Lessons From Finland

There is basic agreement worldwide that Finland has one of the top education systems anywhere.  Hundreds of educators from the United States have gone to Finland in search of their secrets.  (Former state superintendent Tommy Bice being one of them.)

In large part what they have found is a system that is about 180 degrees from what we do in this country.  For one thing, educators there are held in very high esteem by the general public.  They are considered to be equal to other professionals in other fields.  It is not easy to become a teacher in Finland.  Most who try are turned away.  Teachers receive extensive training and once they enter the classroom are given great latitude to do what they know is best for their students.

Finland does not worship at the alter of accountability (standardized testing) as we do.  They understand that teachers have little control over the majority of factors that impact student performance.

Pasi Sahlberg of Finland is a noted education authority.  In this article he details three fallacies that tend to drive education policy in too many places–including the U.S.  Here are excerpts:

The first belief is that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” This statement became known in education policies through the influential McKinsey & Company report titled How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top. Although the report takes a broader view on enhancing the status of teachers by better pay and careful recruitment this statement implies that the quality of an education system is defined by its teachers. By doing this, the report assumes that teachers work independently from one another. But teachers in most schools today, in the United States and elsewhere, work as teams when the end result of their work is their joint effort.

The role of an individual teacher in a school is like a player on a football team: all teachers are vital, but the culture of the school is even more important for the quality of the school. Team sports offer numerous examples of teams that have performed beyond expectations because of leadership, commitment and spirit. Take the U.S. ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, when a team of college kids beat both Soviets and Finland in the final round and won the gold medal. The quality of Team USA certainly exceeded the quality of its players. So can an education system.

The second fallacy is that “the most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers.”  This is the driving principle of former D.C. schools chancellor Michele Rhee and many other “reformers” today. This false belief is central to the “no excuses” school of thought. If  a teacher was the most important single factor in improving quality of education, then the power of a school would indeed be stronger than children’s family background or peer influences in explaining student achievement in school.

Research on what explains students’ measured performance in school remains mixed. A commonly used conclusion is that 10% to 20% of the variance in measured student achievement belongs to the classroom, i.e., teachers and teaching, and a similar amount is attributable to schools, i.e., school climate, facilities and leadership. In other words, up to two-thirds of what explains student achievement is beyond the control of schools, i.e., family background and motivation to learn.

The third fallacy is that “If any children had three or four great teachers in a row, they wouldsoar academically, regardless of their racial or economic background, while those who have a sequence of weak teachers will fall further and further behind”. This theoretical assumption is included in influential policy recommendations, for instance in “Essential Elements of Teacher Policy in ESEA: Effectiveness, Fairness and Evaluation” by the Center for American Progress to the U.S. Congress. Teaching is measured by the growth of student test scores on standardized exams.

This assumption presents a view that education reform alone could overcome the powerful influence of family and social environment mentioned earlier. It insists that schools should get rid of low-performing teachers and then only hire great ones. This fallacy has the most practical difficulties. The first one is about what it means to be a great teacher. Even if this were clear, it would be difficult to know exactly who is a great teacher at the time of recruitment. The second one is, that becoming a great teacher normally takes five to ten years of systematic practice. And determining the reliably of ‘effectiveness’ of any teacher would require at least five years of reliable data. This would be practically impossible.

Alabama taxpayers are about to spend probably hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend Governor Bentley in a civil law suit brought on my his own actions.  In other words, you and I will spend our tax money to defend the governor’s actions as a private citizen.

We would get much greater return on our investment to send some legislators to Finland to learn how they do education.




Sorry, comments are closed for this post.