JACKSON TWP — For the past four years, Seneca Valley School District Superintendent Tracy Vitale has spent her free time studying the educational systems of other countries.
Last month, she finally got to see some of those schools in action as part of a weeklong trip to Finland.
Vitale said her interest in global education systems started four years ago, when the state's Department of Education created an academy for district superintendents. The focus was on poverty and how educators could better support children facing it.
The National Institute for School Leadership program also looked at how economic factors affected school districts and how the districts also could affect the economy.
The findings also were compared to international school systems, and aimed to make sure every child was given an opportunity, regardless of their background and economic status.
Vitale was one of 70 participants in that academy, serving for three years.
During that time, she studied Finland “extensively,” as it was consistently rated at the top of international education system rankings.
She said the program was “tough but rewarding,” and also led her to compare the national and international data to Seneca Valley.
Earlier this summer, Vitale was offered a chance to participate in a program studying schools in Finland and Estonia. She jumped at the chance, and was one of 26 educators nationwide — and the only public school representative from Pennsylvania — to make the trip in July.
“I was pretty excited about that, and honored,” she said of her selection for the trip, which was paid for through a scholarship.
While in Finland, the group spent time talking with educators and government officials and went through training and courses. She said some teachers she spoke with had a background in both American and Finnish education systems, which provided perspective on their differences.
Vitale noted that education is highly valued in Finland, with public schools completely funded by the government. She said taxes there are high, but those she spoke with said they didn't mind paying them due to the return on investment to education. Additionally, teaching is regarded as one of the most sought-after and respected careers in the country.
Free meals are provided to every student each school day, which Vitale said is shorter than the American school day. She said adolescent sleep research began much sooner in Finland, with findings leading officials to start the day later — around 9:30 a.m. — and finish by 2 p.m.
The school day also is different, with block scheduling alternating from 90-minute classes to 15-minute breaks. “They're serious about their breaks,” Vitale said.
Vitale also pointed to the way the education system is structured. Students in kindergarten are not taught academics, and instead the focus is on social cooperativeness and how to work and get along with others. Students are not assigned homework throughout their education.
Until the age of 15, students do not take tests. The first test they take is an aptitude analysis that determines their next course of action. Some will begin college preparation courses, while others will attend technical school. It's a 50/50 split, Vitale said.
Students are also given an option to quit school altogether, although Vitale said students she spoke with indicated they did not know of any of their peers who had done so. “They know (education) is so important,” she said.
Vitale said the experience was “life changing,” and that she'd love to see some of those concepts implemented in the United States.
However, she acknowledged it isn't as simple as “pulling and plugging” concepts and having them work successfully. She said because Finland is a smaller country, progress inherently happens much faster. “They can move the ship a little quicker there,” she said. “Education in any country is basically a reflection of our cultural norms. We're looking at how can we be a change agent.”
Vitale said that change already can be seen in the district, where officials are working to figure out how to implement a block-style schedule. She said districts are required by the state to provide a specific amount of classroom time, which is complicating the process.
However, she cited the district's later start times as an example of change occurring.
Last year, the district adjusted schedules so that students started later. Teachers work a “regular” day and use the extra time for professional development, as do the teachers in Finland, Vitale said.
She said it took five years of planning and adjusting cultural norms, but the results have been noticeable.
She said such concepts as problem-based learning and focusing on real-world skills are proving to be helpful in addressing the various ways students learn, and making sure every student has their needs met.
“I'm focused on ... preparing kids in the Seneca Valley School District ... to compete with kids globally,” she said.