Save the plane fare to Finland. Go to Montana!

Yes, I am a fanatic for Finland, the Land of Common Sense and Good Schools that rejects Toxic Testing, privatization and de-professionalism. But it’s expensive to visit. And you need a passport. And time to fly over the Atlantic Ocean. And it’s really cold. I have a suggestion. Drive to Helena, Montana.

Montana has proven to me that if you keep your eyes on the prize of Serious School Improvements, and if you resist the crazy crop of “reformers” on the right and left who are easily enamored with the sales pitches of privateers and the Big Tests for Big Profits Lobby, your students will shine like the Northern Lights that glow over Helsinki.

I visited Helena at the invitation of MEA-MFT (NEA’s state affiliate in Montana) and their president, Eric Feaver. The man is a shameless showoff, but we forgive him because he has something quite wonderful of which to be proud.


For years, MEA-MFT has fought back privatization, standardization and de-professionalism that creeps up like crabgrass wherever politicians gather. Eric and his activists have brought together educators, public employees, parents and communities to really look at what works for students. Montana is famous for Yellowstone and Uncommon Common Sense. His tireless efforts have borne fruit. And Montana’s students are the apple of his eye.

I met with the teachers, support professionals and the principal of Bryant Elementary. Bryant is a Title One School, which in Edu-Jargon means that most of the students come from families who struggle financially. However, Bryant is referred to as a “high-performing” Title One School. Their students succeed on many indicators. I wanted to find out how they did it.

Lots of Test Prep? Pay by Test Scores? Drill and kill instead of recess, art or P.E.?

None of the above.

I asked this experienced group of professionals, most of whom had served this school community for decades, what was in their secret sauce.

A teacher spoke up immediately and quietly and said, “Compassion.” She told me, “These kids know we love them. They know what we expect of them and what they can expect from us. They know we care.”

Another explained that she led the team that helped develop their positive discipline program. She said that the children are immersed in knowing their part within this caring community where they learn how to respect others and respect themselves as learners.

She said that every adult in the school, the teachers, the lunch ladies, the principal, the custodian, all had a role to play in recognizing the little things that happen in a school day that might go overlooked – a child helping another child pick up a backpack that spilled out; a please or thank you or kind word to someone who needed it.


They believe that building a culture of respect for each other and respect for learning must be the foundation of the learning process. She said, “I guess it looks like we’re spending instructional time on this, but if you get this right, kids are ready to learn. You can’t short cut this.”

Another teacher told me her team worked on community service projects. She said that project-based learning brought relevancy and enthusiasm into the school. The teachers are organizing a giant yard sale. It’s a lot of work. They have to get donations and volunteers and advertise it. They have a goal of raising $1,000. But they plan on only keeping $500 for the school and having the kids decide to which organization in the community they should donate the other $500. They want the kids to investigate who could use their help so that they can learn their power in giving back to their community.

As I walked through the school, I popped my head into one classroom… and saw the principal serving breakfast in the classroom. My teacher guide told me that they all pitched in where needed. And the time they spent letting the kids have a little orange juice and breakfast sandwich was essential to getting kids ready to learn. She said, “Some of these kids didn’t eat last night. They know there’ll be food here. No stigma. Everybody eats. Then everybody’s ready to learn.”

I went to Capital High School. We went to the “shop” class. I put the quotes around it because this is a state of the art welding and mechanical engineering class. These kids are learning how to use cutting edge technology that will prepare them for a number of high-skilled jobs after graduation. They work with unions to make sure they have their qualifications at graduation. College credit. Credentials. Apprenticeships. Before graduation. One young man told me that he could get a good job as a machinist right off the bat, but he planned on going to the university to become a mechanical engineer.

I asked what he was working on as he put a slender metal tube in his machine. “Well, I have a friend who was born without a finger. I’m designing a mechanical prosthesis finger for him. He’ll finally be able to pinch something between his finger and thumb when I’m done.”

He’ll earn college credit and be ready for a dozen jobs or to continue to the university. This is what ready for college and career looks like.

I walked to the gym with the physical education teachers. They showed me the physical education program and how they’ve incorporated smart boards on heart rate and nutrition. They showed me everything from the award-winning wrestling program to their ballroom dance class. Boys and girls both could elect spinning classes (which I learned had nothing to do with wool yarn). They were so proud of the healthy kids who were going to graduate with a real sense of how to stay that way.


And none of this is driven by a standardized test.

Not at Bryant. Not with the future welders, machinists and Freds and Gingers at Capital High.

Their success is measurable and driven by the same elements that drive schools in Finland, Canada and Singapore: Highly prepared and respected career educators who are determined to have their children succeed on many different levels (mind, body and character) and who have the authority to design something that’s meaningful, relevant and personal to the Whole Children in their care.

Ok, before you ask. The test scores of these children are actually pretty good. But not because the district is obsessed with Test & Punish regimens, and not because the teachers are forced to use scripted commercial programs. When you focus on the Whole Child, all kinds of indicators go up! These amazing professionals know that you don’t sacrifice the child to hit the cut score.

Montana was wise to reject privatized franchised charter schools. They were wise to reject the test obsession fad that drains time and resources from real learning. They were wise to focus on deeply prepared, career professionals who aren’t distracted from racing around to catch the testing tail that’s wagging the education dog. Students are succeeding on measures that matter.

Finland is a fine place. Helena is heaven.

23 Responses to “Save the plane fare to Finland. Go to Montana!”

  1. Ann Petitjean

    I knew it! I knew there would be places that were still doing the right thing by their community and children. I sit here in NC worrying every day where the next group of dedicated professionals will come from. I see my colleagues retiring so they can still walk away with love for teaching. Sometimes I feel like Catniss. We are forced into isolation fighting against each other for survival. Thanks Montana for staying strong.

  2. Jo McKim

    Thank you! Thank you Helena educators for doing what is right for your children and your community! Thank you Lily for sharing this inspirational story. We need more classrooms, buildings, districts, and states standing up for the whole child rather than selling out to education profiteers. Stories like this one will hopefully motivate others to stand together to fight the corporate reform that is killing public education.

  3. Gail J

    Such a ray of hope that these schools, with strong support from educators, parents, community, and the state of Montana is getting it! When a new superintendent arrived at my school, she demanded that every staff person be called by their title and full name. My students referred to me as Ms. J, but I had to go into the classroom and explain to them that they could only approach me as Ms. Johnson. When they asked me why I smiled, and said that it was perceived if they did that, that it was a show of respect. I respected and cared for my students, and I felt they respected and cared for me. I find it odd that educational “leaders” rely on titles, test score performance, and bond issues for “success”, while doling out little respect for the day-to-day hard work and humbleness of students and staff. Respect is earned, Honesty is appreciated, Trust is gained, Loyalty is returned. Montana is a bright hope indeed!

  4. Pilar Mejia

    I would like to know more about thier positive discipline process.

  5. Kevin McNamara

    This is what all public schools should be like! WTG. Congrats to HPS and MEA-MFT showing how it’s done

    • Deb

      How do we help change things? Who has the real power? Who do we talk to? What do we sat? I’ve been working for 2 school years to finally get our district to offer the kids two 15 min. recesses instead of only one. That is a step in the write direction, but I want even more for kids. I am given the run around so much it can take so long to even help make a change. Help me know how to encourage the changes we need for the whole-child. What will it take?

  6. Sandra Kernen

    I would like to see Montana’s governor run for President!!

  7. Richard Palzer

    Okay, so what did is the “spinning” class? On a serious note, how are the results “measurable” but not driven by test scores? People are looking for valid ways of measurement, in place of or beyond the controversial standardized tests. It’s certainly not wrong that parents, the community, want results showing progress. We as teachers assess continually–we construct assessment measures that can demonstrate to what degree students grasp what we’ve taught. Let’s put this into pratice more generally. “Teaching to the test” might sound like heresy to educators, but it needn’t be if the “test” actually measures what is learned as we try to do in the classroom. Rather than the continued contentiousness, educators and evaluators should collaborate on devising assessment instruments designed to measure student progress. Over-reliance on standardized tests is a legitimate issue, especially in regard to their punitive use; yet without standardization, there seems no efficient way to judge how students fare in respect to their school-mates, let alone students in other schools. Common Core may well not be the answer, but the intention in devising it seems valuable–a meeting of minds among concerned parties to determine what should be learned and how to measure it. Fix the tests; adjust their use. As the accolades or Finland and Singapore–what do they do? What can we learn?

    • Cheryl

      The skills that they are teaching kids are authentic skills. These kids can get jobs when they are done (an example of a measurable outcome). They are working with local businesses, teachers, parents, etc. to determine what skills they should be teaching. Who better to determine what is needed to teach kids? If they’re happy with the results, that should be enough. Our country is so diverse that local authorities should be in charge of determining what schools will teach. Little by little they’ve managed to take away local control in NYS and nothing good will come of it. We need to start truly thinking about what education should look like in the 21st century. Sounds like Montana has the right idea. Talk about college and career ready!

      In 40 to 50 years since standardized testing began, the US has never done well on them because we teach our kids to be divergent (not standardized) thinkers. It is the reason we have led the world for decades, despite those scores. And if standardized tests are so necessary, why aren’t both public and private schools required to take the same standardized tests (and use the same standards)?

      We want educators to teach in innovative ways, but we want to use standardized testing to measure our kids (let alone use them to score teacher efficacy). Until the tests are developed by educators, instead of corporations that write test convoluted questions, they will mean nothing to me. Particularly because the data from the tests is not shared with teachers until long after the test. Good assessments result in data that helps inform instruction.

      Study after study shows that where there are low scores, there are kids living in poverty. You could take teachers from a highly rated district and replace teachers in a poor performing district and they would likely find scores wouldn’t budge much. However, if we took the money wasted on the testing (and other unfunded mandates) and invested it in programs to help children living in poverty, I believe you would see a shift in students’ ability/willingness to learn.

      Assessments should be valid, fair, ethical and feasible (among other things). Because of the secrecy around the Common Core standardized tests in NYS, no one knows their true validity, let alone the validity of the scores. No one is allowed to talk about the test questions (teachers and students sign a form promising not to speak about the tests). First amendment rights are out the door – if a teacher sees a problem, they can’t talk about it. There have been reports that some test questions are multiple grade levels beyond the level being tested. That’s not ethical. The amount of time wasted administering the current tests is not feasible. Far longer than the older tests. For example, 3rd graders taking tests for an hour and a half over a period of 6 days for ELA and Math is a bit much.

      Get into a school and see what all the unfunded mandates have done to divert money from needed programs and damage public education. If people continue to be armchair quarterbacks where education is concerned without investigating the facts, we will wonder why no one worthwhile wants to teach. NY is already showing a drop in those entering teaching programs…

      You get what you pay for. When the government dips their hands into anything, it never turns out well. From the looks of things in NY, they’re looking to privatize public education because that’s a money maker for the rich. What better way to do that than making a poorly constructed, unverified test that’s nearly impossible for the majority of kids to pass and make teacher evaluations (and their jobs) dependent on those tests?

      Data can be spun to say anything… Changing cut scores, not allowing problems with question to be brought to light; hiring people who are not educators to score tests in some areas of the state in NY; Pearson spying on kids on social media and asking schools in NJ to punish kids who say things about the tests… There’s a lot going on…

      • Cassandra Ott

        Thank you, Lily, for the article, and Cheryl for your comments. Cheryl, you are so right…Standardized tests do not promote innovation, creativity, or true, authentic learning. It is not that there is absolutely no value in them, but their preponderance and misuse are a large part of the problem in education today (see Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap, for examples of how it is a problem). It is an odd coincidence that charter schools (and private schools) are not held to the same accountability standards and do not have any obligation to teach all students (unlike public schools, where we keep all our “blueberries”–if you know that story), all the while diverting funds from public education. Unfortunately, I’m afraid a few politicians are a bit too chummy with those looking to profit from privatization. There is, indeed, a lot going on. But perhaps this story and others will help lift the spirits of those of us promoting the whole child enough for us to speak out and make a difference. We can hope. Maybe the Hope Street Group, along with the NEA, will eventually help.

    • Dina

      Why do they have to be compared to other students?? Let them be challenged by their OWN past scores. Yes, we as teachers need to be accountable for what we do or do not teach, but I it is not our fault that so many students now just simply do not care if they learn what they are being taught. I think this is great how Montana is teaching.

  8. Jennifer Baker

    Lily: When are you going to come out in support of opting out, especially in your home state? Utah teachers are being told that they cannot tell anyone about parental rights to opt out of the testing. We have been threatened with our licenses if we do. That’s even if we talk about it on our own time, or post on our own time, on our own computers. The UEA lawyers have told me that the state is within its rights to take away teacher’s First Amendment rights.

    You rightly decry toxic testing, but you don’t come out for one of the very few things that will stop this testing in its tracks: parental opt out. PLEASE support us.

  9. Sue Cramer

    Utah teacher should have the right to tell parents to opt out of excessive and intimidating testing. NEA should be filing discrimination lawsuit to uphold the First Amendment rights. Contact Democratic Congressional Representatives to help teachers fight for justice in your state. If UEA-Retired don’t need their licenses to sub or teach anymore, get them to tell parents to opt out of tests- because the law allows it- in their communities. We just had Ohio Education Association encouraged legislatures to delay testing score results which would have punished students and teachers’ evaluations.

  10. Tina L. Parker

    Thank you for the inspiring article of the whole-child outlook in Montana. It is definitely what we need in the USA. The testing is very excessive and intimidating to students, parents and teachers. Our children’ education has been sold to the highest bidder for the latest educational fad to make the best test scores and receive a big check that doesn’t benefit the students.

    I would like to know more about their positive discipline program.

  11. Shyra Mulford

    I am curious about the teacher/student ratio.

  12. Nancy Kunsman

    What an inspiration and an example of how education should be conducted. Another reason to visit Montana! Thanks for sharing this story.

  13. Craig Palmtag

    WOW!!! I was in that “shop” class a few years back. My brother & I where asked to speak to the class about the Pipe Trades, which I have been member of for over 40 years with a specialty in welding. I was very impressed with not only the equipment that the students are learning on, the safety that is also being taught, the respect that the students had for their instructor & for each other. They also asked some very good questions about what it was like to be in the trades.
    I have total respect for that instructor also! Not just because he is my nephew but he is an outstanding young person too. GOOD JOB, Jimmy – got ya!

  14. Laura Ferguson

    Hi Lily, I am writing from Helena, Montana, where we have a school facilities bond on the June ballot. One of the problems with this bond is that it gives lots of money to 5 schools to create huge (for us) 4:3 schools that would force the closure of smaller ones. Guess who is first on the chopping block? Yep, Bryant. Our superintendent said in a March meeting with the historic preservation folks (I was there) that he intends to close Bryant in 7-8 years and “redistribute” the poorest kids in town to two or even three other schools. He does not understand issues of poverty and the role that safe, close, walkable neighborhood schools play in neighborhoods where there is a high rate of poverty. He thinks it is ok to bus kids out to wealthier schools where they have no social connections, can’t walk home with friends, etc. Bryant and Broadwater are our two Title I schools, as you know, and both have the worst playgrounds (virtually no shade, fields of deep pea gravel that gets into kids ears, becomes mud it spring & dust in the fall, rashes their shoes, and acts like ball bearings when it gets on the basketball court or sidewalks), but neither one gets even one dime of site improvements in the bond we’ll vote on in June (but the five biggest schools the superintendent favors get 100% of their site improvements paid for, including new playgrounds where they already have great ones). As a community, we’ve suddenly split over this bond and the super is trying, very hard, to downplay its longterm school closure implications (which are very much revealed it both his “vision” for the district and in the extremely lopsided distribution of bond funds.) So, I am so grateful that you visited here recently and had good words to say about Bryant and what a community that small school really is. I only wish our superintendent and trustees understood how important neighborhood schools are, particularly the Title I schools.

  15. Rachellle LaGree

    You only visited 3 settings in one of Montana’s largest cities. It is not the same in rural areas. They struggle to keep up with technology and funding for arts programs as they try to meet ayp. Sorry to say, but our state is not perfect and I believe you were only exposed to a small representation of what might be considered top performing settings. I will agree though that most MT educators I’ve met are full of compassion and that makes a huge difference!

  16. Judith Lloyd Yero

    Rachelle–this isn’t true in all rural Montana areas. I live in the Bitterroot Valley and a few of our small, rural schools have great technology and arts programs. The schools ask the community where they should be spending their funds and I haven’t heard anyone say “to prepare for AYP!” When children are provided with a broad range of opportunities–many of which don’t require extra funding because they take advantage of what is present in the community–the AYP takes care of itself.

    The state superintendent not only dumped the Smarter Balance computerized last year–because they didn’t work half the time and kids had to take the same test several times–but she refused to pay the company for them. And it’s clear that what Lily said about the teachers–and the community–caring about the students is true. The reverse is also true. Just yesterday, there was a story about a girl’s baseball team (12 and 13 year olds) that raised $1000 to pay for the training of four child advocates for the court.

    Certainly, there are areas that need more, but in my opinion, the idea that whatever money is available must be spent on federal mandates rather than children is tantamount to child abuse.


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