Education expert offers views after visiting Alaska schools

COMPARISON: Finland schools offer a model to the U.S., scholar says.

Anchorage Daily NewsDecember 25, 2011 

Samuel Abrams, from Columbia University, discusses the Finnish education system at the Mayor's Education Summit in Anchorage in November 2011.

MARC LESTER / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University, and national expert on why schools in Finland are so successful, visited Anchorage and Bethel area schools last month, ate the lunches and sat in on classes.

Some things impressed him, and others illustrated problems that schools face across the U.S., he said.

Abrams was here to participate in a conference on how to improve Anchorage schools that was sponsored by Mayor Dan Sullivan.

Before and after the November conference, Abrams went to King Career Center and William Tyson Elementary in Anchorage for half-day each, and spent full days at Denali Montessori, Begich Middle and East High in Anchorage. He also observed classes at a school-within-a-school run by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council at Bartlett High.

On a day in Bethel, he visited Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yupik Immersion Elementary; Bethel Alternative Boarding School; Mikelnguut Elitnarviat Elementary; Kilbuck Elementary; and Bethel Regional High. In Napaskiak, he spent a full day at the town's one school.

Here are some of his observations.

Q. After visiting Begich Middle School and East High School, you expressed concern that science classes had up to 30 students. What's wrong with that?

A. This is a problem in public schools across the United States. I observed an eighth-grade science class at Begich with 27 students and a 10th-grade science class at East High with 30 students.

The issue with these high numbers is that it is very hard for teachers to run labs -- the prep and supervision are both labor intensive -- and students need careful oversight. Students best learn science by doing labs -- much as athletes learn a sport by playing it, not listening to lectures about it.

This is also why the Finns, whose students repeatedly post the highest scores in science by a significant margin on the triennial Program for International Student Assessment, cap science classes in grades 7 through 9 (which are equivalent to our grades 8 through 10) at 16.

Q. You mentioned you were impressed with Denali Montessori School in Anchorage. What was going on there that you thought was good?

A. Students at all levels, from kindergarten to grade 6, were actively engaged in learning in small groups as their teachers circulated as guides.

The learning was authentic. Students, for example, demonstrated concrete understanding of mathematical functions in their sorting and arrangement of beads and blocks. Students smoothly collaborated as they worked together in their groups. Moreover, students displayed real joy as they honed their understanding of different subjects. Finally, the teachers also displayed real joy in their role as guides.

Q. What else would you like to say about Anchorage schools you visited?

A. First, the King Career Center exhibited an admirable range of programs filled with engaged students and teachers. As in the Lower 48, if more funding were made available, programs like the King Career Center could serve more students. The result should be more enfranchised students, a lower drop-out rate, and more highly skilled high school graduates.

The Finns clearly understand this line of reasoning: 45 percent of their students in upper secondary school (grades 10 through 12) attend vocational schools.

Second, the One Percent for Art provision made all schools feel like treasured centers of culture and thus buttressed the very purpose of your schools as transmitters of culture.

Third, the diversity of your students is much richer than I had expected.

Fourth, the small classes in the schools-within-schools run by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council make eminent sense for helping migrant Native Alaskans gain traction in Anchorage schools.

Fifth, both the performing arts program and library at East High showed the kind of vitality fundamental to a vibrant school.

Q. What are your main impressions of schools in Bethel and Napaskiak?

A. The commitment to teach Yup'ik language, history, and culture was remarkable and uplifting. Most inspiring, in this regard, was the meeting in the gym after school of the Yup'ik Dance Club in Napaskiak. Boys as well as girls of all ages lost themselves in song and movement for more than an hour to the beats and chants of two community elders and a fellow student striking traditional drums. The reverence of the younger students for the older students and of all students for the elders in charge was palpable.

And the harmony, syncopation, and physical activity clearly accomplished an array of educational purposes, at once sharpening musical, kinesthetic, collaborative, and even mathematical sensibilities.

Q. If you could do one or two things to improve Anchorage schools, what would they be?

A. Conceding that these two recommendations run counter to the pressure from Juneau and D.C. for more test preparation, I would, first, integrate more arts and crafts to make school more enticing, to give math and science more concrete meaning, and to foster greater collaboration among students.

I would, second, integrate more physical education and more time between subjects for play. More and more brain research confirms what Juvenal asserted nearly two millennia ago: a healthy mind necessitates a healthy body.

Q. You talked about the value of a good and nutritious lunch in Finnish schools. Please compare a meal you ate at a Finnish school with what you ate at an Anchorage school.

A. Lunch at a Finnish school is akin to lunch at Simon & Seafort's, though lighter: for example, hot salmon chowder made in a kitchen on the premises; crisp bread (resembling thick crackers) or slices of dark sour rye bread, both Finnish staples; a salad bar with a variety of vegetables along with tubs of lingonberries; pudding for dessert; and milk or water.

Plus, in Finland, food is served on conventional plates, beverages are drunk from conventional glasses, and students use metal utensils.

Lunch at schools in Anchorage is just like lunch at public schools across the Lower 48: prepared at a central kitchen, minimal in nutritional value, and served on disposable trays with plastic utensils; the one exception in Anchorage was the King Career Center, which served excellent fare prepared by students in the school's culinary arts program.

I should add that lunch in Finland is free for all students and has been since 1948, whereas lunch is free -- or discounted -- in the United States only for children from low-income homes. Clearly, if all children here benefited from a free lunch, taxpayers would fund better lunches, just as they do in Finland.

Q. I'm sure you've been to a gazillion school improvement conferences. How would you rate the education summit in Anchorage?

A. I found it stimulating. Members of the Anchorage community as well as visiting panelists articulated a broad range of opinions.

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