Orphal: What my students are plotting while I’m across the world

This piece by Skyline High School teacher Dave Orphal was originally published onTransformED, the group blog for the Center for Teaching Quality, and is being posted here with his permission. You can read more from Dave and other teacher leaders at TransformED. 

Greetings from Finland. I’m a Skyline High School teacher who’s here to learn more about what is touted by many as one of the best school systems in the world.

Meanwhile, back in Oakland CA, my Introduction to Education class is following my trip, researching the Finnish education system, and preparing policy briefs for school reform.

A little bit about the course:

Skyline High School is organized as numerous small learning communities. I work in the Education Academy. (There are also academies dedicated to digital media, green technology, performing and visual arts, sports and exercise science, and others.)

In the Education Academy, sophomores start in my Introduction to Education class. Over the next two years, they will take Education Psychology and Peer Education, both taught by our academy director. The academy is populated by students who are interested in becoming teachers, nurses, counselors, or social workers.

About my students’ Finland project:

I am launching a three-year, cross-curricular project with my students. This year, my students will research the Finnish system and make reform recommendations to our school’s governing body. In the eleventh grade, they will take up the endeavor again, doing primary research at our school to see if students, staff, and administration agree with the reform proposals they have assembled. During senior year, they will pick up the project once more, moving into an action phase in which they will attempt to influence policymakers and raise funds to turn their proposals into real reforms.

So… back to tenth grade and our current project.

Last week, I introduced my classes to our project: “At the December Faculty Council Meeting, you will present your proposal for school reform at Skyline High School based on your research into the Finnish education system.”

I allowed a minute for students to basically freak out.

Confession: I love presenting the final product to my classes first. I love that it raises their anxiety. I know this sounds cruel, but I do it because it drives my students’ minds to questions.

While they were abuzz, I set up a PowerPoint slide on the screen and called for
questions. Here is what they asked. Below each bullet, I’ve included some of my notes from our conversations:

  • What is the point of this project? How does this fit into our curriculum in Introduction to Education? What am I going to learn from doing this project?
  • Individual or group? Most of our work in this class happens in teams. My students love working together because they can help each other and socialize while they work.
  • What is the Faculty Council? Who are we going to present to and why?
  • What is the project going to be? Are we creating a paper, a poster or triptych, a PowerPoint, or something else?
  • Any work outside of class time? Will we have enough time over the next several weeks to complete all of the work?
  • Will this really change anything at Skyline? Will our proposed reforms actually happen, or is this just an exercise?
  • Who is going to be at the December meeting? Who is the faculty council?
  • What will the presentation look like? Will we all have to stand up and talk? How long will we have to talk?
  • What day in December is the meeting? When exactly is this due?
  • When are we starting? How much time do we have to do this?
  • Do we have a rubric for the project? How will we be graded?

Jakaria asked my favorite question: Would this project really lead to positive change at our school? She was not satisfied with the idea of learning about the Finnish system and comparing it to our own. She was not satisfied with learning about the school reform process or mastering new communications skills as she wrote a persuasive essay and created a presentation. Jakaria wanted to know whether this project would lead to a lasting legacy at her school.

I answered her, “I don’t know.”

What I do know is that, three years ago, students in the Education Academy began a project to bring more comprehensive health services to our campus. They researched the need for medical and counseling services, briefing our school and district leadership about their findings. Today, we have a medical services building on campus staffed by nurses and counselors, due, in part, to the work of that team of students.

Will Jakaria and her team make spearhead positive changes at Skyline? I’ll let you know in 2015.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for posts about my trip to Finland — and my kids’ progress on their projects.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Katy Murphy

    I appreciate Dave Orphal’s willingness to share his project with us. I noticed that some of you had some pretty harsh responses to the initial post. While you’re free to make your points, as always, I ask everyone to be respectful and considerate of the author as you do so.

    Remember: He’s putting his name out there, and many of you are not.

  • Sue

    I liked that question too. My first thought when I read it – before reading the teacher’s response – was, I hope the students come up with great suggestions that are implemented. They’re in the best place to see what isn’t working for them and their friends/peers, and to suggest ways to improve their education. And these are the kids who *chose* to be in the education academy, so they’re likely to be invested in their own and future students’ educations.

    (My Skyline sophomore is in another academy, so I know something about the process of getting into the various academies. Students have to request an academy placement and show some interest at a minimum.)

  • Ted Allen

    This is a great project.
    It does seem like you are starting the students out with the assumption that the Finnish system is better. The Finns have a system that works well for the Finns, but some comparative analysis is required to determine what aspects of the Finnish system are relevant to education reform in the U.S. I look forward to news of your students’ conclusions.

  • http://www.skylinehs.org David Orphal

    Hi Ted,

    Good question. Finland has been touted since 2000 as a world leader in education. This is due, in large part, to their top performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam.

    Normally, I’m pretty anti-test. In my history class, for example, my students write essays rather than take tests and quizzes. I’m much more interested in teaching them how to research primary-source documents, analyze them, find evidence, and use that evidence to write essays that answer deep, complex questions. Right now, these classes are exploring how the Hawaiians and the Fante resisted imperialism from the USA and England.

    My Introduction to ED students haven’t just assumed that the Finnish system is better, per se. Instead, we read sample questions from the PISA before I left the country and compared the challenges of that exam with their experience, that same week, with the PSAT (Pre-SAT) exam. They definately felt that the short answer and short essay parts of the PISA was more challenging that the fill-in-the-bubble tasks of the PSAT.

    When asked if their experiences at Skyline was preparing them for college and career, their responses were mixed. Over simplified, they thought that Oakland schools were preparing them for community colleges like Merrit and Laney. They didn’t knock those two schools, but they did feel like they would not be ready to succeed in the UC or CSU systems right after high school.

    So rather than say that Finnish schools are better than Skyline, we’re asking these questions. What are Finnish schools doing that seem more effective?
    What Skyline practices are fine the would like to see stay the same. At the end, my classes are only going to propose 2-3 reforms that they think would improve Skyline. So rather than wish Skyline was more like Finland, we would rather see an improved Skyline.

    I, for one, an really excited to see what reforms they come up with.

  • makeitgoaway

    What is so attractive about Finland to American teachers is that there is much less testing in Finland, but high performance. Contrast that with high performing Asian countries with excessive testing and drill and kill.

    Here’s a fact for your class- there are no private schools in Finland. Gee I wonder if scores would go up in Oakland if parents didn’t send their kids to O’Dowd, Head Royce, College Prep, St. Mary’s, Bentley, Redwood Christian, St. Joseph’s or other private schools? Finland has a student population which high performing with low unemployment and high parent education levels. All teachers are required to have masters degrees and teaching is a prestigious profession. So what Finnish schools are “doing” is that they are dealing with a totally different, much less diverse population, with few language differences.

    By comparison, Skyline is ranked as a 2 on the academic performance rating system, and only a 3 when compared to other schools, with 59% of its student population on free or reduced lunch.

    Can the class design something on poster paper that changes that or is this project really not well thought out? I think your kids already know the answer. Of course you could really prepare them for college by teaching them how to write a 10 page research paper in MLA style, but that could not be done as group work.

  • Nextset

    Makeitgoaway: Dear Comrade, Finland is racially homogeneous. So you don’t need the same testing. Their IQ distribution is tighter than ours. Given the same level of instruction a cohort of their candidates are not so far apart as ours.

    That is why this entire thread is so silly.

    The USA is a racially diverse nation made more so by government policy of importation of 3rd worlders. IQ averages differ wildly around the world. Sub-Sahara Africa has an average of 70, below that needed to sustain civilization (check out Haiti as well!). Various researchers have made charts of the various nations and regions of the world – go take a look. Try “IQ and the Wealth of Nations”. And before you try to claim the numbers are unreliable because of language difficulties – remember, IQ can be calculated in many different ways and by proxy testing (for example, SAT scores normed by the year given, etc), Army entrance tests, NFL Wonderlic testing, DMV driver’s license written exams??, any time pressure tests involving calculating – blinking lights..)

    Your efforts to compare Oakland to Finland in education is a joke that can only work with the clueless – or the willfully blind.

    Your vision of a socialist paradise where the children of German Jews sit next to the children of single mother crack addicts in the same classroom and are expected to do as well is demented. Exactly who do you expect to sell that fantasy to? The German Jews I went to high school with said openly that they would leave the USA before it fell when the time came – just like their family walked out of Germany, Israel and other nations they lived in previously. So do you think they can be stopped from sending their children to the $20k/year schools they select? Do you believe you have the power to force them to associate with people they don’t want to sit next to?

    Comrade, please!

    Be a communist, be a collectivist, but don’t be a clown.

  • Nextset

    As a follow up. My friends were not at all kidding about leaving the USA before it fell completely. Germany now has a policy of issuing citizenship and passports – without fees – for any individual who can trace their lineage to a German Jew living in Germany before Hitler’s purges.

    The “we will leave the USA” comment came from the parents now long dead. The children – my classmates – are now older adults with adult children.

    I am informed that their extended family has now secured German Passports (they speak no German) for all their family members. This allows their children and descendants to move freely and work throughout the European Union. Although the grandparents came in with only the clothes on their backs, the descendants are now multi millionaires. They grew up in the Bay Area. These German Passports will come in handy. And their money is being diversified also. My generation of these friends went to public schools K-University, but their later generations go to private k-12 and Ivy League.

    Funny how things work out.

    An important difference between my Jewish classmates and the Whites I know (including white immigrants). The Whites are arming themselves, and taking their kids to ranges. My Jewish friends do not have a single gun in their homes. Virtually all my non-jewish friends do especially blacks,. including elderly.

    Funny how things work out. Good luck telling other people what to do and what to do with their children’s education and associations. People do have feet, you know.

    Brave New World.

  • Doug Appel


    What a great project based learning activity for your students! Relevant to their experiences and engaging to them on an everyday level. Well done!

  • zinnia

    What do your students think about no Certificated School Counselors at Skyline? What do they think about the conflict of interest when administrators responsible to provide disciplinary action are also expecting to gain the trust of students to address their emotional/social/school related and family concerns? Not being snide….I hope your students are looking into this.

  • Works at Oakland School

    Per post #5, Look at the private schools’ course offerings and then look at Skyline’s – oh wait, you can’t because their website has no information on it. Don’t you think a parent would wonder what kind of classes their kids would be taking? Instead of spending the money to send a teacher to Finland, why not start with fixing up the website? I am sure the Finnish system could be researched from California just as well.

  • Katy Murphy

    I believe Dave said he raised the money to go to Finland.

  • J.R.

    While that may be true that money was raised, substitutes cost real money and the flow of learning of the classroom is disrupted to an extent.

  • Nextset

    The average IQ of the Finns seems to be given at 98-100 from the online articles on the subject roughly the same number as US Whites) . It’s interesting the countries with higher averages – remember, IQ by itself isn’t everything in socioeconomics as long as it is high enough to support civilization. You can find your own number for the number for a minimal civilization by looking at the long list of national averages and deciding where you want to draw the line. Some people would use a measure of indoor toilets and paved roads and such to find that sweet spot. Others would use mortality tables. To each his own.

    There is another quality that allows the 100 avg IQ American whites and other groups to consistently outperform higher IQ Asians in Science and Technology, % of households with toilets or what have you. The G Factor…


    High IQ (above 125??) can have it’s own kind of toxicity. It is good for many things while being a liability in others. Funny how that works. Maybe it takes all kinds in correct proportion.

    Back to the thread. Studying the Finns might tell you something of how to manage a white school district like Medford OR or the like. It will no more help managing Oakland black public school students than importing welfare policy from Scandinavia to the slums of Chicago in the ’60s.

    The Finns do not manage a distinct population within their society with an average IQ of 85, a standard deviation below the majority average. Other nations do. Try Malaysia which is a more diverse population. Or Singapore. Or any other diverse multicultural developed society. Now how do they run their schools?

    Apples and Oranges.

    By refusing to acknowledge this, the “researchers” involved here quite simply are willing to do harm and not good. Our you could put it as a willingness to do evil. There is a reason why someone would try to pass a Finland educational policy study on clueless people here in setting educational policy, and that reason is not wholesome.

    Brave New World.