Nobel Peace Prize winner wants jobs for the young

UN LITERACY DECADEIt’s not a new idea, that providing opportunities for people to earn a living and to contribute to society is at the heart of peacebuiding, but it was good to hear Martti Ahtisaari highlighting that in his recent speech:

Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari said Saturday that finding jobs for more than 1 billion young people in the Middle East and Asia will be a major challenge to peacebuilding in the next decade.

“During the next 10 years about 1.2 billion young 15-to-30-year-olds will be entering the job market and with the means now at our disposal about 300 million will get a job,” Ahtisaari said in an interview with Finnish YLE TV.

“What will we offer these young, about a billion of them, or will we leave them to be recruited by criminal leagues and terrorists?” he asked.

Nobel Peace Prize winner wants jobs for the young – International Herald Tribune

I would just add that the need for meaningful, self-sustaining work is not limited to the Middle East and Asia, and that oppressed peoples only rarely turn to violence, but Ahtisaari’s challenge stands as one we must not ignore. Our global economic system increasingly robs people of the opportunity for self-sustaining work and for economic self-determination.

The economic injustice is closely related to lack of education, a problem addressed by the United Nations Literacy Decade 2003-2012 project, whose motto is “Literacy for all: voice for all, learning for all.” The Literacy Decade emphasizes adult literacy as well as one prerequisite for a more just society.

It’s tragic to see how great the gap is between our response to terrorism and global unrest and our appreciation of its underlying causes.

Is Finland cheating on international tests?

International comparisons of school systems have become a sport, maybe not so universally engaging as the Olympics, but still of high interest to policy makers in education. There are many reasons to question the assumptions behind these comparisons and the way that they are carried out. Nevertheless, they give a rough indication of how school systems are doing in relative to one another.

For example, OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown that the best performing countries do much better than the worst. Moreover, the same countries are perennial leaders: Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, South Korea. But there may be a flaw as serious as any Olympics scandal—a case of cheating!

Laat year, McKinsey, a major consulting company, asked “why?”—why do some school systems produce students who regularly perform so well on international tests? They issued a report: How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top.

There were a number of interesting findings. One was that Finland, which regularly tops the list, has largely dispensed with national examinations. They have no formal reviews and keep the results of informal audits confidential. They devote their school days to teaching and learning.

Meanwhile, the US is on an ever-expanding testing binge. A study from QED found that over a quarter of teachers report spending more than an hour a day preparing students for standardized tests. Nearly half of teachers believe standardized tests negatively impact student learning. More than three-quarters of teachers report being evaluated based on student test scores, even though they rank this as the least effective method.

An increasing percentage of class time is now spent testing students. A much bigger portion is spent preparing for the tests. And to a large extent the entire curriculum has been devoted to testing in just reading and basic mathematics.

The net result is that US students don’t have the same opportunity to learn that students in Finland have. While Finnish students engage in critical thinking, reasoning, arts, science, history, and much more, ours in the US spend time being tested or drilling on basic skills to prepare for the test.

So, my question is: Is it fair to compare Finnish and US schools? Of course, Finnish students can do better if they spend more time learning. But isn’t that cheating? Shouldn’t they have to be tested just as much? Shouldn’t the teachers and principals there be subject to the same score-driven evaluations? Shouldn’t their curriculum be restricted just like ours?

International comparisons make no sense if Finland is allowed to maintain a system built around highly-qualified, well-supported teachers (as McKinsey shows), a full curriculum, and a valuing of learning, while the US requires its schools to dumb-down to the misleadingly named “No Child Left Behind.” Let’s level the playing field and make it equally hard for Finnish students to learn!

Tom Chapin’s Not on the Test offers a musical version of this argument.