Finding a Common Purpose in Education

Since public education was first introduced to the United States, it has been mired in conflict. Over the years, this conflict transformed into unions against school administrations, the public against teachers, and Democrats against Republicans. This conflict needs to be resolved if we are going to improve student outcomes. Michelle Rhee said in 2008, "I think if there is one thing I have learned over the last 15 months, it's that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated." According to international student assessments, the United States falls behind several countries in this aspect, most notably Finland. As is evident in Finland, collaboration is the key to resolving conflict.

On a recent trip to Finland, I wanted to see how they dealt with the inevitable conflict associated with ensuring high quality education. I spoke with education officials at the national and local level along with teachers, principals and students trying to find what innovations are successful and if any of these ideas could work in the United States.

Finland has a culture of "win-win" practices. From top to bottom it is clear that everyone is working to improve student outcomes. Negotiations between union and government officials are not adversarial; their conversations are primarily focused on creating policies that benefit students. To do that, unions and government officials agree on certain interests, thinking beyond their own concerns. This is how we help students: recognizing the mutual interest of helping every student succeed. Unions and school districts can use interest-based bargaining, a method used in Finland and gaining some popularity in the U.S. This is where interests, not positions, dictate negotiations. Until we recognize what student interests are paramount in education policy debates, our public education system will continue to fall behind.

Collaboration does not stop at the national level in Finland. The collaborative culture reaches a new level at schools. Walking around a school outside of Helsinki, I found collaboration to be everywhere. I asked a teacher, "Who do you blame when a student fails?" She looked at me with a quizzical expression. "There is never one person to blame," she responded, "but you have to get everyone to talk about what is going wrong and we create solutions together." Much of this cooperation takes place in the nationwide mandated Student Welfare Committee. Principals, teachers, counselors, nurses and psychologists get together to monitor student performance and behavior. These meetings occur weekly to identify struggling students. Together school staff utilizes their resources to address the problem and provide the necessary support.

Teachers are not pitted against principals through adversarial policies such as subjective teacher evaluation systems. Teachers are not graded based on standardized tests. Teachers are not blamed or attacked. Principals support teachers by offering feedback, dealing with students who are lagging behind, and handling disciplinary issues. Teachers and principals are on the same team. In the same school, I found most classrooms with two teachers actively engaged in the classroom. Teachers also spend less time in the classroom compared to US teachers. Teachers meet after class in not a small break room but in a room with computers, books and meeting rooms to discuss how to make pedagogical changes. These are innovations that foster cooperation and should be implemented.

Cooperation cannot necessarily solve every financial, racial, systemic, political and psychological barrier to providing quality education. However, the United States has something to learn from Finland. It has created a system that works rather than pointing fingers and making political excuses. Finland has created a culture that promotes the most important element: students. Students should be the common interest unifying each party involved. Thankfully, there are some areas in the US that have adapted collaborative practices to focus on students. Montgomery County in Maryland and the Kalamazoo Promise in Kalamazoo, Michigan, are two areas that put cooperation in to practice. Montgomery County provides many avenues of collaboration from the administration to classroom. Kalamazoo excels at bringing the community into schools and forging public private partnerships. We must build on their momentum.

Let us reframe issues in education to bring people together to focus on students. Every student should have the opportunity to succeed. Education is not "us against them" -- it is "us with them."