Lessons For Alabama From Finland

For some time Finland has been acknowledged as one of the world’s best education school systems.  The leading ambassador for Finnish schools is Pasi Sahlberg.  He has been a teacher, researcher and policy advisor in his native country.  The author of books and numerous articles, most recently he is a visiting professor at Harvard University.

He was in Birmingham on Oct. 11 to speak at a UAB education “summit” sponsored by the Goodrich Foundation.  (I did not attend because I was unaware of the event.)

But Dan Carsen, reporter for WBHM in Birmingham was there and you can get his full report here.

Here are highlights of Sahlberg’s remarks, most of which fly in the face of what we are being encouraged to do in Alabama by groups such as the Business Council of Alabama.

Several decades ago, Finland’s education system was considered mediocre. But starting around 2001, it came to be regarded as a powerhouse, usually at or near the top of the world’s nations on internationally normed tests.

How? And can those strategies work in Alabama?

Funny Thing Is, They’re American Ideas 

Goodrich Foundation Education Director and former Alabama superintendent Tommy Bice introduced Sahlberg and touched on what would be a main theme of the event. “We’re the only country not following our own research,” said Bice.

Sahlberg continued, “we know so much about what works,” thanks in part to research done in the U.S. “It seems other nations are better at implementing American ideas than America is.”

Those Ideas

Sahlberg first explained several approaches that he says, according to research, do not improve schools. One was education designed around the concept of competition, as if education were a business. He attributed this organizing principle — particularly in the U.S. — to “a corporate mindset that began taking over in the 1980s and 1990s.” He includes Alabama’s “aggressive charter school movement” in that trend.

(Here is the web site for BCA’s Business Education Alliance.  Click on “About Us” to see positions they promote that are contrary to what works in Finland.)

He critiqued the “anyone who’s got passion can teach,” “fast-track” approach to school staffing in general, and Teach For America “with its five-week training program” in particular. He’s worried about “the de-professionalization of teaching” in America, which he thinks is both cause and symptom of U.S. teachers’ lack of prestige. Finally, he said privatization of schools or school systems simply does not improve student learning.

On the other hand, what long-term research does show to work, he says, is cooperation, trust, and creative freedom among teachers – the opposite of what’s fostered when merit pay is based on student test scores. Sahlberg favors a Finnish-style system where principals “have a little pocket money” and discretion to reward teachers for their overall work with students.

But the U.S. Is Not “Broken”

Despite a video Sahlberg played in which Donald Trump said America spends more on education than anyone else but gets poor results for it, the U.S. is actually about average among wealthy nations in terms of international test scores.

Sahlberg put it like this: “You’re not great, but you’re not bad either. You’re spending less money, but you’re still average despite high degrees of division and inequity.”

Lessons One through Four

However, “schools must be funded fairly,” said Sahlberg, starting on a list of four main recommendations. “Alabama needs fairer funding. You need ‘positive discrimination’ – more resources to schools with more difficult circumstances.”

The second: “Teachers must work together” and have real control over their days. Lesson Three gleaned from decades of international research: “Children must play. It breaks my heart that so many kids today in America have no recess during the school day.” Fourthly and finally, “Healthy students make better learners. We need to think of the health and happiness of the child as part of education policy. We need to teach healthy living as a skill. And not just in one middle-school class.”

He pointed out that large numbers of U.S. students miss school because of toothaches. In Finland, he says, that’s unheard of because dental care is part of school. “If you don’t have [health care] in schools,” he says, “I don’t see how America can be great.”

Of course, Stalberg is only an educator.  The very people our politicians and members of the state board of education ignore.

2 Responses to Lessons For Alabama From Finland