Archives for category: International

I invited Pasi Sahlberg, the eminent scholar of Finnish education, to write a brief description of how the Finnish national standards function. The key differences, as you will see, between the Finnish national standards and the Common Core standards is first, the role of teachers in writing and revising them, and second, that Finland has no external national testing of the standards

Sahlberg, who is currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote the following:

“Are there common core standards in Finland?

“One thing that is common to successful education systems is that teaching and learning are guided or steered by system-level expectations that all schools must follow. But there are significant differences in how these expectations are technically employed. Many Canadian provinces, for example, set specific learning targets for most of the school subjects that all teachers and schools must respect. East Asian countries also set common standards that are often integrated into learning materials and teaching methods. Many other education systems have recently developed new standards for schools that aim at raising the expectations for all schools. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in the U.S. is an example of that development.

“American educators make sometimes references to Finnish school system in expressing their support to and doubts of CCSS. Those in favor claim that Finland has national standards similar to CCSS. Those with more critical views maintain that the Finnish system of steering teaching and learning is fundamentally different relying more on schools’ role in setting the actual learning goals. I will highlight how Finland’s curriculum system is similar or different to that of the U.S. through three points.

“First, formally each district (or municipality) in Finland is responsible to craft its own curriculum that guarantees that national laws and educational directives are adequately employed. In practice, however, districts have allocated this responsibility to schools after making sure that some critical aspects of curriculum are locally in harmony. This includes foreign language teaching, special education, pupil welfare issues and in many places the organization of schooling for immigrant children. It is therefore fair to say that Finnish schools have the right and the responsibility to design their own curriculum within the national frameworks and local requirements.

“Second, national curriculum frameworks serve as coordination of these school curricula. There are four binding national documents that provide guidelines for pre-school, basic school (nine years), and upper secondary schools (separate documents for general and vocational schools). These documents describe general objectives and core content that are the basis for school curricula. The bylaw on education stipulates subjects and general time allocation that direct municipalities to provide education in equal ways to all pupils in different parts of the country. For example national curriculum framework specifies general objectives and core content in mathematics separately for grades 1-2, 3-5 and 6-9 in Finnish basic school. What the schools do then is to decide detailed learning outcomes (or standards), syllabi and teaching methods for each grade level in every subject. Since there are no census-based standardized tests in Finland, the national curriculum framework documents includes common assessment criteria for a grade B (or grade 8 in Finland). Schools are relatively free to decide the form and style of their own curriculum. Time allocation and national framework curriculum for Finland’s basic school are available here:

“Third, teachers have a central role in designing the national framework curricula. Finnish government is at the moment revising the national framework curriculum for basic school. Working groups that prepare the renewed national frameworks for different subjects consist of mostly experienced teachers from all around the country. These new curricula elements are also often field tested and evaluated by teachers in order to guarantee that they are sensible and implementable in all schools. Teachers have also key role in writing textbooks that private publishers make available to all teachers. Finally, absence of national standardized tests allows teachers to teach what they think is important for pupils, and it also requires that student assessment practices must be described in detail in each school’s curriculum.

“The question remains: Does Finland have anything like the Common Core State Standards in the U.S.? On one hand, there are common national level regulations and guidelines that all districts and schools must comply. Law and its bylaws also set a common educational frame in terms of subjects and time allocation that must be respected nationwide. But these national directives serve as loose standards and strategic guidelines rather than prescribed targets that every teacher must try to accomplish.

“On the other hand, Finnish national curriculum framework doesn’t specify learning standards but only broad objectives and core content that help teachers in pedagogical architecture in their own schools. Perhaps the main difference between the CCSS and Finnish curriculum system is the central role that Finnish teachers and school principals have in both preparing the national curriculum frameworks and design actual curricula at the level of schools. Finnish authorities and parents trust the professionalism of principals and teachers than their peers do in the U.S. In other words, schools in Finland therefore much more autonomy in setting learning standards and crafting optimal learning environment for their children than schools elsewhere.

“Perhaps the main difference in the Finnish way of national steering of teaching and learning is that national curriculum frameworks don’t come with external student testing and assessment conditions. Curriculum planning at the school level is purely a question of what is best for pupils rather than how to get the most out of the attached standardized tests. When Finnish teachers don’t need to worry about external test scores and their possible affects on their work, curriculum planning can also serve as a powerful means to collegial professional development in school.

Pasi Sahlberg
June 1, 2014

Robert Berkman, a veteran math teacher, writes a blog called “Better Living Through Mathematics, where he regularly skewers nonsense.

In this article, he looks closely at a chart that purportedly demonstrates how pathetic is the performance of U.S. adults, compared to many other nations.

Berkman says this may be the “stupidest article about Common Core math program” that he has ever read.

To begin with, the graph does not identify the highest possible score, making it impossible to draw conclusions or comparisons. So one conclusion from the graph, Berkman says, is: “whatever sample of US adults took this test did 88% as well as the adults in the top scoring nation, Japan. I think that’s pretty damned good, considering the United States is second to the world in poverty, leaving Japan in the dust by over 10 percentage points (and I’m sure Japan uses a much higher economic benchmark for poverty than we do here in the US.) Of course, we all know that poverty is the single greatest predictor of poor school performance.”

[Note to Robert Berkman: that "second in the world in poverty" is nonsense, despite the authoritative source. It is a comparison not of all nations, but of the most economically developed nations, and the U.S. is supposedly second to Romania. This is an absurd comparison because Romania doesn't belong in this group of nations. Romania is an Eastern European nation whose economy was mismanaged and impiverished by central planning for decades. Oh, well, I may never get this error corrected, but I keep trying. The fact is that we have the highest level of child poverty of any advanced nation in the world.]

After pointing out other errors, Berkman writes:

“Finally, this article is yet another example of the “waking up on third base” phenomena, which posits that everything that you see in a Common Core math curriculum is the direct result of the implementation of the Standards. Nothing could be further from the truth: all of the items described on in the article have been documented, published and taught since the NCTM published its curriculum standards a quarter of a century ago. If you’ve been teaching math using a textbook that was published in the last 20 years, you’ve probably seen all this stuff before including, with all deference to Mr. Colbert, the infamous description of a “number sentence.” Telegram for Mr. Colbert: 1989 is writing to tell you to “LOL!”

He notes with dismay that “NCTM actually tweeted the link to this worthless piece of codswallum, and smelling something rotten, I just had to follow the scent.”

Caitlin Emmaof paid a visit to Finland and was surprised to discover that teachers are not depending on educational technology. By contrast, American schools are spending billions of dollars on tablets, laptops, and other devices.

She writes:

“Finnish students and teachers didn’t need laptops and iPads to get to the top of international education rankings, said Krista Kiuru, minister of education and science at the Finnish Parliament. And officials say they aren’t interested in using them to stay there.

“That’s in stark contrast to what reformers in the U.S. say. From President Barack Obama on down, they have called education technology critical to improving schools. By shifting around $2 billion in existing funds and soliciting $2 billion in contributions from private companies, the Obama administration is pressing to expand schools’ access to broadband and the devices that thrive on it.

“School districts nationwide have loaded up students with billions of dollars’ worth of tablets, laptops, iPods and more on the theory that, as Obama said last year, preparing American kids to compete with students around the globe will require interactive, individualized learning experiences driven by new technology.”

(Since the research on the benefits of technology is sparse, it is likely that the heavy U.S. investment in technology is driven by something other than research.)

The Finnish secret: recruiting excellent students into the teaching profession, which is respected and prestigious; according the teachers professional autonomy; working closely with the educators’ union to promote better education; no standardized testing until the end of high school; no charters; no vouchers.

Read more:

Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas is trying to raise funding to take a research team to Chile to study the failure of the voucher progr. He needs your help. Tickets cost either $1,000 round trip or 30,000-60,000 frequent flyer miles. Please consider sponsoring a member of his research team. We can learn from what happened in Chile. With so many states adopting voucher plans without evidence, we should get the facts now from the world’s longest running voucher program.

Chile has had vouchers for decades. They did not improve education, and they increased social segregation. The newly elected government of Chile plans to pare back the choice system that was launched during the regime of the military dictator Pinochet. Help Professor Heilig and his team gather the facts about vouchers and inform our policymakers.

This is stunning news from Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon.

Zhao, who was born and educated in China, reports that Shanghai education officials may stop participation in PISA.

Zhao, a critic of the international race for test scores, writes on his blog:

““Not interested in #1 on International Tests, Focusing on Reducing Academic Burden: Shanghai May Drop Out of PISA” is the headline of a story in Xinmin Wanbao[original story in Chinese], a popular newspaper in Shanghai. Published on March 7th 2014, the story reports that Shanghai “is considering to withdraw from the next round of PISA in 2015” because “Shanghai does not need so-called ‘#1 schools,’” said Yi Houqin, a high level official of Shanghai Education Commission. “What it needs are schools that follow sound educational principles, respect principles of students’ physical and psychological development, and lay a solid foundation for students’ lifelong development,” says the article, quoting Mr. Yi.

“One of the shortfalls of Shanghai education masked by its top PISA ranking, Mr. Yi, pointed out, is excessive amount of homework, according to the story. For example, teachers in Shanghai spend 2 to 5 hours designing, reviewing, analyzing, and discussing homework assignment every day. “Over half of the students spend more than one hour on school work after school [every day]; Teachers’ estimate of homework load is much lower than actual experiences of students and parents; Although the homework is not particularly difficult, much of it is mechanical and repetitive tasks that take lots of time; Furthermore, our teachers are more used to mark the answers as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ while students are hoping their teachers can help them open their minds and point out their problems.”

“Homework is only one of the elements that supports student development,” an unnamed PISA official told Xinmin Wanbao. “Their skills and qualities should also be acquired from a variety of activities such as play, online activities, and games instead of merely completing academic assignments or extending homework time.”

If Shanghai drops out of PISA, this would send a powerful message to the rest of the world.

Eduardo Porter recaps the conventional wisdom about American schools, recapitulating in one column all the same tired cliches as Rhee, Gates, Duncan, and our other corporate reform titans.

Our scores on international tests are mediocre. Yes, they have been mediocre since 1964, when the fist such test was given. No, I take that back. We were not mediocre in 1964, we came in last. And in the last fifty years, we surpassed the nations with higher scores.

There is a shameless gap between the test scores of rich and poor, which is true, but that’s because we have such a huge proportion of children who are poor (23%), more than any other advanced nation. Porter talks about various ways too raise the test scores of kids in poverty (the latest unproven fad: blended learning), quoting the salesmen.

Of course, the best way to reduce the gap would be to provide jobs and a decent living wage for the parents of poor children, but that seems to be off-topic. Best to keep up the pusuit of ever higher standards and harder tests, the failed strategy of the past dozen years.

Porter ultimately concludes that our biggest problem is “a dearth of excellent teachers.” How does he know? The OECD told him so.

Maybe he believes this. Maybe he just watched “Waiting for Superman.” I would love to have an hour with him.

The Néw York Times is unusually out of touch when it comes to the issue of education.

A letter written by State University of Albany’s Heinz Dieter Meyer and educator Katie Zahedi protested the negative effects of PISA on education goals because of its emphasis on standardized tests and international competition. The letter has been translated into many languages and collected hundreds of signatures from scholars and educators around the world.

The letter was addressed to Andreas Schleicher of OECD, who is director of PISA.

If you wish to sign the letter, it is here.

Dr. Schleicher responded promptly to the letter, saying it was based on “false claims,” and that it has not caused “short term fixes,” as a way for nations to raise their national rankings. Of course, some Americans would say that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top was driven by the goal of international competition. On this ground, both programs were failures, leading to more testing, more measures to rank and rate students, teachers, and schools.

Since it is impossible to get a unified response from the many who have signed it, Dr. Meyer has invited signatories to submit their own responses, which he will make available on a website.

For now, the best available response to Dr. Schleicher is an article (part of a series) about how PISA has harmed education reform in the nations of East Asia, the putative “winners” of the PISA contest. Zhao calls his series “”How does PISA Put the World at Risk?”

Zhao says if he were a conspiracy theorist, he would think that PISA is a western plot to keep China trapped in an antiquated system, and unable to try the education reforms that would usher in a new era of creativity and entrepreneurship.

“He writes:

“Such a citizenry is urgently needed for China’s successful transition from a labor-intensive economy to one that relies on innovation, a transition China must make for its future development. The Chinese exam-oriented education has long been recognized as the culprit for limiting China’s capacity for producing creative and diverse talents. Just as China’s education reforms began to touch the core of its traditional education—the gaokao or College Entrance Exam and the wide use of testing at all levels of education, PISA announced that the Chinese education is the best in the world. And the exam system, including the gaokao, is glorified as a major contributor to China’s success, making it difficult for the Chinese to continue the battle against testing.”

He writes further:

“If I expanded the conspiracy theory, I could say that PISA is a plot to disrupt all Eastern Asian countries’ serious efforts to develop an education system that cultivates confident, creative, diverse, and happy students. For example, PISA “played a role in the decision to reverse, at least in part, the yutori reform launched at the beginning of the decade,” writes a 2011 OECD document[2]. Yutori kyoiku (roughly translated “relaxed education” or education with some freedom) was a major education reform movement started in the 1980s in Japan. “The yutori reform was based on an emerging consensus that the school system was too rigid and that a new approach was needed to encourage creativity,” observes the OECD document[3]. The major changes included reduction in school days and a 30% cut in the school curriculum. “In addition, the government relaxed grading practices and introduced “integrated learning classes” without textbooks in an effort to help students think independently and reduce the importance of rote learning” [4]. The changes were announced in 1998 and implemented in 2002. “The ultimate desire was to instill in students ‘a zest for learning.’”[5]

“In 2003, Japan’s PISA rankings fell, resulting in a public panic over Japan’s decline in international academic standing. Opponents of the yutori reform seized the moment and blamed the reform for the decline. In response, Japan decided to water down the previous reforms with increase in required topics in standard academic subjects, increase time devoted to these subjects, and introducing national standardized testing in math and Japanese for the first time in 2007.

“Putting someone on a pedestal is an effective way to ensure he does not veer far from his previous behaviors because any deviation could tarnish the bestowed honor. The Chinese call such actions pengsha or “killing with flattery.” Pengsha derives from a story recorded almost 2,000 years ago: A nobleman rides on a beautiful horse and wins great praises from admiring onlookers. Enjoying the flattery, the nobleman keeps on riding till the horse dies from exhaustion.

“PISA has certainly successfully put a number of East Asian education systems on a pedestal and thus constrained their ability and desire to make drastic changes. But they need drastic changes if they wish to truly cultivate the kind of talents needed to become innovative societies that rival the West because the authoritarian East Asian education model leaves little room for creative and unorthodox individuals to pursue their passion, question the authority, and develop their strengths, although it is extremely effective in homogenizing individuals, enforcing compliance, and hence producing great test scores.

“PISA’s claims about progress East Asian education systems have made over the years can further convince them to keep riding their horses. It gives them the illusion that they are moving forward, in the right direction, because their PISA rankings keep going up. But in reality, East Asian education systems have never “risen,” as PISA often claims. They have always been great test takers. Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong scored extremely well on international tests succ as TIMSS prior to the birth of PISA. Shanghai did not participate in these studies but if it did, it would have scored well.

Ultimately, Yong Zhao abandons the conspiracy theory because PISA does even more harm to the western nations than to the east.

He concludes:

“By attracting poor, developing countries into a senseless academic race, PISA wastes precious resources of these countries. While the 182,000 euros (about US$250,000) participation fee[6] and millions of dollars implementation costs may not be much for developed nations, it can be a huge burden for developing countries. More important, the money can buy a lot more meaningful education resources—pencils, for example—than humiliating PISA rankings or policy advice that cannot be implemented.

“PISA is a good servant but a bad master,” wrote Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg, author of the Finnish Lesson: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland. Pasi is, as always, wise and generous, but in my mind, PISA is a servant that has turned into a bad master, perhaps by design. As it commands the world to race to fix the old paradigm and forgo opportunities to invent a new one, it puts the entire world at risk.”

My hope is that thousands and thousands of educators add their names to the letter of protest against the false values promoted by PISA.

Educator Katie Zahedi and Professor Heinz Dieter Meyer wrote a letter critical of PISA’s emphasis on high-stakes testing and global competition. The letter has been translated into several languages and has gathered more than 1,000 signatures.

If you wish to dign the letter, it is here.

Andreas Schleicher, director of PISA, disagreed with their letter and denied their critique. Since it is impossible to draft a response by more than 1,000 people in a timely manner, signers of the letter were invited to respond to Dr. Schleicher on their own.

This is Katie Zahedi’s response.

She writes:

“Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: PISA and the OECD Agenda”

Andreas Schleicher has responded to an open letter that critiques OECD’s PISA league tables: Defending the OECD’s grand role in education policy, his response denies the letter’s concern that PISA drives reform toward short term fixes by saying that performance has improved in Germany and Poland. Of course he equates progress with improvement on the PISA, which is precisely the short term fix we decry.

The Open Letter addresses widespread concerns with the PISA. Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon refers to the damaging effects of PISA as: “…an ironic tragedy of the 21st Century born out of ignorance.

While Dr. Schleicher hopefully takes a moment to do a closer read of the open letter, I would like to explain the intent of the critique and counter proposal signed by Heinz-Dieter Meyer and myself.

We were in the audience at Schleicher’s presentation at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Philadelphia April, 2014. After Schleicher’s presentation of colorful graphics, tracking the purported educational status of nations (based on one test) fellow panel member Martin Carnoy of Stanford explained why the PISA scores may not matter! Heinz-Dieter Meyer drew attention to a profound shift from nation-state level leadership to a global educational governance structure. I lamented his cavalier construction of variables, i.e., in which he provided correlations to a tag he referred to as “similar social background” in discussing counties as different as Luxembourg, Ghana and the U.S. One can assume he was referring to a rudimentary conception of students’ local economic status by deciles.

The meeting ended with an incredulous group of scholars and professionals congregated at the back of the hall discussing the lack of substantive insight, while alone at the front of the room on his laptop, was a “Great and Powerful Oz” …the curtain parted, sitting in the gray hue of a conference screen gone blank of its colorful graphs and reductionist explanations. A scholar from Shanghai (whose question was brushed aside by Schleicher) restated his unresolved concern: “what if by focusing on what we can measure, we end up marginalizing things that cannot be measured?”

The motivation of the letter was that I felt sorry for a man, who unfortunate destiny had placed at the helm of an ill-informed, grand design. The open letter is an extended helping hand, reaching out to improve understanding of where we are headed with education policy. In inviting my colleagues to write, and/or attempt to meet with Schleicher, Meyer initially chuckled, but thankfully took it on. The letter was reviewed by peers Diane Ravitch (NYU) and Stephen Mucher (Bard College) and signed by over a thousand others whose educational homes have been spinning in PISA’s cyclone… and who are clicking their heels in hopes of leaving the strange land of testing Oz.

Katie Zahedi

The OECD has created tests that schools can administer to their students in order to compare them to the nations of the world.

Some schools have gleefully administered the tests, happy to discover how their students compare to children of the same age in the rest of the world.

Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education this year, warned that it was not valid to compare schools to national systems.

The OECD test has sponsors now but it will eventually be a money-maker:

“Although these early administrations have been partly subsidized by private philanthropies, most districts will have to pay $11,500 per school in order to participate starting next year, according to Peter Kannam at America Achieves, a nonprofit that has been recruiting new schools and coordinating exchanges among participants.”

“The development of this new diagnostic tool by the OECD was made possible by America Achieves, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Kern Family Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Craig and Barbara Barrett Foundation, National Public Education Support Fund, the Stuart Foundation, and the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona.”

Many educators can’t resist the temptation to administer yet another test. What would they do without data? Would they know how to diagnose children’s needs and plan for education without external tests to guide them? Surely, they cannot trust teachers to write their own tests or evaluate student needs.

In the ideal world of the future, school will be devoted entirely to testing, preferably to tests created solely by Pearson and/or the OECD. All learning will be standardized, and all children will be test-taking machines, programmed to find the right answer to every question. Th questions and the answers will be the sole property of Pearson and/or OECD.

Any learning not on the test will be considered a waste of time. Those who choose to think for themselves will be considered outliers, rebels, outcasts, possibly dangers to society. All “knowledge” will be strictly monitored by the Pearson/OECD bureaucracy.

The rules of life in this new society will be:

“We measure what we treasure.”
“You can’t control what you can’t measure.”
“Whatever cannot be quantified does not matter.”
“All problems can be solved by measurement and data.”
“Test scores determine one’s life potential.”
“Test scores are the best measure of students, teachers, and schools.”

Welcome to our Brave New World.

I just received notice from the organizers of the letter opposing the league tables of PISA that the letter has been translated into Swedish and German.


Hopefully, it will be picked up and translated worldwide.


If you are in Korea or Japan or South America or anywhere else where the local language is not English, please translate the letter, send it to the local news media, and let me know about it.


OED has created an international competition for test scores that no one asked for and that encourages the establishment of destructive policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, both of which have diverted billions and billions of dollars to testing corporations, taking that money away from classroom instruction as well as the services that students need.


If you have not done so yet, please take the time to read the letter and if you agree, please sign.


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