Imagine that 25 years ago that nation’s schools were below international averages in math and sciences
Imagine that nation had large differences between schools with affluent students versus those with poorer students
Imagine that nation now has almost no difference in performance between schools with affluent students and those with poorer students
Imagine in that nation teachers are so respected that the best students compete to become teachers, not just for two years, but for a career
Imagine that that nation’s schools are now internationally respected
Imagine that our nation might actually be able to learn from what that nation has done
Stop imagining. I’m talking about Finland, as you can read in a piece in today’s Boston Globe, by Pasi Sahlberg, titled Learning from Finland and subtitled
Sahlberg is now director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. Previously he served as a Washington-based World Bank education specialist. Having lived in the US, he is well-aware of the problems of the US educational system. He is also knowledgeable about international comparisons of schools, for example, the recent PISA (The Program for International Student Assessment) by OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), in which yet again Finland was the top ranked nation (ignore the results from Shanghai, which are (a) not typical of China, and (b) where students spend several hours daily in intensive test preparation AFTER a full day of school). Finland was also highly ranked in a international study by McKinsey and Company.
Finland used to have serious problems in school performance, as Sahlberg acknowledges.
Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable – students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what’s being tried in the United States.
The Finns examined what other countries were doing, and as Sahlberg also writes
The secret of Finnish educational success is that in the 20th century Finns studied and emulated such advanced nations as Sweden, Germany, and the United States. Finns adopted some education policies from elsewhere but also avoided mistakes made by these leading education performers.
We’ll talk about the mistakes Finland is avoiding shortly.
First, some argue that Finland is nowhere near as diverse as the US. Sahlberg acknowledges that is true, but also points out that it is becoming increasingly diverse in recent years, with the implication that the additional diversity is not affecting the performance of its schools. Further, as many have pointed out Finland has a far lower level of childhood poverty than does the US, well under 5%b as compared to ours at more than 20%. Yet in Finland differences between schools with substantial numbers of poor children – primarily in rural areas – now perform as well as those with more affluent students in the urban areas. Sahlberg refers to the results of the most recent PISA, where
The best school systems are the most equitable – students do well regardless of their socio-economic background.
There are some real differences in the approach that Finland took to achieve the results which now rank it so highly. For example,
Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do.
How do politicians and administrators determine how well schools are doing? They turn to
sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work.
There is also a culture where parents think teachers who work closely with them “are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.”
And teachers are respected.
Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers.
Stop there for a moment and consider how different our approach is here. We have a well-established pattern of denigrating public schools and teachers. We have notable voices – Bill Gates, for example – arguing that teachers getting advanced degrees is a waste of time and resources. We have a concerted effort to delegitimize public schools, with moves for vouchers, charter schools run by for profit organizations, hedge funds seeing how turning to charters can lead to profits for their investors, etc. Yet Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. Of course, we also don’t trust the police in the US, which may indicate some real cultural differences that do not work to our advantage.
There is another important difference from what we have been seeing, because in Finland
School principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community.
Here we have the newly announced initiative of the George W. Bush institute to train 50,000 people with no prior educational work experience as principals running school, we have the effort5s of Eli Broad and others to take business executives and train them as superintendents running district. At a more basic level, we have a variety of programs, of which Teach for America is the most notable, giving young people 5 weeks of intensive training and then placing them in classrooms, with a commitment that is not required to be longer than 2 years. I might add to what Sahlberg writes that in Finland it takes about 2 years of training under decreasing levels of supervision and increasing assumption of responsibility before one is fully responsible for her own classroom.
Sahlberg offers some suggestion for what the US could learn from the Finns. He argues strongly against using choice and competition as drivers for educational improvement, noting
None of the best-performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation – not choice and competition – can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.
He also notes that Finland provides teacher candidates with a government-paid university education – remember that most teacher candidates in this nation have to pay for their own education which can leave them with substantial debt before they begin to earn incomes. Finland provides more support when they move into their classrooms and treats teaching as a respected profession. As he notes,
As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent in the United States is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.
Please, note carefully the words teaching as a lifelong career. Two years as a means of enhancing one’s resume for other purposes is not the same thing, and does not benefit either the students being taught or the nation as a whole, despite news coverage to the contrary.
Sahlberg is blunt – he tells us that “Americans should admit that there is much to learn” from the educational systems of nations like Finland behind whom the US now lags. He thinks it is possible, closing with these words:
With America’s “can do” mentality and superior knowledge base in educational improvement, you could shift course before it’s too late.
Let me add one other difference between Finland and the US that Sahlberg does not address. The teaching force in Finland is 100% unionized. Unionization is not in and of itself an obstacle to excellence in education. We should remind those who seek to use things like America lagging in comparisons like PISA not to use unions as an excuse, especially when states with unionized teaching and general work forces tend to outperform schools in right to work states.
The role of unions is different, to be sure. The culture is different, and not just in the respect given unions in Finland, including teachers unions.
Not only does Finland not have the high degree of childhood poverty we have in the US, they also have a far more substantial social safety net, starting with income security for families and medical care for all, two things sorely lacking in this nation.
Thus while I strongly advise we listen to what Salhberg has to offer us about how we can reform our schools, we should also bear in mind that we will not fix all the problems of learning until we are also willing to address the continuing inequities in this nation. Fixing the schools will be insufficient. I note that at a conference earlier this year Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute said that we would be better served taking the money that we could spend reducing the principal/teacher ratio to a reasonable level where you could evaluate teachers, and get much more bang for the buck by taking that money and building a health clinic in schools such as those in inner cities. Rothstein was addressing just one part of the impact that economic inequity has upon students that schools as they are currently constructed cannot address.
Still, I think we can learn from Finland, probably more so than we can from a China or a Korea, both of which are struggling to to change the direction of their schooling away from the test centric places they have been, ironically at the same time that we are going in the wrong direction.
I began by asking you to imagine a nation with excellent schools.
Now I make the same suggestion as does Sahlberg, that we seriously attempt to learn from what Finland has achieved in the past 25 years.
Imagine what we might be able to do with our schools.