trusted professionals. Much of this trust has its origins in rigorous, highly selective teacher training programs. These programs use a high-quality teacher training model in which practical skills are taught alongside research skills. Teachers graduate from the program with a master’s degree and deep understanding of research-based pedagogical practices. Once teachers enter the classroom, they’re given autonomy to teach and assess the outlined Finnish curriculum as they see fit. Without the pressure of standardized assessments, teachers have even greater pedagogical freedom and can focus on inclusion, equity, and the diverse needs of learners. This freedom comes with great responsibility, but Finnish school leaders and teachers take this responsibility in stride with a shared goal to do whatever it takes to support and educate the nation’s youth. 

In stark contrast, it took a global pandemic for many in the U.S. to realize that teachers deserve a greater degree of recognition and respect. For decades, teachers across the U.S. have been fighting for greater pay and better working conditions. Unlike Finland, the U.S. places an ever-increasing emphasis on standardized testing, which puts pressure on schools and teachers, limits curricular flexibility, and exacerbates inequities. As schools prepare to reopen this fall, many teachers are contemplating whether they want to return to the classroom after one of the most challenging chapters of their careers. 

My experience in the Finnish education system made me not only realize how little we trust teachers in the U.S., but how that trust deficit impacts student learning and a healthy education sector as a whole. What should the U.S. do differently? 

  • First, we must do more to prepare teachers for the job through greater investments in redesigning teacher training programs and in continuous professional development. This should include not only pedagogical and practical training, but also training in research methods so that teachers are able to think analytically and critically consume innovative developments in the field. 
  • Second, teachers deserve to be given back the autonomy that factors such as high-stakes testing strip away. While autonomy is not a one-size-fits-all solution, teachers with demonstrated high performance should be allowed greater decision-making power particularly in terms of learning materials and student assessment. Teacher autonomy has been linked to greater job satisfaction, and would give teachers the flexibility to cater to the diverse needs of students in their classrooms and create greater equity and inclusion. Giving teachers this flexibility and responsibility would allow them to feel like the trusted professionals they are. 
  • Third, it’s important that school leaders emphasize building a culture of trust in their schools. Teachers should be viewed as credible experts. Giving teachers this credit and trusting them more would allow them space to feel safe and thrive in their careers.

For more than a year, we’ve been dependent on our teachers to guide our children through a pandemic. Isn’t it high time we start trusting them? 

Priyanka Patel is completing a project internship at Bellwether Education Partners this summer focused on evaluation. She has taught third and fourth grade in India and is currently pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

“Making Sure Every Student is Seen and Heard:” A Q&A with Executive Director/Principal Ayanna Gore

Ayanna Gore is the Executive Director/Principal of Summit Sierra High School in Seattle, Washington. We interviewed her as part of our Promise in the Time of Quarantine: Exploring Schools Responses to COVID-19 case studies, released today. Unlike many schools that hoped to open their doors for hybrid schooling this year, Summit Sierra made the early decision to open fully virtually. I spoke with Ayanna about what they learned from virtual school last year and how they’re improving upon it now.

When did you know you would be fully virtual and how did that shape planning for this school year?

By the third week of June, we shared with our families that we were planning for a fully virtual online experience. If things changed (due to a vaccine or the governor’s recommendation to reopen), we would set up workstations where families could come in and get in-person support, while learning still occurred virtually. But we committed to a 100% virtual model for consistency.

This meant reshaping our entire new-student and all-student orientation. And for onboarding new faculty, we connected with them a little earlier than we normally do. We had conversations about things like computer/Zoom fatigue, so we built in natural breaks for a schedule that still meets our academic goals. 

It’s about community and making sure every student is seen and heard. That’s how we started our new student orientation. We flipped it from the traditional “here is your schedule, these are your teachers.” We started with every student hearing from our leadership team on our mission and our individual journeys and stories. New and returning students all got interviewed and had time to share their journey and their story. 

Can you share more details of that orientation? Continue reading

A Call From My Old Coworker Got Me Thinking About Trauma-informed Schools

Alieyyah Lewis is an intern with Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team.

In April of this year, my phone rang, and I was excited to see a former coworker’s name light up. We had taught together in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) for three years, and I had not heard from them since Christmas. Instead of good news and exciting life updates, my friend let me know that one of our former students had passed away from tragic circumstances earlier that week.

Alieyyah as a teacher standing in front of a white board at the head of a classroom

photo courtesy the author

I spent the next few weeks recharging my old iPhone to scroll through teaching memories, and I realized that my students and I were not new to coping with traumatic experiences. My preparation to become a classroom teacher in Atlanta during Teach For America’s Institute was smooth and built my confidence. However, once I entered the classroom, it became clear that my students had experienced homelessness, food insecurity, gun violence, effects of drugs, teenage pregnancy, and the criminal justice system long before they walked into room 136. 

My students carried their circumstances and their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in their backpacks. In Cleveland, OH, roughly 42.2% of children live below the poverty line. I did not understand why some of my students would sit in the back of the classroom and attempt to play games on the computer. I did not understand why others skipped class in the morning, knowing they would spend the day in the in-school suspension room. 

I did not understand that the decision to avoid work in the classroom could be a coping mechanism for ACEs. I now understand that out of every 30 students, 13 experience stress from three or more ACEs, which triples the chances of a student repeating a grade and makes that student twice as likely to have adverse health outcomes. I needed concrete skills to help my students focus on their academics amidst these challenges.

I wish I had known about the trauma-informed school model, which uses policies, procedures, and practices to resist re-traumatization. I believe this approach is more essential than ever to support cognitive, academic, and social-emotional development.

Even supporters of the trauma-informed school model wrongly assume that states must develop legislation to implement the model. While many states have successfully implemented that model with legislation, it is not required. Local education agencies can conduct research and develop strategies to establish an environment that is supportive of trauma-informed school models. In Ohio, where I taught, the Department of Education provides resources for a sustainable implementation of the trauma-informed model, and nationally, the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative offers guidance on the six elements of school operations involved in building a trauma-informed school.  

COVID-19 has exacerbated the nationwide shortage of school-based mental-health providers. My former students and fellow educators in Cleveland are simultaneously combating ACEs from before the pandemic and the trauma incited by the “new normal,” which is full of uncertainty around reopening plans in the fall. But students and educators need support to monitor and combat ACEs no matter the instructional format. 

Even as schools navigate budget cuts, I encourage leaders, educators, community partners, and families to consider implementation of the trauma-informed school model. I know my students would have benefited during my time in the classroom.

Five Strategies for Serving Students with Disabilities: A Visual Primer

As the pandemic rages on, it’s increasingly clear that students with disabilities are not getting the services or educational supports they need. And as educators across the country continue to navigate uncertainty for the fall, it will be easier than ever to let minimum compliance with rules and regulations stand in for the deeper work necessary to serve all students well. 

I want to offer five strategies school leaders can use to ensure they integrate support for students with disabilities into their organizational culture and mission — during the pandemic and beyond. Alongside a series of other toolkits that my colleagues and I have released in recent months (the latest is here), these five strategies provide a starting place for giving all students, including and especially those with disabilities, an opportunity to learn together as part of a community.

The five strategies are available in a new visual one-page PDF

  1. Establish and reinforce adult culture and mindset
  2. Teach and encourage problem-solving in the classroom
  3. Represent students with disabilities in leadership and decision-making
  4. Align data systems to the school’s mission
  5. Know and address students’ contexts 

These strategies are based on my work with dozens of school leaders across the country, in which questions around culture, staffing, and operations inevitably intersect with the school’s approach to special education. These five strategies are not at odds with legal requirements for schools to provide a free appropriate public education, individualized education plans, and least restrictive environments. But they recognize that compliance is not enough. 

I hope more school leaders are able to “zoom out” of the day-to-day minutiae and embed their approach to special education within their school’s wider organizational culture and mission.

Read the new resource here.

It’s Time For a National Teachers’ Strike

Schools closed in March in order to give federal and state governments the time to implement a public health response to COVID-19. They have failed miserably to do so. With case counts exceeding three million and deaths approaching 150,000, the United States is unique in the world for its near-total abdication of responsibility for its people in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century. And now, in the face of rising case numbers, uncontrolled community transmission, and a culture growing increasingly numb to six-figure death rates, people are clamoring for school buildings to reopen

This is an absurd proposition. No teacher should risk their life because the government refuses to address a solvable problem.

Arlington County (VA) signage during COVID-19 outbreak — photo via dmbosstone on Flickr

School districts’ plans for the fall are a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online learning plans —- with heated debate about which approach is best. But this debate is fundamentally misplaced: We do not have a learning problem, we have a public health problem. Schools were closed because the world confronted a lethal and highly transmissible virus with no vaccine and few effective treatments, and that problem still exists.

There was a time, back in March, when doctors and nurses across the country were forced to treat patients without adequate PPE. They protested and they complained, but the few who flat-out refused found themselves out of jobs. What would have happened if they’d all refused? How quickly would the federal government have marshalled its resources and authority to manufacture and distribute all needed PPE if medical professionals decided that without it, they would strike?

Teachers (and other school-based staff) are now facing that same question. What would happen if they simply refused to go into school buildings until the federal government created a school reopening plan aligned with CDC guidance? What if teachers only offered virtual schooling until districts committed to allowing public health experts to guide reopening decisions? Even regions where the virus appears to be “under control” for the moment are always at risk of outbreaks in a country with porous borders. Take Hawaii, for example: It is the most remote population center in the world and it cannot get its infection rates to 0. This is a national problem in need of a national response.

Schools can still plan for instruction using imperfect remote learning models, and teachers will still do their much-needed jobs. But it is time for a national teachers’ strike against in-person programming. No teacher should go back into a school building anywhere in the country until the federal government adopts a meaningful public health plan to address the real problem that we’re all facing: the unchecked spread of a deadly virus.