Sunday, July 1, 2012

A lesson from Finland

On June 29, 2012, Pasi Sahlberg wrote an article, “How GERMis infecting schools around the world,” in which he noted that despite the fact that Finland has been credited with having the best school system in the world, “the Finns have never aimed to be the best in education but rather to have good schools for all of [their] children.” He challenges the “’race to the top’ mentality in national school reforms.” I agree with Professor Sahlberg and will add my own thoughts.

I entered the debate on education, not as an educator, but as a psychologist whose expertise is in behavior as it plays out in individuals, in families, and in large organizations. I previously worked with the chronically mentally ill in day treatment programs, and have considerable experience in child protection work. There is a commonality in the principles of human behavior in all three settings (day treatment, child protection, and education) that speaks strongly in favor of Professor Sahlberg’s remarks. In each case, people function best (patients, parents accused of abusing or neglecting their children, children in school, parents of children in school, mental health workers, child protection workers, teachers, mental health administrators, child protection supervisors, school principals), when they feel passion and purpose and operate under conditions of support and respect. They also do best they stay focused on their zones of control and are supported by those above them in sustaining that focus. They do best when decision-making takes places at the lowest level in the hierarchies where those decisions can be competently made.

When considering the role of tests and measurements, it is important to see those measure as tools to help inform those charged with certain tasks in making their best individual and capable decisions. Although one may want to improve scores, such improvement can be a byproduct of good work, an indirect measurement of success, and should not confused with the task itself. I’ll give two examples, one from my professional work and one from my personal life.

Twice in my career, I had the job of directing a small mental health clinic. These clinics had less than ten professional workers and were parts of systems that had a number of similar clinics. We were given monthly productivity measures, approximately 25 kept sessions per worker per week.  The goal was manageable and depended greatly on the no show rate, which happened to be a perennial problem. I realized that clients attended sessions if they felt understood and the therapists could not be understanding if they were driven by pressures to push hard to get clients to attend. By switching the tone from pressured to supportive, and by using my experience to help train beginning therapists in how to meet people’s needs, the clinics I ran would consistently run about 10% over our monthly expectations, in contrast with some other clinics that put pressure on their counselors and would, as a result, consistently run behind.  When I look at reports of inner city schools that excel despite their difficult conditions, the narratives always reflect a supportive and inspired principal who sets a tone of purpose, competency and fun, that is contagious and filters down to the students. These successful schools are not driven by measurements, but by the desire to do good work.

Now, an observation from my personal experience. From my teenage years I have always known that at some time in my life I would need heart valve surgery. In 2009, the operation was performed by a surgeon of my choice, and as a result, I feel stronger today than I have in years. Yet, a curious thing happened during this procedure.

While I was in the hospital, the nurses checked my blood sugar several times a day and gave me insulin based on the results. I was also given a statin along with my other medications. I don’t have diabetes and my cholesterol is good, yet these treatments were administered during my hospital recovery. When I went home, the statin was continued with my discharge medications.
A month later, I asked my surgeon why I needed a statin. He told me, “The government requires it.” I questioned if there was a clinical reason why I needed this medication, and he said no, unless my cardiologist thought otherwise.  Once I cleared it with him, I discontinued the medication.

I doubt that the government actually ordered the surgeon to use a statin, but I imagine there are formulas that factor into statistics that rate hospitals and help them win recognition as the “best heart centers in the Philadelphia region.” I think my medication may have contributed to their “race to the top.”

I have no doubt that if I were a more passive patient, I would still be taking a statin today. My cholesterol would be good, and no one would have questioned why the numbers were low, assuming that the statin contributed to my success.

I think parents want to trust teachers and generally support what they do. So if teachers use common core curriculum, parents want to assume that it is the latest professional approach, not a policy dictated by governmental or political factors. If teachers say that homework is necessary, parents try to lend their support, generally unaware that the research does not give the practice much support.

Yet, the realities often get exposed through the children themselves. The child may operate on a gut feeling about whether or not the requirements make sense. It is not surprising that children in class tend to operate much like satisfied customers, for the most part doing what they are asked to do. Yet, they rebel at home. It makes no more sense to bypass the experience of the child, whether that child fails to do his homework, cuts class, or drops out of school, any more than it makes sense for the mental health counselor to throw up his or her hands, and feel helpless, because large number of clients fail to show for their appointments.

With my heart surgery, the medication issue was an observation and minor chuckle. No one has to be perfect, and I can readily excuse my skilled surgeon for this minor willingness to succumb to outside pressure. But for teachers to be compromised in exercising their judgments, in class, when it comes to teaching, or for parents to be constrained from exercising their judgments, at home, when it comes to homework, are signs of the damaging and dangerous effects of allowing pressures for excellence to upend the fundamentals of human behavior and success.

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience in dealing with many different psychological issues. He is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers and currently works in his own private practice.

Visit the
Read book reviews of The Homework Trap
What is The Homework Trap?
A Roadmap to Success
504 plans

No comments: