Wrap-up: Initial Thoughts on the European Study Mission

Tired delegation members gathered at a conference center in London following 11 days of intensive study of schools in three nations to try to make sense of what they had seen. The discussion was frank, broad, and wide-ranging. While much of this remains to be worked over and thought through, several themes emerged:

First, leadership is critical. In all of the most successful schools — Bonner Primary, Barnfield Studio School, and schools in Finland, remarkable leaders led the charge. The flip side of that coin was some anxiety that progress might evaporate in the absence of the leader.

Next, a common theme across schools (from Finland to Bonner, Harrow, and Barnfield) was sense that success depended on high expectations in and around the school, support for the individual needs of each student, and the building of a sense of community. Each of these seemed to be a necessary but not sufficient condition.

The differences between the three systems was noted. Finland with a philosophy of light steering based on trust; France with much more of a commitment to managing schools from the top down; and England with a philosophy based more on competition, assessment, and choice, very much like the emphasis in the United States.

Teacher preparation, induction and mentoring and on-going professional development came in for a lot of discussion. Roundtable members were impressed with the 10 to 1 ratio of applicants for student positions in teacher training programs in Finland, and saw nothing even remotely similar in France or England.

The impact of poverty on student achievement received attention. No one believes that low-income students cannot learn, but a clear correlation between poverty and achievement has long been established. It was noted that Finland seemed to adopt an inside-outside strategy about 40 years ago — simultaneously working on essentially eliminating childhood poverty while insisting that schools needed to do their part to build a strong society.

PISA: Roundtable participants expressed genuine concern that PISA results, accepted uncritically by the press and public figures, rest on a weak technical foundation. They were particularly worried about the fact that OECD issued data on Shanghai as though it represented China and without acknowledging the culling of low-income students from Shanghai schools due to the severe limitations the city places on millions of migrant children.

There is more. Much more. In coming weeks and months the Roundtable will be digesting this extraordinary educational journey with the intent of publishing its conclusions in the next edition of  The  Superintendents Fieldbook.

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