Education Policy Reform

Education Policy in the US

We fail the United States Education system by directing our attempts to improve academic performance by attempting to fix a systemic problem while focusing on its surface issue: standardized testing. If standardized test scores are what really matter, then why shouldn’t teachers dedicate the majority of the school year to preparing students for specific questions rather than teaching kids to think for themselves? Furthermore, if our goal is to boost standardized test performance, then we fail the purpose of education: preparing students for success. Students come to school to think, but also to learn how to think. The job of a teacher is to help develop higher level thinking skills, and yet our narrow-minded focus on standardized exams negates the ability to actually achieve success on those exams. One needn’t looked further than Finland to see that focusing on student needs leads to high test performance.  In order to raise standardized test grades, we need to provide students with tools they need to succeed like discipline and resilience, rather than worrying about how student grades reflect on the teacher.

In order to illustrate the difference between addressing the surface and addressing the root of the problem, I would like to share an analogy provided to me by a Habitat for Humanity group leader.Consider a group of refugees that journey to a town to fix a widespread illness. They spend all of their time treating the individuals, but more and more people become ill. In order to make the most effective change, these volunteers had to discover what was causing the people in this town to become sick. A bunch of chemicals had been leaked into their water supply far up the river where it was not immediately visible. It was only after identifying the problem that these workers could make a significant impact and truly heal the town of its illness.

In this analogy, the United States is the town and poor academic performance is the town’s illness. Focusing only on what’s wrong at the surface level will never create a long-term path to success. We need to dig deeper and address the problems that prevent students from succeeding even when the teachers and textbook materials are the best that they possibly can be. I believe that the answer lies in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Students require their basic needs to be met in order to have the mental capacity to focus on class material. This means that a perfect teacher who is teaching a student with mental illness, or who isn’t receiving food or love at home, will not be able to properly motivate the child. His basic physiological needs predicate his ability to understand and retain information taught to him.

        In the book All Children Successful, Vito Germinario and his colleagues stress the fact that the world has changed, and that education must successfully adapt in order to effectively educate future generations. Germinario points to the fact one in four first year undergraduates intend to stay home raising children (Germinario et al. 1992). This places an increasing pressure on teachers because students often have two parents that work. Additionally, divorce is becoming so common that approximately half of all marriages end in divorce (Germinario et al. 1992). This changes the home life of students in a very big way and makes it easier for homework assignments to escape the notice of busy parents who may not communicate with their divorced partners. One such example is explained by second grade teacher, Mr. Black, from Bow, New Hampshire:

The interesting piece… is when the parents are divorced. One week they live with one parent, and the other week they live with the other parent; and during different weeks, it will be on different days. So, whenever I communicate, I always communicate with both parents… or they get mad at each other. I’m like, “So and so hasn’t done their homework in three days and I don’t know the situation.” Turns out that he was at Mom’s or Dad’s house for three days, so now they are chirping away and I’m like, “Hey, I just want them to get caught up.”

Due to changing societal norms, schools have an increasing responsibility to fill the role of “teaching essential life skills that were traditionally within the domain of family and church” (Germinario et al. 1992). “Parents increasingly look to schools for help… [and] schools have now been asked to assume a direct role in the teaching of essential life skills that were traditionally within the domain of family and church” (Germinario et al. 1992). Fortunately, shifting the focus of our schools to enabling students to succeed in life provides the cognitive foundation for high academic performance on standardized exams (Scope 2013).

 

What causes students to become at-risk?

        The U.S. Department of Education identified a number of indicators that contribute to at-risk status. They include low parental income and/or education, limited English proficiency, living in a single-parent family, having a sibling that dropped out of high school, and being at home without an adult for a period greater than three hours on weekdays (National Center for Education Statistics 1988). Additionally, “Poor health, perceived attitudes of teachers, unstable peer relationships, and the dynamics of the home can all add to high-risk behavior” (Ogden & Germinario 1988). Studies demonstrate that students perform better in school when they feel better about themselves (Germinario et al. 1992). Therefore, a reasonable conclusion to promote academic competency is to teach students life skills like self-efficacy, resilience, and the value of hard work.

 

How can you tell if a student is at-risk?

Signs that a student might be at-risk start as early as kindergarten: “Feelings of school failure and symptoms of dysfunctional behavior can be identified as early as kindergarten” (Germinario et al. 1992). In extreme cases, the child develops a phobia towards the school environment. More commonly, “symptoms are mild, yet significant enough to interfere with their ability to maximize their learning potential” (Germinario et al. 1992). Signs in the classroom that students may be at-risk include poor attendance, working below grade level, school suspensions, a lack of participation in extracurricular activities, and potentially special program placement (Germinario et al. 1992). Teachers must learn to observe signs like these as students’ need for help rather than seeing them as a lost cause. These children need help even more than the ones who do not exhibit at-risk symptoms.

Examples of behaviors that teachers should look for include students experiencing academic difficulties, high absenteeism, frequent complaints of illness, difficulty staying on task, poor personal hygiene, isolation from peer groups, a crisis at home (parents divorcing, abuse, death of a family member), sudden changes in behavioral patterns as well as students who routinely disrupt class discussion (Germinario et al. 1992). “School failure leads to messages of rejection and poor sense of self. Without basic academic and social skills, children face failure every day and may quickly reach the conclusion that they are incapable.”

In 1976, Murphy and Moriarty identified specific traits that enabled children born into at risk environments to overcome their circumstances. These included cognitive flexibility, an ability to express a range of emotions, and an ability to positively adapt to social situations. In 1987, Felsman and Vaillant conducted a 40 year longitudinal study on resiliency. They noted that the majority of clinical language on adverse environments failed to include those who formed  healthy adaptation from their circumstances. These articles brushed over the remarkable accomplishments of resilient kids to cite a broad rule that adverse childhoods result in mal-adapted adults. These children show a mark of resiliency that deserves equal if not more research attention than the children who fall under the weight of unfair circumstances.

        Felsman and Vaillant explain that those who due thrive under the weight of adverse circumstances are not “super kids.” Rather, they maintain courage that enables them to survive bad events without a defeatist attitude and contain the potential to thrive as much as “lucky” children do. Another publication in 1987 uncovered that the imagination such children employ does more than allow them to cope with sometimes frightening realities. It serves as an “enhancing factor” that augments their potential (Anthony 1987). One year later, Frederic Flach published a book entitled Resiliency: Discovering a new strength at times of stress devoted itself to the study of protective factors that promote resiliency in the midst of at-risk environments.

        In 1991, Nancie Palmer published an article on children born to alcoholic parents. Palmer cited the need for problem-solving skills that contribute to self-enhancement for at-risk children to thrive in adulthood. These thoughts are echoed in the Differential Resiliency Model (DRM), which posits the need for the development of resilience over time. The DRM created four degrees of resilience to show the acquisition of resilience skills is a process. Nancie Palmer published an additional article in 1997 detailing a research study of ten adult children of alcoholics. The ten participants represented all four of the DRM’s resiliency stages.

        The first category, anomic survival, details an environment of disruption in which the child lives amidst chronic impermanence of his surroundings. All energy must be directed towards survival of one’s circumstances. The second category, regenerative resiliency, involves developing coping strategies. This stage results in a willingness to seek supportive resources. The third category, adaptive resilience, consists of a relatively sustained period of constructive coping strategies that results in a greater ability to partake in reciprocal relationships. A sustained effort results in resources essential for growth, and even frees oneself up to take part in spirituality and personal enhancement. The fourth and final category, flourishing resilience, pertains to Karl Maslow’s level of self-actualization (Maslow 1987). It consists of extended periods of stability and growth.

 

How can we help at-risk students?

If that is the problem, how then can we solve it? Asking teachers to eradicate inequality in students’ home lives seems impossible. Instead, we need to focus on teaching children to empower themselves to become competent, law-abiding citizens that can obtain success for themselves by contributing to society. The answer to this problem is simple: we need to teach students to be resilient. Resilience is defined as one’s ability to “bounce back” from adversity (Margolis 2010). Although teachers can not account for what students experience outside of the classroom, teachers have the ability to build students’ self-efficacy by providing a “stable environment… [and] maintaining a positive class climate and the teaching and reinforcing of needed life skills” (Germinario 1992). Germinario recommends using a team approach when helping at-risk students. “A comprehensive plan makes it possible for schools to take advantage of accumulated learning, attitudes, and behaviors developed in previous grades.”

Resilience is valuable at all ages, but it’s best to start when children are young because “success in early years is a critical prerequisite to success in later schooling and, ultimately, in life” (Germinario et al. 1992).  Furthermore, there are ramifications when students are not helped early. “Early success in school positively correlates with high school graduation and “more than 80 percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts” (U.S. Department of Education 1990). Germinario speculates that “the best way to reduce crime is to increase education” which makes sense since “the chances are greater that a high school dropout will go to prison than they are that a smoker will contract cancer” (Hodghenson 1990).

“The success of the efforts of elementary school teachers will have [a] lasting impact on learning and the life-long success of their students” (Germinario et al. 1992). Fortunately, there are a “variety of instructional strategies aimed at developing a positive learning environment for all students” (Germinario et al. 1992). Teachers can assist children in their development of self-efficacy by requiring all students to take a learning styles test at the beginning of each school year. Re-testing ensures accuracy in students’ result. This test will serve two purposes. The first is to inform the teacher of the percentage of learning styles in his or her classroom. The teacher may then adapt lesson plans for that year to incorporate all of the styles.

When a teacher identifies a student as “at risk” for a multitude of reasons not limited to poor performance on tests, the teacher will be instructed to refer to the class percentage of learning styles to determine how best to help that student succeed. This is crucial not just as an inevitable way to raise that students standardized test score, but also because research proves early intervention significantly reduces the risk of students belief about their academic capability (Germinario et al. 1992). “At-risk students may have predominant learning modalities that differ significantly from traditional teaching styles” (Germinario et al. 1992).

One study identified “at-risk learners were identified as having poor to fair auditory and visual learning capabilities; however, a very large percentage of these students demonstrated high preference for tactical and kinesthetic learning experiences” (Germinario et al. 1992). It therefore becomes especially important “to train teachers to utilize a more multi-sensory approach with identified at-risk students” (Germinario et al. 1992). Fortunately, “providing variability in instructional delivery systems would ultimately help all learners “ and so “schools must now embrace the responsibility of successfully educating those students who, for whatever reason, come to school unable to maximize their learning potential” (Germinario et al. 1992).

“A second benefit to this approach is to inform students at an early age that if they don’t comprehend material right away, it may have to do with the way in which the material is presented. The student may then form a pro-active approach to learning in which he or she reads homework material out loud (auditory learners), takes a recommended number of breaks to move around (kinesthetic), and to read more from textbooks (visual learners). The previous examples are some of many ways that a student may adapt their learning habits. Unfortunately, this approach is not a curriculum standard at this time, and so many students don’t know about learning styles. They may internalize poor academic performance into generalized negative statements about their capability to excel in school.

Internalized negative opinions about one’s potential hurt the student, but it also hurts teachers who will find difficulty motivating students to succeed once the self belief about their capability has been accepted. The diversity of instructional delivery systems can have a profound impression on learning and emotional outcomes [, so] it becomes exceedingly important that teachers systematically apply instructional strategies… that foster student achievement and well-being” (Germinario et al. 1992).

A fortunate side effect from this approach is that it does not nullify Race to the Top’s efforts. Tying monetary raises in teachers’ salaries based upon their students’ performance on standardized tests does not have to be stress-inducing. The important matter is to address the root issue behind at-risk student’s poor performance rather than compensating for their failures by teaching exact material on the test. This is called “teaching to the test” and while it may increase a student’s performance on standardized tests that year. The student will be that much farther behind because utilized a parrot approach of memorization rather than comprehension. This also hurts teachers, because future teachers that inherit these students have that much harder of job helping these students to meet grade level standards.

 

The Importance of Resilience

Some researchers believe that it is erroneous to label  student ‘at risk’ because it could do more harm than good. Joel Brown, Marianne D’emidio-Caston and Bonnie Benard point out in Resilience Education that since the Education system adopted the medical model of identifying risk factors, student performance has gone down, not up. Many authors unite on the theme of resilience as a crucial step in perpetuating positive psychology into the curriculum. Synonyms of Resiliency include elasticity, adaptability, fluidity, malleability, plasticity, pliancy, bounciness, stamina, backbone, endurance, force, fortitude, grit, toleration, moxie, resistance, guts and power (Thesaurus.com).  The idea is to teach resilience skills to kids to help them obtain self-actualization on their own. Although some individual work must be done, we also cannot expect kids to understand how to arrive at Point B from Point A without some guidance.

        Resilience in the classroom may well have started in 1908 with Arthur C. Perry. Education leader John Dewey then picked up Perry’s work in 1918. Their theories centered on creating a “school climate” that was “conducive to learning” (Wininger 2010 ). Although these pioneers brought resiliency into conversations about education, its use as an educational tool truly began with Abraham Maslow in 1943.

      Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid

 

Maslow theorized that, in order to achieve self-actualization, basic needs must first be met. Education instructors used, and continue to use, this pyramid to demonstrate the importance of learning in the classroom. Students will not be able to effectively retain, or even pay attention, to class material when their foundational needs aren’t being met. The foundation of the pyramid includes physiological needs for food, clothing and shelter. Second comes their need for safety. Third is the need for love and belonging. Fourth is the need for esteem. Only after achieving the four previous needs can a child be capable of achieving his or her potential.

        Steven Wininger asserts that “although most are aware of Maslow’s five needs, fewer know that Maslow espouses preconditions that exist for basic needs, as well as cognitive needs, to be satisfied” (Wininger 2010). Examples of these pre-conditions include freedom for autonomy, freedom of expression, freedom to seek justice and freedom to seek knowledge (Wininger 2010). In addition to being a prerequisite to self-actualization, the freedom to seek knowledge is also the first of two cognitive need requirements (Wininger 2010). Although slight alterations may exist in individual circumstances– for example, a child needing self-esteem more than love– Maslow’s hierarchy remains extremely accurate (Wininger 2010).

        The importance of Maslow’s theory within the realm of Education is that a child cannot focus on what is being taught in the classroom if basic foundational needs are not being met at home. Children come into the classroom with a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds as well as emotionally stable home environments. Children therefore require additional assistance meeting their basic needs before they can be expected to focus their attention on school work. Ideally, these needs would be met at home; however, I believe that as citizens of the United States, children inspire the government to step in and assist them in case they were not lucky enough to be born into a loving home.

We rarely talk about happiness in educational circles, yet happiness can be understood as an organizational goal of human life. happy people are healthier, more successful, and more socially engaged (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). In the last decade there has been an explosion of interest in positive psychology or the scientific study of positive emotions, traits, and institutions. Research has shown that although we cannot teach children to be happy, there are three routes to happiness: positive emotion and pleasure, engagement, and meaning (Seligman, 2002). Recent research indicates that the most satisfied people are those who orient their goals toward all three (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005). Positive Education is a new trend in the field of Education that introduces the science of positive psychology into the school curriculum. Dr. Martin Seligman is the pioneer of both positive psychology and positive education. He has successfully seen his research-oriented approach implemented at the Geelong Grammar School in Australia.

In Seligman’s book, Flourish, he explains the need for positive psychology to be integrated into education: “I want a revolution world education. All young people need to learn workplace skills” (Seligman 2011). He explains that when asked, parents prioritize their children’s well being as being of the utmost importance. This should guide the approach that we as educators take in approaching the school curriculum that we plan for our students. Dr. Seligman goes further to explain how this can be done. Strategies include having students take an online quiz to determine their top character strengths, and then incorporating those strengths into the classroom. This can be done in multiple ways. One example is choosing “A Character Strength of the Week,” and then having students nominate fellow classmates every Friday to see who has best demonstrated that strength during the week. It encourages positive thinking, social comrade, and self-esteem. These are essential valued traits within positive psychology.

Another example is using the topic of character strengths within the context of English class. This particular example would be used in a high school curriculum; however, the act of using character strengths in English class can be adapted at the elementary level. The teacher can take the Shakespeare play Hamlet and encourage students to pick out which character strengths each character is exhibiting. The lesson can then be directed into a writing assignment that the students complete outside of class. One more example that is more closely suited for the elementary aged student is the “What Went Well” exercise. Students write down three things that went well the night before [if done at the end of the day, it can be adapted to include what went well during the school day]. After each item on their list, students answer three questions: Why did this happen? What does this mean? And how can I make this happen again in the future?

Although an initial concern might be that diverting attention off of academic performance will disadvantage America’s youth, Seligman disagrees. Seligman wisely asserts, “I am all for success… but I want you to imagine that schools could, without compromising [success], teach both the skills of well being and the skills of achievement” (Seligman 2011). In other words, the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, based upon the successful execution of positive education at Geelong Grammar School in Australia, positive education has the ability to raise attendance, lower drop-outs, and raise test scores. The explanation is simple. When students are taught the building blocks of resilience, which in a nutshell is the ability to bounce back from adversity (Seligman 2011), they are more likely to develop the two academic skills that actually determine success: self-control and grit.

Dr. Angela Duckworth has experience teaching elementary aged children in addition to her subsequent Ph.D. in Psychology. She discovered that what determines students’ academic success is not found in a summative equation of intelligence added to the number of hours studied. She cites a multiplicative approach that is comprised of skill times effort. The crucial piece of this formula is that effort is very much dependent on the level of “grit” that a student has. Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (Duckworth 2013). Another definition of hers included “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them” (Duckworth 2016). Duckworth elaborates, “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina” (Duckworth 2016).

A marathon is such a fitting analogy for Education. When one considers the way that education began in historic one-room schoolhouse rooms, crowding multiple grades into a single room warmed by a potbelly stove, education epitomizes the long-term progress required in a marathon. There may be a race. We may even be in competition with other countries, but short bursts of energy will not get us to the finish line.

 

Mindfulness in the Classroom

        An easy way to promote self-efficacy in students involves encouraging teachers to practice mindfulness in the classroom.  Patricia A. Jennings defines mindfulness as “present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness” (Jennings 2015). Jennings compares mindfulness to watching a movie in that your consciousness observes everything that happens with acceptance. Jennings recommends incorporating this approach into teaching styles in order to be fully present and adapt to student needs in that moment; rather than worrying about past events or future lesson plans. Mindfulness corrects for this by bringing the individual back to the present moment, where he or she is best able to address students in a way benefits their learning. Additionally, mindfulness has been scientifically proven to reduce stress levels, which calms the teacher and promotes a greater sense of wellbeing (Goldin & Gross 2010).

Jennings notes that throughout history “the role of education has been to prepare children for adulthood” and that we can not accurately predict what life will be like for our children in the future, and because of this students need to be “adaptable, creative resilient, courageous, innovative, persistent, open-minded, open-hearted, and cooperative” (Jennings 2015). Due to the fact negative emotions have the potential to “distort and limit our thinking”, mindfulness remains a powerful tool at our disposal to prepare students for learning information (Jennings 2015). Additionally, mindfulness supports the “social and emotional dimensions of development by promoting an ethos of caring and compassion” (Jennings 2015).

        Benefits of mindfulness include the cognitive outcomes of increased attention and higher grades. The social-emotional benefits from mindfulness include emotional regulation, school behavior, empathy and perspective-taking, as well as social skills.  General wellbeing is also improved through mindfulness and has been linked to reducing test anxiety, stress, posttraumatic symptoms, and depression (Dusek et al. 2010). Mindfulness achieves these results by changing arousal patterns in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus (Chiesa & Serretti 2010). The prefrontal cortex serves many roles that impact student achievement in the classroom. It controls decision-making, moderates social behavior and is responsible for complex cognitive thinking (Garrett 2009). The fact that social behavior can also distract other students makes mindfulness especially important for aiding classroom behavior. Research shows that the prefrontal cortex becomes more activated following mindfulness training (Chiesa & Serretti 2010).

        The amygdala becomes aroused when detecting and reacting to negative emotions like fear. Research proves that the amygdala becomes less activated, and shows a decrease in gray matter density after practicing mindfulness (Dusek et al. 2010). The hippocampus plays a role in memory, motivation and regulating emotions (Garrett 2009). Motivation is incredibly important in a student’s potential for success. The hippocampus is therefore crucial to our discussion of improving academic performance. Students prove that mindfulness stimulate the hippocampus and not only increases its gray matter density, but also plays a significant role in regulating the amygdala (Goldin & Gross 2010).

According to Joel Brown, the most “important aspect of participation in resilience education is an authentic focus in the present” (Brown et al. 2001). This can be defined as mindfulness (Jennings 2015). Brown notes ‘Here is my experience. Right now I am writing. I feel and her the “tik, tik, tiking” of my typing. I am seeing the word move onto the screen  I type. I smell coffee. My feet are resting on the plastic-covered floor’ (Brown et al. 2001). Mindfulness remains essential in the context of education because it focuses the person on what is still within their realm of control: the present.  Rather than simply training our children’s minds to absorb and regurgitate facts so that they can do well on standardized tests, mindfulness has the potential to promote other valuable cognitive skills, such as creative thinking, perspective-taking, and innovative problem-solving. These skills are critical to our collective capability for addressing the challenging problems we face today (Jennings 2015). Additionally, mindfulness supports the “social and emotional dimensions of development by promoting an ethos of caring and compassion” (Jennings 2015).

Albert Einstein sent a telegram to several hundred Americans to request support for a campaign that promoted a new way of thinking: “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels” and Jennings believes mindfulness is the best tool currently at our disposal to move the education system forward (Jennings 2015). Furthermore, Jennings is not alone in her belief that education should incorporate mindfulness. Others include the Inner Resilience Program of New York City, Calm Classrooms, the South Burlington Vermont School District’s Wellness and Resilience program, and the Skills for Life initiative.

        Calm Classrooms (CC) was created out of the ideas of Harvard Medical School professor, Herbert Benson. Benson believes in the importance of mindfulness, and developed the relaxation response (RR) method to make the method easily accessible. Modeled after Benson, the CC K-12 curriculum introduces students to a set of techniques that last between thirty seconds and two minutes. Examples include breath awareness, relaxation, stretching, and concentration (Jennings 2015). Teachers are taught to employ these techniques several times throughout the day. The techniques are especially useful when transitioning to a new subject or classroom. These practices teach students to self-regulate during disciplinary activities, which means they are more attentive to what is being taught.  

        Herbert Benson proved the effectiveness of RR in a study conducted in 1994 in which students reported higher levels of self-esteem (Benson et al. 1994). This may be explained by the fact students feel less anxious when practicing these techniques as well as the fact that a calmer disposition enables a student to improve grades which helps students view themselves as smart and capable. Benson went a step further in his 2000 study that proved middle school students improved their grades as well as their behavior over a three-year study after RR was introduced in their curriculum. Additionally, students who were exposed to two or more semesters of RR-infused curriculum “had higher grade point averages, better work habits, and higher cooperation scores than students who had less exposure to the program practices” (Jennings 2015).

The Inner Resilience Program in New York City experienced similar success. As a response to the twin towers attack on September 11, 2001, former NYC school administrator Linda Lantieri created the Inner Resilience Program (IRP) as a way to help NYC teachers recover from the traumatic events of that day. Shortly after, Lantieri developed a mindfulness-based curriculum for students in response to requests from parents, teachers and other administrators (Lantieri 2008). IRP provides teachers with the opportunity to increase their own resilience which they are then told to impart upon their students. Examples of the skills taught through IRP include mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, yoga, self-care, daylong retreats, after-school workshops, and technical assistance inside their schools.

The South Burlington School District in Vermont also introduced mindfulness into its curriculum. In 2008, the district initiated the Inner Resilience Pilot Project that utilized the IRP approach employed in New York to help infuse schools with resilience techniques. A group of forty-one teachers, administrators, and staff from the district’s three elementary schools participated in the initiative. It lasted ten months and consisted of a workshops and retreats introducing teachers to stress reduction and emotion regulation skills—such as deep breathing and mindfulness meditation– to improve teachers’ personal and professional wellbeing (Jennings 2015).

The New England Network for Child, Youth & Family Services conducted an evaluation to compare scores from educations before and after the IRP program and found remarkable increases in mindfulness, as well as a definitive level of reduction in stress. Through use of a survey, the New England Network for Child, Youth & Family Services discovered that 87% of participants felt that the IRP had either a “moderate” or “serious” effect on their personal lives, while 90% reported the same about their professional lives (Jennings 2015).

After completing the ten month initiative, participating educators began introducing the strategies they had learned to their students. These teachers reported an increase in students’ ability to calm themselves, and an analysis of five participating classrooms reported 75% of students referring to the program as beneficial (Jennings 2015). Due to its tremendous success, the original pilot was expanded into the Wellness and Resilience Program (WRP). WRP expanded the services to include a Learning to BREATHE program as well as a lecture series for parents and educators. Additionally, a growing number of other schools (private and public) are creating similar initiatives modeled after South Burlington’s IRP implementation.

In the Youngstown and Warren Ohio school districts, schools deliver a comprehensive curriculum to its students that integrates research-based social and emotional learning skills. They call this program the Life Skills project and view it as an opportunity to expand education into a platform for life knowledge like resilience while enhancing students’ ability to retain academic information. A study conducted in 2013 found that participants enjoyed and/or benefited from the program (Jennings 2015). Today parents, educators, and policy makers recognize the need for a broad educational agenda that includes the development of social and emotional competencies.

We want young people to learn to succeed academically, but we also want them to learn to manage relationships in skilled and respectful ways; practice positive, safe, and healthy behaviors; make ethical and responsible contributions to their peer group, family, school, and community; and demonstrate basic competencies, work habits, and values as a foundation for a meaningful life and engaged citizenship (Jennings 2015). As Jennings wisely points out, the best way to promote a healthy and productive society is to produce ethically mindful students. This contradicts the current “teach to the test” mentality that teaches students grades come above all else.

        Fortunately, Jennings notes that a complete overhaul of the education curriculum need not apply. Children learn these skills through observation, so a teacher that practices mindfulness intangibly imparts the value of this practice. Through the example of teachers and parents, children learn “prosocial” behaviors such as empathy, compassion, perspective-taking, gratitude and cooperation. Prosocial behaviors also include using good manners, welcoming others, and speaking up against injustice (Jennings 2015). An important aspect of accomplishing a prosocial disposition includes the consideration of how a student’s actions will impact other peoples’ lives. This in and of itself promotes the ethical consciousness that our society needs in order to flourish.

Rather than simply training our children’s minds to absorb and regurgitate facts so that they can do well on standardized tests, mindfulness has the potential to promote other valuable cognitive skills, such as creative thinking, perspective-taking, and innovative problem-solving. These skills are critical to our collective capability for addressing the challenging problems we face today (Jennings 2015).

 

Positive Classroom Environment

Teachers must also create a “positive class climate” that is described as a “classroom where the teacher actively plas for the emotional well-being of each student” (Germinario et al. 1992). This could also be characterized as an environment “where a child is willing to participate without fear of failure” (Germinario et al. 1992). Positive classrooms create an environment in which “students are more likely to raise their hands take an active part in the learning process” and feel confident about their teacher’s response when “they make mistakes or need assistance in learning activities” (Germinario et al. 1992).

An example of how the classroom environment impacts children’s’ ability to concentrate exists within a case study mentioned in Resilient Classrooms; Creating Healthy Environments for Living. Doll and her associates mention a child named Lewis whose “potent asthma medication left him distractible, inattentive, and disorganized” (Doll 2004). Despite possessing a high level of intelligence, Lewis’s school work was rarely completed, and so he was placed in a “slower learning” group (Doll 2004). A first attempt to redirect Lewis’s inattentiveness came from the school nurse. She suggested that Lewis attend her office twice a day to renew his medications and that worked for three weeks, but then Lewis slipped back into forgetting to come at all.

        Things changed for Lewis when he entered fifth grade the following year. His new classroom was organized and consisted of precise management routines. Students would write assignments in their notebooks at a predictable times every day, and under this environment, Lewis thrived academically. (Doll 2004). Other changes included seatwork being written on the same location on the chalkboard every day, students were taught routines for repeating activities like quizzes, and class meetings that met during recess periods. Desks were organized into groups of four with plenty of space in between students. Lewis’s teach was described as “tough but cool” (Doll 2004).

        In this new environment, Lewis seemed to be a completely different student. He completed and submitted his work on time, and he remembered to go to the office to take his medication. Doll and her associates believe that the reason Lewis thrived in this new circumstance was because the new class routines created a context which allowed Lewis to “express his competence” (Doll 2004). Although the logic behind this assessment is sound, in order to confirm this hypothesis, the experiment would necessitate a control group and isolate this classroom as the only factor changing in Lewis’s life.

        In order to facilitate classroom changes like the one Lewis received, teachers need to be aware of several factors. One is that teachers understand what makes a classroom a healthy place to learn. The second is to recognize when essential supports are missing. The third is to intervene to reinstate those supports when necessary. The fourth is to demonstrate that their interventions have enhanced the learning and development of children in their classrooms.

        “Resilient classrooms are places where all children can be successful emotionally, academically, and socially… our working definition of resilient classrooms will borrow most heavily from the major studies of developmental risk that were initiated in the 1940s and 1950s, and reached maturity in the 1980s and 1990s. “The most powerful predictors were not characteristics of the children but instead described the families and communities in which the children were raised … [this] led us to suggest that resilience should be conceptualized as a property of caretaking settings rather than of individual children  (Doll & Lyon 1998). In addition to poverty, these children struggle to grow up while experiencing high rates of community violence, family discord, and diminished health care—many of the factors that predict poor life outcomes Doll 2004).

In the book, Effective Educational Environments, Jean Stockard examines classroom environmental factors that promote student achievement. Stockard approaches these factors from a social, psychological, and then physical environment in the schools. Stockard also notes that, “Completion of certain levels of schooling, more than simply learning a given amount of material, facilitates entry into occupations” (Stockard 1992). Stockard distinguishes between attainment and achievement, stating that attainment is a more accurate indicator of student success; however, due to the fact that many studies cited list achievement as the dependent variable, achievement is the term used throughout the book. In all of these cases, Stockard believes that environment does impact student performance: “[L]iterature consistently indicates that schools and classrooms that have strong academic norms, an orderly environment, supportive and effective leadership, and warm, supportive interpersonal relationships have higher achievement” (Stockard 1992).

Some of the classroom environment factors that influence student achievement are straightforward, but some of them are pretty unexpected. For example, Kachel believes that the low divorce rate in Amish households fosters academic success. Douglas Kachel examines the one-room schoolhouse environment within Amish cultures and notes that in spite of the lack of physical environmental accommodations such as electricity or running water, students meet the same test scores and sometimes outperform their peers at parochial and public schools (Kachel 1989). Kachel believes that the psychological safeguards associated with a stable home environment as well as the strong integration of the school with the community produces these results. The one area in which these schools fall behind is vocabulary (Kachel 1989). The term that Kachel uses to include the psychological strengths found in Amish communities is “social capital,” and the work of Coleman in 1988 echoes Kachel’s findings: social capital has a strong impact on education achievement.

Another less than straightforward approach to changing the classroom environment in order to improve student performance examined the “power” dynamic of classrooms. Similar to social capital, this was not a tangible change that the teacher could implement in the physical realm. It consisted of including students in the scientific inquiry process with the belief that instilling a sense of competency will affect students’ achievement positively. In the article, “Power in the Classroom: How the Classroom Environment Shapes Students’ Relationships With Each Other and With Concepts,” University of Washington professors Lindsay Cornelius and Leslie Herrenkohl call for a shift in the way that teachers communicate with their students. They fault the traditional model of class that involves teachers talking for the majority of class, and then only engaging students by asking them direct questions. They view an effective classroom environment as one that promotes students to “talk science” with the teacher and take on an active role in the process of scientific inquiry (Cornelius & Herrenkohl 2004).

Advancements in technology have taken us away from the traditional model in an interesting way. Virtual classrooms permit easy access to electronic copies of course materials, as well as provide a virtual hub for students to comment on class readings. In the article, “Designing Classrooms to Maximize Student Achievement,” University of Washington professor Sapna Cheryan and her colleagues reference the adaptation to learning this online forum provides: “As the use of virtual classroom environments continues to grow, care should be taken in how these spaces are designed to create a virtual classroom culture that is welcoming to all students” (Cheryan et. al 2014). Cheryan references the potential negative effects resulting from such an easily accessible and anonymous portal. It is therefore in the hands of the course facilitator to establish guidelines for acceptable posts, as well as respectful ways to respond to the posts of classmates.

In this article, Cheryan also speaks of the ways that physical classrooms (outside the realm of the web and online classrooms) affect student performance. She lists inadequate lighting, noise, low air quality, and deficient heating as legitimate concerns to a students’ ability to succeed in the classroom. When these symptoms occur, Cheryan claims they are directly related to worsened academic performance (Cheryan 2014). Cheryan also gives a voice to minorities by connecting the fact that the people most likely to suffer from these environmental handicaps are black students from poor neighborhoods. A failure to address the conditions in which students learn not only lowers grades, it holds racial biases in place. Cheryan also cites scientific studies that prove a classroom’s décor positively influences student learning (Cheryan et. al 2014).

Another component to classroom environment that impacts student performance is class size. One study conducted in Tennessee demonstrated that small class sizes are linked with achievement benefits for “all students in all schools” (Nye et. al 2000). This belief was not universally held until recently. In a study published in 1989, Dr. Hanushek argued that the effects of a small class size must be small due to the lack of substantial amount of statistical significant evidence available (Hanushek 1989); however, this preceded Nye’s study and numerous other sources echo the modern belief that small class size does positively impact student performance. A potential explanation for Hanushek’s perspective was the lack of knowledge available to him at the time. In 2016, the data speaks a different story. Small class size is good for student performance.

It is not surprising when one considers Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that some research articles choose to focus on creating classrooms that are safe. In “Safe Space: Student Perspectives on Classroom Environment,” Lynn C. Holley and Sue Steiner reference a study that examined 121 baccalaureate and masters students at a university to uncover that safe environments affected both “what and how much they learned” (Holley & Steiner 2005). An example of how classrooms might fall short that Holley and Steiner are concerned about is that, in an attempt to create a space that promotes honest dialogue, a teacher may fail to create a feeling of safety for all students in the classroom (Holley & Steiner 2005). For example, a teacher may open the class up to a dialogue about injustice that could leave one or more members of the class feeling left out or in the minority due to differing beliefs or backgrounds. They also stress the importance of educating teachers so that these mistakes do not occur.

Unfortunately, even topics as universally accepted as safety are not blanket statements that mean the same thing for every student. An interesting study that was conducted for the performance of music ensembles in schools explored the idea that not every student benefits from the same classroom environment. In regards to the concern of safety mentioned in Holley’s editorial, this article found that “some students were found to thrive academically in classrooms that were high in competition, order, structure and teacher control, while other students found such environments threatening” (Halmann et. al 1990). Halmann’s article is interesting because it demonstrates that even when one agrees about concerns that affect the classroom environment (which ultimately affects student performance) such as safety, there is not always a clear answer on how best to attain a classroom that exhibits these ideals. Even in Holley’s article, the ability to speak openly and honestly could be helping the students who do not feel “unsafe” in such an environment. It is therefore at the teacher’s discretion to prioritize classroom organization in such a way as to benefit the most people.

Arguments for the importance of classroom environment were not always a summary detailing ways to improve a teacher’s classroom. There were also articles that argued for the importance of classroom environment as being the penultimate determination of success. One such article, entitled “The Classroom Environment: First, Last and Always” goes so far as to say it is the first and last concern for pedagogical instruction. Specific examples the authors include are how class materials are organized, such as a supply of paper and markers in an activity area will encourage students to create and explore. Another article takes a more balanced approach to promoting classroom environment as a future predictor of success. In “The Relation of Kindergarten Classroom Environment to Teacher, Family, and School Characteristics and Child Outcomes,” Robert Pianta and his colleagues examine public schools for young children and uncover two factors to be explored. The first is the importance of early school years for later school outcomes, and the second examines the quality of preschool and early childhood settings. Although Pianta is in agreement that classrooms affect a students’ ability to learn, he fails to go so far as to say it is the “first and last” predictor of success.

Regardless of whether one believes that the classroom is the most important predictor of success that goes on in the classroom, the evidence provided in these articles shows that the classroom environment does have a significant impact on how students perform. Also, although factors are not always clear on how best to benefit the most students, there are many environment factors that are universal. Teachers are encouraged to implement as many of these as possible in their classrooms. A summary of these include good class organization, small class size, adequate lighting, little-to-no noise, sufficient heating and/or air conditioning, positive social capital, class discussions that actively involve students, online environments that are respectful of all individuals, and—to the best of the teacher’s ability—a classroom environment that is considered a safe place.

Fortunately these adjustments do not come at the expense of student learning. In fact, they greatly contribute to it. Fewer class disruptions means that the teacher can cover material in greater depth. In order to facilitate this active learning environment, “teachers should look for opportunities to provide at least one successful experience each day” to students who most need resilience because, “although difficult, the success a student receives in the classroom may be the only positive reinforcement he/she receives in a day” (Germinario et al. 1992). Ironically, promoting prosocial behaviors in the classroom only stands to boost test scores. The one-room schoolhouse relied on students who understood the material to teach his or her classmate. This practice is why a classroom that combined multiple grade levels was able to function successfully. Think of how successful we could be today if we taught the value of helping one’s neighbor. Students would have a greater chance at learning with multiple tutors in the form of classmates. Teachers would be free to teach more material than they would be able to accomplish without this strategy.

        Dr. Ilona Boniwell studies resilience as a way to teach happiness. She poses the fact that people want, more than anything else, is happiness for their children. She points out the disconnect in the education system today in the fact that schools do not honor parents ultimate wishes. Schools do not teach happiness. She claims they focus so closely on teaching achievement, thinking skills, conformity, literacy, math, discipline and success that they do not teach what really matters: wellbeing, resilience and happiness. Boniwell points to the fact that at any point in time two percent of children during the ages of 11-15 and eleven percent of children aged 16.24 suffer a major depressive disorder. Boniwell points to how this accumulates into academic and interpersonal difficulties such as smoking, drugs alcohol and suicide risks.

        Boniwell claims that depression stems from academic difficulties as well as smoking and drug addiction. She points to the numerous positive outcomes resulting from teaching resiliency to children in schools: creativity enhancement, task persistence, multi-tasking, achievement, academic success, optimism, attending to relevant negative information, longevity, less vulnerability to illness, sociability, trust, helpfulness, less hostility, less self-centeredness. Ironically, these are the very skills that teachers attempt to create in their students. The problem is that focusing too heavily on external outcomes prevents people from successfully achieving the very accomplishments they wish to introduce. Clearly, the intention is there and yet the current model is not effective.

        Although resilience may not be fostered in United States education system today, certain solutions lie outside of our country’s paradigm. A program initiated in Mumbai India has achieved great success in fixing the external by addressing the internal. Erik Erikson claimed that negative outcome of early childhood results in an overly strict superego that causes children to feel excessive guilt because they have been criticized, threatened and punished excessively by adults. When this happens, preschoolers’ exuberant play and bold efforts to master new tasks break down. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2006 warned against reducing children’s free-time play and physical outlets. Based on recent research findings that point to the predicted and unanticipated contribution of play to education and child development, we can understand play as joining sleep, rest and food as one of the basic developmental urges.

        Brain Gym, developed by Dennison in the early 1980s, is recognized as one of today’s leading technologies for education. Brain Gym movements and activities help to strengthen neural connections all over the brain and rebalance brain patterns. Brain Gym is especially important for the education of children with special needs, who very often develop into stressed and anxious individuals. It provides an opportunity to facilitate and harmonize the functioning of the individual’s mind and body system.

        Galimberti believes there to be a profound lack of connectedness in schools today (Galimberti 2010). Students remain unchallenged if the learning process passes them by without engaging both emotion and cognition (Galimberti 2010). We aren’t giving students enough opportunities to participate in an active and creative way. We also fail students by limiting all knowledge acquisition through formal assessments. We also encounter discipline problems, because it is difficult for kids to respect the rules if disrespect for anything but formal assessment permeates into the school environment (Galimberti 2010). The trend in education today includes mental health problems among young students, bullying, and school dropouts.  

        Nan Henderson created a solution to these problems known as the Resiliency Model. According to Henderson, resilience is not something that needs to be taught only to “at risk” youth from poor neighborhoods or children exposed to crime. She explains that the “high risk and uncertain nature of the world children… encounter today contributes to the requirement of resiliency for all kids” (Henderson 1996). Henderson created the resiliency wheel as a way to teach resilience to kids from all backgrounds. The wheel includes a “Caring and Support” section that Henderson considers the most valuable aspect of protection because it enables the creation of relationships that genuinely care for the child. The Resiliency wheel also promotes high but realistic expectations of success for children as well as meaningful contribution to the lives of others, positive connections, clear boundaries and life skills.

        Henderson believes there is an increasing need to infuse resilience as a strength-based philosophy to help children (Henderson 1996). “Resilient children are children who are successful despite the odds. Although they live their early years under harsh circumstances of deprivation, maltreatment, illness, or neglect, resilient children create successful lives for themselves” (Doll 2004). They earn advanced education degrees, achieve successful careers, become financially stable, form happy and healthy families, and give back to their communities…. In fairy tales, Cinderella became a princess and lived happily ever after despite enduring years of her stepmother’s abuse (Doll 2004).  

Fortunately,  positive relationship doesn’t need to originate at home. Other ways to build resilience include close and nurturing relationships between children and caretaking adults, access to successful adult models, support for children’s regulation, support for warm and effective peer relationships, and “connectedness” within and among families and with formal and informal community groups that experience with impoverished inner-city schools taught him that the children need caring adults to support them and school environments that support the total development of the child” (Doll 2004).

“Truly resilient children are vulnerable children who benefited from the caring, sustenance, and guidance of a community.” The children who overcame high-risk childhoods were those who had a close bond with at least one caretaker, or had access to nurturing from other adults” (Doll 2004). Each year, 836,000 children are identified as physically or emotionally abused or neglected, and 581,000 children the abuse is so harmful that the children are removed from their families and placed into foster care. One out of every five or six children meets the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental illness listed in the text revision of the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Doll 2004)

National statistics show that most high-risk children are not served by community mental health or social service agencies (U.S. Department of Health and Services 1999). Given these prevalence rates, the typical school classroom with 25 students is likely to have at least 5 children with significant mental health needs, 4 students living in poverty, and 1 child struggling with severe abuse. Doll expresses that schools located in communities of concentrated poverty, unemployment, crime, and violence, will “inevitably show even higher rates” (Doll 2004). Furthermore, “12-15% of school-age children who have urgent needs for social and emotional support… are not receiving it through community providers. Schools cannot hire enough school mental health professionals to meet the needs of these children in change-the-kid ways… so this gap requires that schools find other ways to support the social and emotional needs of high-risk children so that they can learn and be successful despite their risk” (Doll 2004).

Both Comer and Cowen have demonstrated success in raising the achievement of high-risk children by changing the social context of schooling. They found that complex interactions between children and their classroom environments can maximize or diminish each child’s success, and that learning problems do not ‘reside’ within the children but instead reflect a mismatch between the children and one or more of the features within their classrooms” (Doll 2004). Doll personally believes that “a framework for fostering classroom change can be found in the ecological systems perspective on human development. This perspective describes each child as part of an integrated ecological system—the “child-in-classrooms” (Doll 2004).

“Obvious features of the ecosystem of any classroom include the teacher, students and physical settings. In this book, we also include less apparent features of the ecosystem such as the families that students come from each morning and return to at the end of each school day; the surrounding school with its policies, routines, and practices; and the community within which the school resides” (Doll 2004). Systems perspectives explain that classroom systems change through coordinated efforts of the teacher, students, parents, and others who are part of the classroom or visit it regularly. Neither the child nor the classroom can change without changing the other. When the changes made by the teachers, parents, and students complement and support each other, that change can persist and have an enduring impact on the routines and practices of the classroom” (Doll 2004).

               Many programs are emerging to address the underlying need for childhood resilience. These can take place both in the curriculum and outside of it in afterschool programs: “’Young people can benefit academically, socially and emotionally from high- quality afterschool programs” (Browne 2015). One of these, entitled “Success for All” schools “implement an enriched and strengthened reading curriculum accompanied by assigning nonprofessional child associates to establish a caring, trusting, and predictable relationship with young children who are at risk for school failure” (Doll 2004). The cornerstone of The School Development Program is a community-school team that strengthens the relationships between students and staff and between staff and parents.. and the ultimate purpose of the program is to give adults in the school a predictable and caring presence with the children” (Doll 2004). A similar program is entitled “the Primary Mental Health Project” optimizes school success by assigning nonprofessional child associates to establish a caring, trusting, and predictable relationship with young children who are at risk for school failure (Doll 2004).

        Doll and her associated identified six characteristics that describe the classrooms where children can be more successful academically and interpersonally. Students must be able to view themselves as competent and effective learners to instill a sense of academic efficacy. Secondly, students must work toward self-selected learning goals to promote academic self-determination. Students must also behave appropriately and adapt with minimal adult supervision to promote behavioral self-control. There must also be authentic and caring relationships” (Doll 2004). All six of these can be cultivated by employing certain techniques in the classroom. To promote academic self-determination, the teacher must emphasize the learning process above the products of learning. Classroom practices that support student autonomy are those which “allow students to choose the work that interests them, when and how they will learn it, the pace of their learning, and the standards that will be used to evaluate their work” (Doll 2004).

        Benefits of resilient classrooms include “enhanced academic engagement, improved academic performance, lower student dropout rates, and more successful inclusion of students with disabilities in regular education classrooms” (Doll 2004). Another important aspect of resilience is promoting students with a sense of academic efficacy. Academic efficacy is “the beliefs that students hold about their ability to learn and be successful in the classroom. It is a construct of self-fulfilling prophecies: children who expect to be successful take steps that make their success likely, whereas those who expect to fail behave in ways that almost ensure their failure” (Bandura 1986). Interestingly, academic efficacy is specific to a task. This means that a student who excels at mathematics may not view themselves as a good public speaker (Doll 2004). Most importantly, academic efficacy is greatly influenced by words to a student about his or her capability from teachers or parents (Doll 2004).

Academic efficacy has very real tangible side effects. Research proves that children with higher academic efficacy “earn higher grades, perform better on tests and other assignments, and progress more successfully through school (Pajares & Johnson 1996). This demonstrates the need to make building academic efficacy a strict priority in classrooms. Negative feedback to a child may stunt progress not only that year, but in all future classes in that subject due to a lack of believe in his/her capability. In addition to resilience research, a number of other research areas support the direct application of resilience to education. Developmental psychology clearly explains that resilience aids young people in making thoughtful, coherent decisions (Brown et al. 2001). Physiological and educational psychology claim that feelings directly influence learning abilities (Brown et al. 2001).

Education psychology additionally claims that a student’s learning capacity is greatly deepened through the use of intrinsic motivation that comes from a resilience mentality. This mentality also boosts one’s motivation to learn (Brown et al. 2001). Finally, social psychology research informs us that a healthy, democratic learning community produces tangible educational gains (Brown et al. 2001). All of this research demonstrates that this approach “can facilitate the development of thriving young people by emphasizing resilience in the educational process” (Brown et al. 2001). We should use psychology (and positive psychology) to influence curriculum design instead of worrying about test scores. If we address the root of why kids can’t focus in school, then we will improve scores in the long-term. Finland does not focus on test scores and they are very successful. “Based on experience and research, we defined resilience education as ‘the development of decisions-making and affective skills within each person and connectedness between people in the context of a healthy, democratic learning community” Resilience education uses strategies that engage students’ intrinsic motivations, allows young people to safely experiment with making decisions, helps create life goals, and encourages the exploration of emotions related to the adversity young people face.

 

U.S. Versus Them

It is beneficial to examine ways that other countries approach education and one of the best examination tools comes from the World Economic Forum. The WEF publishes data each year on how countries perform in the Global Competitiveness Report. WEF uses 12 pillars of competitiveness to determine which countries outperform the others. These twelve pillars include institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, health and primary education, higher education and training, goods market efficiency, labor market efficiency, financial market development, technological readiness, market size, business sophistication and innovation (Daniel 2016).

According to the 2016 Global Competitiveness Report, Finland ranks highest in global education systems for good reason. Some of the strategies that they employ that lead to this success include education all pupils in the same classroom regardless of their ability. In fact, thirty percent of children receive extra help in the classroom during their first nine years of school (Hancock 2011). In the United States, we attempt to create provide equity in addition to equality, and yet students who are educated separately fail to meet the same levels of their classmates. This decision goes back to the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in which we decided separate but equal was inherently unequal. If our current system fails to provide equality or equity, then we should consider adopting Finland’s approach. A result of this one classroom strategy is that Finnish schools possess the smallest gap between weak and strong students in the world (Williams-Grut 2016).

The equality of education given to students surpasses socioeconomic status as well. Schools are funded publicly, and educators tasked with determining funding are educators. Career politicians may not have a thorough understanding and have the potential to be swayed by donations to their campaigns. Giving power over which schools get money to educators ensures an approach that is guided by personalized knowledge on what works and what doesn’t. The president of Finland’s teachers union, Olli Luukkainen, explains “equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this.” This attitude is deeply embedded in the curriculum so that “children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers… we try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking” (Kari Louhivuori). In fact, an Education Ministry official and former math teacher named Dr. Pasi Sahlberg claimed “the primary aim of education is to serve as an equalizing instrument for society (Anderson 2011).

Kari Louhivuori, a teacher and principal in Finland, summarizes their education model as giving students tools they need to be successful in life. The fact there are not standardized exams to compare schools (apart from one universal exam at age 16) takes the focus away from teacher evaluation and puts it where it belongs: a curriculum that best helps the students. “This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life” (Kari Louhivuori). Finland will not even test children for the first six years of their education. Pasi Sahlberg, a former physics and math teacher and current member of Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture explains “we prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test.” Finland therefore goes against the tide of test-based accountability.  

Despite the lack of attention given to test prep, Finland routinely scores highest in math, reading and science on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Finland has “ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000” (Partanen 2011). These results are particularly astonishingly when one learns that students in Finland don’t start school until they are seven years old.  Perhaps its secret is in its teachers. “Finns regard teaching as a noble, prestigious profession– akin to medicine, law or economics– and one driven by moral purpose rather than material interests” (SCOPE 2013). A study conducted by Helsingin Sanomat uncovered that “teaching is consistently the most admired profession in regular opinion polls of high school graduates (Helsingin Sanomat 2004).  Motivations to become a teacher in Finland include “high social prestige, professional autonomy in schools, and the ethos of teaching as a service to society and the public good” (SCOPE 2013).

Becoming a primary school teacher in Finland is a very competitive process, and only Finland’s best and brightest are able to fulfill those professional dreams. Every spring, thousands of high school graduates submit their applications to the Departments of Teacher Education in eight Finnish universities… annually only about 1 in every 10 applicants will be accepted to study to become a teacher in Finnish primary schools… Among all categories of teacher education, about 5,000 teachers are selected from about 20,000 applicants (SCOPE 2013).

Additionally, the entry requirement to become a primary school teacher is a master’s degree. In order to teach preschool or kindergarten, a bachelor’s degree is required (SCOPE 2013). A master’s degree in education permits Finland teachers-to-be to select one of three concentration areas: educational theory, pedagogical content knowledge, or subject didactics and practice. Each student must also complete a master’s thesis within their subject of concentration (SCOPE 2013).

The fact that the average teaching salary is equivalent to $38,0000 US dollars suggests that the solution for good teaching is not a higher salary. What attracts Finland teachers into the field is the autonomy offered by their schools, its high social prestige, and the knowledge that they are having a positive impact in students’ lives. Additionally, teachers only spend four hours per day in the classroom, and are given two hours a week for professional development (Anderson 2011). The work is also better dispersed since teachers have a lower student-to-teacher ratio. Finland has the same number of teachers as New York City, but Finland only has 600,000 students while NYC has 1.1 million (Anderson 2011 ).

Finnish schools also provide little homework. According to the 2009 Race to Nowhere documentary, the increase of homework in United States schools has done little, if anything, to boost scores while providing extremely negative side effects to students and parents. Students are discouraged from participating in extracurricular activities because so much homework is assigned that they only have enough time to eat dinner if they do it to completion. Students in Finland also receive 75 minutes of recess every day, compared to about 27 minutes in the United States. Finland differs from the United States in another subject of this documentary, our intense focus on standardized test scores. Finnish schools only administer one exam at age 16. The fact that the highest performing country provides fewer (only one) standardized test dissuades teachers from adopting a “teach to the test” mentality in which they look out for themselves by giving their students an edge to bolster their classroom’s average.

The solution is not a lax education system; quite the opposite. U.S. students need to be taught for success in life, and by providing them with the tools to be resilient in the face of adversity, we prepare them for a life that isn’t perfect beyond the schoolyard walls. Students require basic needs to be met in order to thrive academically (Primeaux & Vega 2004). The benefit of this is that, by teaching resilience in schools, we can achieve our ultimate objective: creating schools that are academically competitive with other countries.

 

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