What happens when we turn the educational hierarchy upside-down?


There is no doubt that the federal role in U.S. public schools has increased dramatically over the past decade with the adoption of No Child Left Behind and its equally intrusive successor, Race to the Top.  Local and state control has eroded significantly as mandates (surreptitiously disguised as incentives in the latter) force states and local districts to give up control of assessment and curriculum.

With the locus of control shifting further and further away from the classroom,  external curriculum modules and standardized assessments attached to the Common Core dictate what is happening in classrooms. In an attempt to implement a one-size-fits-all education reform model, the individual needs of students and communities at the district level are being plowed over, leaving students, teachers and schools pressured to comply with a top-down hierarchy that many feel is inescapable: a hierarchy that sadly puts teachers and students at the bottom.

Maybe Washington can take a page from the Finnish National Board of Education, and re-imagine how we look at the educational framework.  Here’s how the Director General, Timo Lankinen, represented the Finnish education system:

Screen Shot 2013-04-13 at 6.25.47 AM

This decentralization of steering powers, coupled with the autonomy of local education providers to organize schools and implement educational policies, leads to communities and educators playing a much bigger role.  But more importantly, rather than relying on the concept of an “average” learner, students’ needs, diversity and differences in motivation in the specific educational context of an individual school district can dictate what is taught and how.

Students at the top…imagine that.

Democracy works when citizens are able to change their minds when presented with new information.  In the U.S. we have been challenged by the Department of Education to think differently and to fight for quality education and social justice. It is time we all challenge ourselves to think about the early effects of these initiatives manifesting in our local schools and classrooms; it is time to think about what education might look like if we were to turn the top-down hierarchy upside-down.

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My Letter of Resignation

featured in The Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet

I applaud the resolution of educators such as Gerald J. Conti and Kris L. Nielsen, for publicly deciding to remove themselves from the classroom, especially because they have used their dissent as a platform to spread awareness about current issues in America’s education reform. If you haven’t come across their widely-read letters of resignation, you can find them here and here, respectively, and they are worth the read. After having spent the past month in Finland, however, gaining new insights from the Finnish education system and having the freedom of time to reflect on my own experiences as a teacher in New York, I have a different kind of letter. Call it my Letter of Resolution. I wrote it because I have had enough. I can’t handle any more top-down; I am ready for some bottom-up. I hope you will join me.

Mr. Arne Duncan
Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue,
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Mr. Duncan,

I will not be leaving the teaching profession anytime soon. This is despite the fact that current educational reform efforts are continually pushing some of the best and brightest educators closer and closer to the door of the classroom, if they haven’t already left.

In spite of the fact that you consistently attempt to find new ways to hijack the time I spend teaching, planning, collaborating, reflecting, researching, conferencing, bettering myself, and addressing my students’ needs, I manage to complete all of the menial administrative tasks you mandate in an effort to comparatively measure my efficacy in the classroom.

I ignore the fact that you ignore the fact that I earned a Master’s degree, received numerous teaching awards and have nothing but exemplary observations in my personnel folder.

I dutifully administer tests that narrow my curriculum and steal time away from the authentic assessments my co-teachers and I spent years developing to encourage student growth and reflection on their own learning.

I allow you to make your deterministic assumptions that the most effective means to an end can be externally defined, controlled and measured in a “standardized” manner, ignoring my students’ diversity, prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, attitudes and differences in motivation and attention.

I seek out meaningful professional development on my own because every faculty meeting consists of me and my colleagues being force-fed new mandates, while we watch our autonomy wither as hastily as our morale.

I do all of this despite the fact that during this time, you remind me repeatedly that I need to be patient because we are “crossing a bridge as we build it” –an unbelievably ineffective metaphor that is worrisome at best and at worst, absurd.

But I thank you for it.

And not because it isn’t inane. It is. But it made me recognize something that has reignited my commitment to my students into a flame that even the most ineffective and watered-down standardized assessment can’t extinguish:

This impossible, hap-hazard, horribly thought-out metaphorical bridge my colleagues and I are on right now, it also contains (in my metaphorical pockets, if you will) my students, their parents, our community, and our collective future as a society …and I refuse to stand by and watch while you let us fall into the abyss because you are too busy catering to private industry rather than listening to what your own Equity and Excellence Commission advises you to do.

By next September, many of my fellow American teachers will have thrown in the towel and even more potential teachers, who are graduating at the top of their classes and might have made the finest educators our schools have ever seen, won’t even consider entering the profession because of the debacle that has resulted from the misguided effort to fix our schools.

But I will be in my classroom.

…because the country does need educational activists, like Kris Nielsen and Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody and countless others, who spend their days and nights fighting against the harmful effects of the latest wave of reform measures. But what the country also needs are more Mr./Mrs. ________________ (insert the name of that teacher you had who inspired a passion for learning in you, Mr. Duncan).

This is the end of my resignation; although I will remain in my classroom, I will no longer be a silent, complacent bystander, or worse, participant, while you have your way with the American education system; I have invested too much and there is too much at stake; neither my students nor I are going to end up in that abyss …not while there is still time to turn things around.


Christine McCartney
English Language Arts Teacher
Newburgh , NY

I am mailing this letter tomorrow (10-April-2013) via snail mail from Finland, so it might take a bit…

If you are inspired to get involved/educated/read more, here are some great places to start:






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What a Dean at Harvard and a science teacher I know have in common:

In this interview in the New York Times yesterday, Nitin Nohria, the first Asian Dean of Harvard business school, was asked to respond to a statement about the “narrow” academic trajectories American students were expected to stay on in order to be successful.  His response was that it was “quite sad that we put children through this extraordinary stress. It takes a long time to discover what you are really good at.”

Similarly, my colleague, Barbara Laird, a high school level science teacher in New York, commented on a post of mine by questioning whether we “give our students the space and time needed to grow.”

I have been learning from conversations with both Finnish teachers as well as fellow fulbrighter, Karen Lee, that in Finland they seem to be addressing this issue in a preferable way to the United States. For starters, only about fifty percent of Finnish upper secondary students attend traditional high school after age 15, while over forty percent attend vocational schools instead. Because the culture is not one of competition (in fact, many seem to frown upon our competitive nature) and laborers are recognized as vital members of the community, vocational schools are viewed as honorable paths for students to embark down.  The fact that would most please both Nohira and my colleague is this: if students change their minds, they have options.  There is hardly a “narrow academic path” that students are all packed onto, which completely disregards students’ interests; they can change schools or return to the traditional schools if they feel they have chosen something that does not suit them.

This striking difference from American schools stems from the fact that Finnish schools are focused on honoring student choice, and it only logically follows that this helps create students who are intrinsically motivated to learn because they are active participants in navigating their educational paths, rather than passive recipients.

I’m not saying their system of providing time and choice is perfect by any means, but it certainly seems like a step in the right direction…

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5 things you always (or never!) wanted to know about Finnish hockey

So after a hockey filled day Saturday, including a trip to the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame and going to a playoff game to see my hometown team, the Tampere Tappara, win their third game in a row in a seven game series, I thought I’d throw in a non-educational related post and school you all in Finnish Hockey instead.


So here we go: Five things you always (or never!) wanted to know about Finnish hockey: Continue reading

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The trouble with Accountability

(I originally sat down to write a post about the hockey playoff game I went to last night, but somehow got distracted looking for my pen, found some old notes, and opened up this can of worms…)

I was at a conference recently, where a doctoral candidate defined accountability as a spectrum with blame at one end and empathy at the other.  Then she quickly moved on to something else.  But it had struck me.  I drew it in my notepad.  It was simple, and yet paradigmatic. I was totally into it.

IMG_0242I came across those notes just now and couldn’t make the pieces fit, so I really started thinking about accountability.  Maybe that spectrum was too simplistic for what I was trying to work out.  Accountability has been a word that, in regards to education, has been championed by some and abhorred by others; three words and a line on a piece of paper wasn’t really cutting it for me (or maybe I had just taken horrible notes…). In any case, I was glad it prompted this inquiry.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”  The more I thought about it, I kept getting hung up on the difference between being accountable for someone or something and being accountable to someone or something.  Even the dictionary definition has two sides to it –taking responsibility and having to account for, seem to be two very different things to me.

The former, to me, implies an obligation towards someone or something; in the case of my profession, towards my students and their learning.  Whereas the latter implies proving that what I am doing is working, which is also important in my classroom.  But here’s the thing: it is important to me so that I can ensure that my students are learning, adjust my teaching when necessary and give timely feedback so that my students can see their progress and reflect on their growth.  But what I see happening is it being used to measure both me and my students in a way that not only narrows what we are doing and learning, but is creating an atmosphere that devalues innovation and creates a culture of competition and even fear.

I came across a Kettering Foundation study by Jean Johnson focusing on the gaps between how leaders define accountability and how parents define it.  Parents seem to define accountability more along the lines of responsibility –holding parents, students, surrounding communities and schools equally responsible for what is happening in schools.  Leaders, on the other hand, have a more pragmatic definition –focused more acutely on the schools, their employees, and their outcomes.

So then I started thinking, do these varying definitions and perceptions of what accountability means become an enabling factor for entities to claim that they are using accountability to show effectiveness, when in actuality their goal is to point out ineffectiveness?

That might not be such a problem, if I, like so many others, weren’t so convinced that there has been an attempt to skew public perception of the American education system in a negative direction…but who could blame me (or anyone else) when the same Kettering Foundation study cited this gallup poll, which states that “nearly 8 in 10 [Americans] say they are “extremely” or “very concerned” about the number of students who don’t graduate from high school,” which is up from less than half who said the same in the seventies.  This is despite the fact that the other day I read this article from the Washington Post stating that the high school graduation rate is the highest it has been since the seventies… Did 30% of the American public become that much more cynical, or are there some hidden forces that are at least partially behind this sway in public opinion?

Then there is the whole other side of the accountability coin.  It has to do with who the people making the decisions are accountable to.  I would love to think that politicians are only accountable to the public, but we all know that is not one hundred percent true, otherwise there would be no such thing as lobbying.  So then you add the fact of the blurring divisions between public education and private entities, who are founded by and beholden to their own set of stakeholders, and this question arises: Are those institutions accountable to their investors and shareholders, or the students they are claiming to serve?  Also, if they are driving some of the educational reform, who is that accountable to –the private companies or the public?

Some fodder for further research I guess. In the meantime, I tried to redraw it, but only got to this and then wished I had just stuck to the hockey post…there’s always tomorrow.

IMG_0245In the meantime, I’d welcome comments to further my thinking on this.

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what you can learn from a rock


I came to a small realization about my students today at the Kivimuseo.   When I first walked into the one room-mineral museum nestled in the basement of the city’s library, I was taken aback by how many rocks, shells, minerals, (even dinosaur eggs?) were displayed in such a small, albeit breathtakingly beautiful, space.  I initially questioned the decision to house 7000 objects on display in one room, but gratefully paid my five euros to the woman at the front counter and stepped inside.


I was the only patron for the entire hour I was there, and the engulfing silence was only occasionally interrupted by the barely audible Finnish chatter of the two female museum workers, and even that was coming from a room some distance away.  The dramatic lighting and presence of so many glass-encased objects, the oldest dating back 3500 million years, made the experience all the more surreal as I quietly roamed the room snapping photographs.


rock3I circled once.

Then again and again. By the fifth or sixth time around, I realized I was still finding amazingly detailed stones and pieces that I had missed previously.  This went on for quite some time and I was still dazzled, each time around finding new little intricacies or pieces I had somehow overlooked before.




I think if there had been more museum-goers, I might have called it a day sooner, because I am sometimes too self aware like that. But there was no way I was voluntarily leaving my own personal treasure trove until I had completely absorbed all it had to offer.


And then it happened..

It was after about forty five minutes that I found it: a little outcrop of green mineral growing atop a beautiful bright pink stone as if it were its own miniature island, as if it had found its own perfect little spot in the world.  I couldn’t believe I had missed it before.



And that was when I started thinking.  Maybe that is why teachers are so crucial to having a voice in educational decision-making. I mean, sure, I knew I was looking at a room full of beautiful, meaningful, intricate objects the moment I laid my eyes upon the glass enclosure-filled space. But it wasn’t until I had spent the time to examine each one, sometimes again and again and again, that I really began to see the elaborateness and complexities of each individual piece.  And even in doing so, I am sure there were innumerable things I overlooked; how could I have not?

So here it is, here is what that small, seemingly inconsequential bit of green rock made me come to realize:

I am afraid.  I am afraid that some of the people who think they know what is best for my students are not the people who have taken the time to get to know who they are and what they need.  I am afraid that those little green outcrops will never be seen or heard from and be at the mercy of someone who made a decision that will affect their life, someone who knows nothing at all about their life. I am afraid that decisions are being made by someone who doesn’t understand that you need to take a great deal of time, of interaction, to realize the full (and often hidden) potential of anything, even in a rock museum.  Someone who may have just browsed through the gallery a few times, or just peeked their head in for a few minutes.  

Someone who may never even have entered at all.





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A message to parents from your child’s teacher

Dear Parent/Guardian,

I am your child’s teacher.  My role as educator extends far beyond the walls of my classroom.  It is my profession, what I practice.   I have chosen to devote the better part of what will be the years that make up my life to educating your child. I take it very seriously and I should; I am a stakeholder in your child’s future.

And so are you. You take it seriously also.  You take your role in your child’s life more seriously than probably anyone else ever will.  You have spent countless hours modeling empathy and kindness, teaching right from wrong, helping your child learn how to navigate through an increasingly complicated world and spending time to understand who your child is and where he/she is coming from.   You do this in order to help guide your child down the path to who he/she will become.  So I ask you, taking all of this into consideration, how willing would you be to allow some other parent to take over this role for you –someone who claimed to know “better” than you about what was right for your child?

Think about it.

Because that is what is happening in my classroom.  And it isn’t because they know “better” than I do how to educate your child —the undertaking I have chosen to devote my life’s work to becoming better at doing.  It certainly isn’t because they have spent months getting to know the individual you have raised in an effort to better understand what your student needs to thrive in a responsive learning environment.  It has nothing to do with the relationship they have formed with your child in order to show respect and care for him/her as a person and as a learner.  It doesn’t, for a second, reflect the passion I have for the subject I teach –passion that I pass on to your student in every way I can and at every chance I get.

It simply has to do with money.

It has to do with the $500 billion dollars allocated by the United States government to children like yours.  Your money.  Tax-payer money intended to directly benefit students. Money that is being hijacked by for-profit educational management companies.  The same people who are using their voices to belittle me and my colleagues, and our schools, and your child’s performance, in order to rationalize their hidden agenda: making money.

They are spending their own money too.  They are using it to pay lobbyists who help manipulate educational policy and dictate allocation of resources towards private companies… and it is working.  The $13 million dollars they had their hands on in 2005 had already risen to $389 million by 2011.  Don’t mistake it: there exists big profit potential in your child.  Three hundred and eighty-nine million dollars…and that was two years ago.

So today I ask you this:

My life’s work.  The countless hours I spend with your child presenting new material, creating on-going formative assessments that are authentic and based on your student’s individual needs at a given moment in time, the active learning and knowledge-construction happening in my classroom on a daily basis, the time I spend creating lessons which require students to build upon and re-evaluate prior knowledge and the work that reflects the relationship that I have worked diligently to foster with your student:  is it worth putting all of this hard-won expertise on the back-burner so that someone can divert money intended for your child?

The person your child is and how he/she learns and grows cannot be gauged by an answer bubbled onto a sheet of paper.  Your student deserves my full expertise, not a narrowed curriculum and hours devoted to my teaching to the test.  My colleagues and I deserve to be freed from the negative impact that the calculated teacher-bashing and union-bashing is having on our profession…because it is calculated, and by this point I don’t think I need to tell you by whom.

So please, educate yourself.  Have a voice in this issue.  Talk to teachers and administrators about what is happening in your child’s school as a result of America’s education reform; support teachers you know are there for your student; question media reports that claim there is a simple answer to so-called underperformance; and be aware of what is happening on a local and national level.  It is affecting your student . . . and it isn’t going away any time soon.


Christine McCartney

To learn more:






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Wishing I had my students in my pockets


my new mentor and Finnish friend, Riitta

First and foremost, I must thank my mentor and new friend, Riitta, who took time out of her busy schedule as a senior faculty member of the School of Education at the University of Tampere, to treat me to a wonderful lunch today.  Aside from the fact that our conversation was extremely informative and I now feel like I have my foot in the door to begin my research, she also set me off on a little adventure around Tampere this afternoon.

So despite the fact that it was a chilly -4 degrees Celsius (that’s about 24 degrees Fahrenheit to my friends in New York), I was easily persuaded to trek around town by both Riitta’s suggestion, and the little tourist map she gave me (you know the type…everything looks like a cartoon and has a number corresponding to a list of attractions on the back).  Well, it wasn’t a difficult choice when I realized that the Tampereen Kaupunginkirjasto (Tampere City Library) was attached to the Tampereen Kivimuseo (Tampere Mineral Museum) because really, there IS NO END to my nerdiness when it comes to certain things.

kuplii_21_3Also, I had seen this ad, which someone mentioned had something to do with a comic exhibition at the library and given the recent student-led sit in against the Chicago Public Schools ban of the graphic novel Persepolis, I definitely wanted to go check it out.

IMG_9037Turns out the Mineral Museum is closed on Mondays, but the library was worth every painfully cold step it took to get there.  For starters, it looks like something designed by H. R. Giger, although it was really designed by Finnish architects, Reima and Raili Pietila, who are equally awesome (although I half expected Sigourney Weaver dressed as Ripley to greet me at the door).


It didn’t take long for me to be wishing that I could transport all of my students into the Young Adult section with me to see their faces light up with recognition as they scanned the shelves of books.


What a cool experience to see all of the titles that comprise our classroom library in Newburgh, New York translated into Finnish.  It really hit home the commonality of the adolescent experience in both countries.  I am so excited to get into the secondary schools here this week and begin conversations with Finnish students.  I wonder how they define themselves as readers and what books line the shelves of their classroom libraries.

IMG_9018There wasn’t really much to the comic exhibit, except I was thoroughly impressed with these little paper cutout dolls that were scattered all over a big table which overlooked the foyer of the library.  I am pretty sure they are saying nasty little tidbits, but google translate wasn’t much help with most of them.  There were literally hundreds and they stood like their own little army, poised and ready. It was impossible not took bend your face right down to them to get a closer look:

IMG_9017 IMG_9018

And I did so for at least five minutes.

Then just when I thought I had seen everything that the Tampere Library had to offer, I walked into the music section of the library and within minutes this happened:

So as you can imagine. I was loving every minute of it.

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So my thinking continues: the America in Living Color Seminar


a quotation from my friend Karen’s presentation

For the past year or so since receiving this amazing Fulbright award, I have been carrying around a little secret in my back pocket . . . and as the months have worn on, it has grown bigger and heavier and threatened to climb right out and swallow me whole:

I have no idea how to be a researcher.

I initially thought that the change in scene from New York to Finland might change this, somehow make me more astute as an outside observer . . . and it certainly has. But what I really needed more than a change in scenery, was a change in my own self definition.

Sometimes life hands you a little something amazing and you realize that your narrow definition of both yourself and your abilities were really the issue.  Two days after my arrival, the University of Tampere in my home city was host to the Fulbright Center’s annual America in Living Color Seminar, in which American grantees present their research and scholarly work in fields like education, science and sociology.  alc

I arrived like a child on the first day of school, clutching my still empty notebook, hoping that nobody would recognize that I had no idea what I was doing.  Within the first two minutes of the opening remarks, the Executive Director of the Fulbright Center was publicly welcoming me as a newly arrived teacher-researcher from New York and all eyes were on me.  The title of teacher-researcher was still feeling fraudulent at that point, but I smiled and half stood up out of my chair and waited for the crowds’ eyes to return to the podium.

What happened over the next two days was just short of monumental.  I sat and listened as other American Fulbright grantees presented their work: not finished research, not published papers, but rather engaging studies that were bundled in human interactions and observations.  The teachers, who like me, were on sabbaticals and missing their families and students, spoke openly and honestly about their research processes –their inquiries at times messy and meandering, leading down different paths than originally intended.

I listened as my friend Janet spoke about the Finnish culture’s sense of duty and respect for the individual child’s learning process; about how she saw entire schools where the teachers provided environments for learning and how in those environments, the children were able to create knowledge; about how trust, respect and expectations dictated every interaction between student and educator.


clockwise from top left: Laurie, Karen, Amanda and Janet

I thought about my own experiences in New York with struggling students as Karen spoke about her experiences studying Finnish vocational schools and how students, who are trusted to take on the responsibility for learning, have the freedom to make choices based on interest.  She reflected on how teachers give students the tools they need to make decisions and believe wholeheartedly that the students will do their jobs.  I listened optimistically as she spoke about the collaboration of teachers that she had witnessed, and how Finnish teachers are routinely provided freedom of time for research, reflectiveness and collaboration.

I understood better the positive effect educational research can have both here and abroad as Laurie described her research examining how Finnish schools fail to teach about the indiginous Sami people and was blown away by her efforts to research Sami traditions and create lessons based on their culture –even going as far as to ask them how they would like to be taught about.  I was particularly impressed by the notion of having American students examine a culture completely foreign to their own (and the discrimination and marginalization that culture faces) in order to open a pathway into an examination of their own culture for the Mexican-American students she teaches in Phoenix, Arizona.

I gained a whole new perspective on role-play as Amanda plowed over our preconceived notions of Larping (yes, Live Action Role Playing) and showed how she was exploring how educational Larping was an intrinsically motivating, metacognitively active, authentic exercise for students, wholly aligned with her constructivist approaches to classroom pedagogy.  As aforementioned Fulbrighter, Karen, commented, “You would be hard-pressed to find a good teacher who hasn’t larped.”

These were just a few of the myriad of presentations I was able to engage with.  As the two days went on, I slowly began to realize that I was selling myself short.  I am an active and passionate educator, who is hopelessly inquisitive, driven by my allegiance towards my students, my profession and my colleagues, and residing in Finland for another three months with all the time in the world to facilitate meaningful conversations about education, observe, and reflect: how could I not be a researcher?

Silly me.

Signed affectionately, your teacher-researcher friend in Finland,


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Ice swimming: what better to do than submerse oneself in a frozen lake?

holeYears ago, the large number of lakes that surround the city of Tampere functioned to power the red brick factories that once housed the cotton, linen, wool and tricot mills of Tampere’s textile industry.  Today, residents and tourists use the lakes for leisure activities, including swimming…in the dead of winter…half naked…when the temperature is below freezing…and it is absolutely fabulous.

This one doesn’t need much explaining, since Janet, Lindsay, Karen, Amanda and I made sure to record the event:


And we stuck together, for safety:

Lastly, here is some vocab take-away:

Avanto = the said hole in the ice
Sauna = for purifying mind and body
Löyly = the spirit of the sauna that rises when you throw water on the stove
Kiuas = the stove in sauna
Makkara = Finnish sausage to be fried after sauna

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