Amid an ongoing budget crisis, the controversial A through F grading system and mandates our schools are forced to implement, it is easy to focus on what is wrong with the Oklahoma education system.
News On 6’s Educate Oklahoma initiative, however will also look at possible solutions and lessons that can be learned from other school systems. For example, Finland, where the schools are some of the best in the world.
Far from the oil fields of Oklahoma, where instead of the wind sweeping down the plains, European cruise ships dock at the port, welcomed by an assembly of tents at Market Square.
And instead of borders shared with Texas and Kansas, Sweden and Russia fill the gaps left by the Baltic Sea.
Helsinki, Finland is an energetic capitol for the Nordic country of over 5 million people, comparable in the size to Minnesota. While the modern core serves as the hub for commerce, it is complimented by the city's historic edge: Senate Square.
Anchored by the 160-year-old Evangelic Lutheran cathedral, tourists from around the world come to snap a picture of the most photographed building in Finland.
Even as night falls, the culture of the country is clear: The Finnish take pride in their freedom, embrace equality and dare to be different. Even in the classroom.
Finland has become known as the rock star of education. Shooting to stardom in 2000 when in ranked top-five in the world in math, science and literacy. Still to this day, Finnish students rank at the top in Europe. But what can Oklahoma learn from a country that hates tests, and whose teachers are not evaluated?
It's been a long road for Finland to get to the top of the education world. After declaring its Independence from Russia in 1917, it was not until the 1960s that there was a national effort to raise the standards of education.
Aulis Pitkala is the Director General for the Finnish National Board of Education, an appointed position equivalent to a state superintendent. He's been in the Finnish system for years at various levels. He sums up the transformation as going from teacher centered to learner centered.
"The main point is to make the learner more active. To take responsibility of his or her own learning and to activate them because learning is a fun thing. Joyful thing. It's an adventure actually," says Pitkala.
Finland’s education system is a maze much different than what we're used to in Oklahoma.
From September to June elementary students and freshman are together. High school students can pick from general education or dive head first into a career.
But, the backbone to this entire system is trust.
"It's one of the basic values we have, we don't control. We don't have to,” said Pitkala. “We believe that trusting the teachers, trusting the principals, trusting the education providers we received the best quality of education because they are professionals like we are and we don't believe in standardized testing and we don't believe in monitoring the teachers we feel like right now at least we don’t have to do it."
There are virtually zero mandated tests. Zero teacher evaluations. And the oversight is left up to the students, parents and the teachers themselves.
Anneli Rautianianen has moved through the ranks in education, first as a teacher now an administrator.
"I’m often asked well what do you do if you have a teacher who's not up to standards, to minimum standards, for example, well that's why there's a principal at school who will help the teacher get back on track and help the teacher, maybe team the teacher will someone else so that teachers can learn from each other but you help and support but you don't really grade or monitor or demand something, it works better," says Rautianianen.
But grade and monitor can describe our system back home. Factor in the state's A-F report cards and the 3rd grade reading test that decides if a student moves on to the 4th grade, or is held back. It is a test that's defended by Oklahoma School Board Member Bill Price.
"In some schools, 30 to 40 percent of the kids have gone onto 4th grade without being able to read and then fallen further and further behind and then ultimately drop out. Now what are we supposed to do about that?” asks Price. “Are we supposed to let that continue from generation to generation?
But Duncan elementary principal Lisha Elroy also says students are well aware of what their grades mean for the school's reputation.
"It's heartbreaking because there's nothing I can do. That's probably the hardest thing," says Elroy.
Elroy says Oklahoma state officials created a game that she is forced to play.
Finnish officials perceive the report cards as more of a stigma for schools.
"If you have a system with testing so actually you are going to get ready for the testing not for the learning outcomes," says Pitkala. "What we try to avoid is have ranking lists for schools because this is about equity so if you had a ranking list and had a school shopping system. It's more fruitful to develop and support than kind of have a ranking list and criticize you."
In a News On 6 exclusive poll, we asked how Oklahomans would rate the A through F school report cards issued by the State Board of Education. 30 percent of registered voters said it was "fair." 26 percent were less impressed and called it "poor." 23 percent said "good" with ten percent saying it was "excellent."