Tag Archives: #globalachievementgap

The Global Achievement Gap – From Minnesota to Finland

This week’s post features guest blogger, Mr. Christian Skillings, a graduate student at Southwest Minnesota State University, who I have had the priviledge to serve as his advisor and chair his graduate work.  He is ready to change the world – and has been already.  There is so much more to share about this educational leader as he is on his way to great things… without further ado, Mr. Christian Skillings.

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Hi all,

My name is Christian Skillings and I am a graduate student at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU). Currently, I am making the final revisions to my thesis and will be graduating this May with my Master of Science in Education, emphasis in TESL. Being so, I was approached to summarize my research and findings, which took place over the last year in both the United States and Finland.

The foundation of my study came after reading The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner. If you have not had the chance to read this book, I strongly encourage all educators or aspiring teachers to do so. The critical point presented by Mr. Wagner is the undeniable statistics on the United States’ troublesome education system; namely, the widespread inadequate preparation of secondary students. Currently, the United States is experiencing a global achievement gap, which as stated by Wagner (2008/2014), is, “The gap between what even our best suburban, urban, and rural public schools are teaching and testing versus what all students will need to succeed as learners, workers, and citizens in today’s global knowledge economy” (p. 8). As a result of the global achievement gap, it has been found that high school graduates are unprepared for the rigors of higher education and the workforce. In a survey of 63,366 entering community college students, conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCSCE), the Center on Standards and Assessments Implementation (CSAI) (2016) found that 67% of high school graduates were required to take remedial courses upon entering community college.  Furthermore, Wagner (2010) found nearly 50% of employers, in a survey of more than 400, felt that individuals out of secondary school were “deficient” in preparation, in addition to the 65% of university professors that reported students as being unprepared for higher education. (Sorry for all the statistics and APA citations. This project has made me a bit of a nerd and APA prude).

So…… it is apparent learners are lacking the attributes needed to succeed, but what skills are exactly required? Wagner (2008/2014) termed the needed skills “Survival Skills, whereas others, such as Hilton (2015), coined these attributes “21st-century skills.” Regardless of the terminology, secondary school graduates must possess the ability to: think critically and problem solve, collaborate across networks and lead by influence, have agility and adaptability, demonstrate initiative and entrepreneurialism, effectively communicate, access and analyze information, inspire curiosity and imagination, and self-management. This is a long, but necessary set of attributes that are sought out in today’s knowledge economy.

Reflecting back on my own personal education experience, it became obviously that I was, and perhaps still am, a part of this achievement gap. Moreover, current reform measures in the United States and pedagogy in the classroom do not appear to be narrowing this global achievement gap. Thus, I looked internationally to find a nation that was succeeding in the world of education, in addition to equipping their students with the noted 21st-century skills, subsequently producing more college and career ready individuals. Finland, a small Nordic nation, against all odds, was a potential answer to my search. Perhaps I also just wanted to appease my insatiable appetite for travel! Nonetheless, I ventured across the Atlantic to study the Finnish education system.

Long story short; I won’t bore you with the minute research details, I studied two Finnish lower secondary schools (Grades 7-9) and two Minnesota middle schools (Grades 6-8), allowing me to make a comparative analysis of the two education systems. Specifically, I looked only at Grade 8 in Minnesota and Grade 9 in Finland. Why, you might ask, did I only study those two grades? Because research points to Grade 8 as being a tipping-point in college and career readiness (Doughtery, 2015; Royster, Gross, & Hochbein, 2015; Schaefer & Rivera, 2012). In Finland, Grade 9 is the year before secondary school, so for applicability reasons the 9th grade was studied. My research goal was to uncover 3-4 transferable aspects of the Finnish education system that better equip students with the noted 21st-century skills. Furthermore, I wished to take a more in-depth look at the ideological similarities and differences between students and educators in Minnesota and Finland.

After collecting all of the data, using the aid of a student survey, educator interviews, and classroom observations, it was time to see if distinguishments between the two education systems could be made and conclude on tangible elements of the Finnish education system that could be of use, here in Minnesota. Below are the most significant findings:

Unfortunately, it can be discerned that an apparent preparedness ideology gap exists among both Minnesota learners and educators. Taking the results of the student survey and educator interviews, nearly 100% of students (n = 201) and all educators in the studied Minnesota middle schools stated that their education was properly preparing students for higher education and the workforce. This, however, is simply not true if we look at the statistics of prior research.

Furthermore, in association with this preparedness ideology gap, based off of the results of the question; becoming college and career prepared needs to be achieved by the end of middle school (lower secondary school), it was found that only 41% of 8th grade students in Minnesota understood the urgency to become college and career ready. In addition, relating this student survey item to the educator interviews, the ideology held firm when speaking with teaching personnel. Based of the inquiry of whether or not educators in Minnesota viewed the 8th grade as a tipping point for college and career readiness, 0% of interviewees responded yes and 50% of Minnesota educators responded with skepticism by reporting yes and no. The results of Finland vastly differed, as over 85% of students felt the need to be prepared at this young age. Furthermore, an incredible 90% of Finnish educators viewed Grade 9 as a tipping point for future college and career readiness.

Okay, so it is now even more obvious that our education system needs a little help, both in practice and ideology, in order to better prepare student for life after secondary school. Compiling all of the data, four elements of the Finnish education system were noted as significant and transferable to the Minnesota education system. These items include:

  • Modeling Finland, Minnesota middle school students could benefit from increased college and workforce knowledge, in addition to explicitly attempting to equip students with 21st-century skills, that a curriculum-backed college and career readiness program can offer (Finland has a national requirement of 4-hours per week of college and career readiness courses). This college and career readiness program should be a part of the school curriculum and act as another year-long course.
  • In conjunction with the implementation of a formalized program, attempts to incorporate teach-by-topic/multidisciplinary teaching and learning should be made. Teach-by-topic is the current reform measure in Finland, and will be nation-wide by 2020.
  • Educators in Minnesota could assist students in meaningfully acquiring classroom skills and knowledge by increasing wait-time. This is something we have all been taught in theory, but it is not uniformly applied in all classrooms.
  • In association with increased wait-time, Finland’s education system places a high value on student autonomy. It is common for Finnish educators to consistently reiterate and explain to students that they are in charge of their own learning, academic success, and personal prosperity. The teacher merely acts as a guide to knowledge; with minimal lectures and just a few examples at the beginning of class. In Minnesota, learners are given less opportunity to work at their own pace and classes are much more teacher oriented.

Finally, we have come to the end of this rather long post. What I hope you take from this writing is the realization that we can easily implement many of the fruitful elements of the Finnish education system. Of course, an entire education system cannot be transferred over, but Finland could be used as a model.

As for me, I will be moving to Beijing, China, this summer to start my teaching career and continue my research. If you would like to further discuss my research, please do not hesitate to drop me a message: christian.skillings@smsu.edu  or simply stop by my office BA 119 (next to the wrestling room).

~Mr. Christian Skillings