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Adding Up Finnish Special Education

By: Marti Richmond

“We are 52 different learners” equals one take away.  A fifth grade comprised of four teachers – one special education, one classroom aide, 48 students- twelve who are special education equals according to one of the fifth grade teachers, 52 different learners. Although the teacher who summed up his classroom as 52 different learners represents one class in one Finnish School, the comment and model represents a model for aspiration for special education.

In many ways the Finnish special education model differs little from the United States: Recent  legislation guarantees special education services, many children are tested by psychologists,  a welfare committee works on generating interventions,  schools receive additional funding for special needs students, some students with more significant disabilities may be served in special classes not offered at a neighborhood school,  students may receive accommodations such as extended time on the few standardized tests administered in the country, and students receive ” personalized” learning plans that are reviewed every two years.  But, the classroom where the regular education and special education teachers work side by side and one of the special education teacher says, “you learn something every day when you are a team and you think of all the students in the class as ‘our’ students.”

Teachers are empowered to identify students and write personalized learning plans without needing a psychologist’s evaluation seem to exemplify what I have come to admire the most in my observations this week, the spirit of collaboration among teachers and the Finnish culture of trust.

3 Pre-Trip Questions on Finnish Education

By Martha Richmond

Why would someone from an independent school want to observe the Finnish School system where there are no independent schools and education is free? As someone responsible for students with learning disabilities and for closing the achievement gap, and as a school instructional leader, working toward eliminating standardized tests such as AP’s and assessing department based learning outcomes, I am eager to learn more about three aspects of Finnish education:

1) Its special education program and its policies of “positive discrimination” funds to pay for services such as special resource teachers.

2) The Finnish commitment to education as a tool for social and economic equality and finally,

3) The Finnish philosophy and practice of student assessment.

Many are surprised to hear that my school admits students with learning disabilities and we offer academic adjustments and develop educational PLANS for these students. However, unlike the Finnish inclusion model, colleagues refer students with learning problems to our program as a way of not having to take responsibility for the success of weaker students. Similarly, unlike the Finnish system where special education teachers are paid more, our tutors’ salaries and benefits are discrepant from the rest of their Lawrenceville colleagues.

Therefore, question 1 is: What can I learn from the Finnish model to help me think of ways make both our program and our students’ success included in the professional identity of my colleagues? In addition to my school wrestling with its “special education” students, we are also wrestling with issues of social inequalities. During my 19 year tenure, the school’s student body has changed proportionally from 75% White to 52% White. This statistic makes our school more racially diverse than most public schools. Likewise, our generous endowment provides a disproportional amount of scholarships, making the school more economically diverse than most public schools. Ideally, this diversity should offer all Lawrenceville students the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background.

However, an achievement gap exists. A question I have is: How can what I learn about the Finnish system help refine my lens in terms of ways education might serve as an economic leveler as opposed to being an institution that reinforces social economic status and opportunity?

Knowing that Finland does not use standardized testing, I am curious to learn more about how Finnish teachers build and connect assessments to their curriculums. We have begun to steer away from standardized AP courses and tests and focus on what the school’s overarching and departmental learning outcomes are by grade level for each student. These changes mean time must be dedicated to developing assessments and training teachers how to develop assessments. In a school constantly challenged by pace of life, scheduling time for faculty to collaborate and develop assessments remains a challenge.

Thus, a final question I have is: How might the Finnish assessment system inform Lawrenceville’s move toward eliminating standardized tests and its move toward incorporating assessment development into the faculty workload?

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