Monday, January 17, 2011

Guest post: Is more better?

[From Chris, originally posted at A Blog About School]

Our school administrators seem to think that piling more instructional minutes on the kids -- maybe even extending the school day -- will make their standardized test scores go up. I think that kind of single-minded focus on raising test scores ultimately harms the kids and dumbs down their education. But even if I did believe in raising test scores at all costs, I wouldn’t leap to the simplistic conclusion that more time sitting in class will produce higher scores -- an idea that treats kids as more like machines than like people.

I recently exchanged emails with Pasi Sahlberg, who has written widely about the Finnish educational system. Finnish kids’ standardized test scores are among the highest in the world, even though the kids don’t start school until age seven, and spend less time in class. Sahlberg explains:

As recently as 25 years ago, Finnish students were below the international average in mathematics and science. There also were large learning differences between schools, with urban or affluent students typically outperforming their rural or low-income peers. Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what’s being tried in the United States.

Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.
(Read the whole article.)

My fifth-grade daughter here in Iowa City gets forty minutes a day for recess and lunch combined, all in one break in the middle of the day. She has an hour of math instruction every day (as does my six-year-old first-grader!), plus an additional half-hour of math once a week. I asked Sahlberg how that schedule compares with that of a typical ten-year-old in Finland. His response:

In Finland the law stipulates that one lesson in school is 60 minutes of which 15 minutes have to be for recess. This means that a 10-year-old who typically has about 5 lessons a day has 60 minutes for recess plus some additional for lunch. You are not much wrong if you say that these pupils have about 75 mins daily for recess and lunch. Mathematics is normally taught about three lessons a week at that age.
So our ten-year-olds get two-and-a-half times as much math instruction as Finnish ten-year-olds get, and about half as much recess and lunch.

But if we could just add more instructional minutes, maybe we could catch up, right?


  1. Thanks so much Chris. Great blog. I went to Sahlberg's site, read a bit and watched a wonderful video of him a brief lecture .. good stuff.

    I think the trick is- not to go totally bonkers when you see our system continually doing the polar opposite of Finland like here, more openings for private companies to Charterize schools-

  2. It's just so dumb to think that extending the school day will accomplish something.

    We need to ask serious questions about curriculum, class size, and true differentiation. When we're using the available time well, then maybe we could have a discussion about extending the school day.