Ask Reading Kingdom: What are the top ways to empower students in the classroom?

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Empowerment is an enticing and important concept and lots of appealing ideas have been proposed for achieving this goal. However, upon closer examination, many of the ideas are unrealistic or impractical. For example, common recommendations include ‘personalizing lessons to make them relevant.’ This can be accomplished, however, only by placing overwhelming demands on already overtaxed teachers since its implementation requires them to essentially reconstruct the curricula for each and every student.

Even more significantly, few if any, of the recommendations typically offered address the key issue that determines whether a student will feel empowered or not. That issue is failure. Schools are designed to teach essential skills such as reading and math. When children have difficulty in these areas, empowerment vanishes. It doesn’t matter how accepting or supportive the teacher is. The children feel devastated. That unfortunately is the experience of massive numbers of students. For several decades now, government figures place the failure rate in these areas at around 40%. The key to empowerment is mastery of the curriculum. With mastery, students’ esteem and sense of self-worth skyrockets; without it, they plummet.

The search for success has had major effects on the educational scene. Guided by the deeply help belief in our nation that a business model is the best one to use, marketplace competition has been introduced into public schools. This view is reflected in President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative which invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers. Further, Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools (which have doubled in number in the past decade). The results, however, do not provide support for this approach. The United States was, for decades, at the top in educational achievement. Now, compared to many other nations, we are far down on the list.

Among the nations that are doing a far better job, Finland is a standout. Guided by the motto, “whatever it takes,” Finland has 93% of students graduating from academic or vocational high schools. That is 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States. At the same time, Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Equality is a key theme in the Finnish system. Their schools are publicly funded and every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators.  As a result, children from rural areas have as good a chance of getting a quality education as children from university towns.

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7.

Compared to the US, funding for the students and their families is extensive. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, giving them a substantial monthly payment for every child up till the age of 17. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.

About forty years ago, teacher training was altered to require that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because of the autonomy and respect associated with the position.

These are not the sole components of the Finnish system. But they illustrate the way in which the system provides a comprehensive approach that covers all important aspects of schooling. Often in comparisons like this, the achievements of a country like Finland are dismissed with statements such as, “It is a small country and does not have to deal with the issues that a gigantic country like the US faces.” But significantly, Norway, a country of similar size to Finland, has education policies similar to those in the United States. And like America, Norway’s scores on international tests have been stuck for years in the middle ranges.

Finland offers a model of how empowerment can be attained. We can do it as well—revising and modifying, as needed, to fit our particular situation. But if we are to be successful, we must adopt a vastly different approach from the one we currently use. Until we make changes of this magnitude, empowerment will remain an elusive dream for vast numbers of our students.

Your child will be empowered in the classroom when they excel at reading and writing.  Your child can achieve these skills with Reading Kingdom.  Sign up today for a free 30 day trial.