What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?

Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg is one of the world’s leading experts on school reform and the author of the best-selling “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?” In this piece he writes about whether the emphasis that American school reformers put on “teacher effectiveness” is really the best approach to improving student achievement.

Many governments are under political and economic pressure to turn around their school systems for higher rankings in the international league tables. Education reforms often promise quick fixes within one political term. Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Finland are commonly used models for the nations that hope to improve teaching and learning in their schools. In search of a silver bullet, reformers now turn their eyes on teachers, believing that if only they could attract “the best and the brightest” into the teaching profession, the quality of education would improve.

“Teacher effectiveness” is a commonly used term that refers to how much student performance on standardized tests is determined by the teacher. This concept hence applies only to those teachers who teach subjects on which students are tested. Teacher effectiveness plays a particular role in education policies of nations where alternative pathways exist to the teaching profession.

In the United States, for example, there are more than 1,500 different teacher-preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Singapore and Finland only one academically rigorous teacher education program is available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor South Korea has fast-track options into teaching, such as Teach for America or Teach First in Europe. Teacher quality in high-performing countries is a result of careful quality control at entry into teaching rather than measuring teacher effectiveness in service.

In recent years the “no excuses”’ argument has been particularly persistent in the education debate. There are those who argue that poverty is only an excuse not to insist that all schools should reach higher standards. Solution: better teachers. Then there are those who claim that schools and teachers alone cannot overcome the negative impact that poverty causes in many children’s learning in school. Solution: Elevate children out of poverty by other public policies.

For me the latter is right. In the United States today, 23 percent of children live in poor homes. In Finland, the same way to calculate child poverty would show that figure to be almost five times smaller. The United States ranked in the bottom four in the recent United Nations review on child well-being. Among 29 wealthy countries, the United States landed second from the last in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in “child life satisfaction.” Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.

[readon2 url=""]Continue reading...[/readon2]

Teachers Around the World No Longer “Asking For Permission”

In conversations about Finland’s stunning success over the past decade, many education leaders look at what makes the system work so well – the high bar for entry into the teaching profession, the absence of standardized tests, the embedded professional development and support systems, to name just a few – and ask “Why can’t we do this in my country?” But what makes Finland even more unique is that education policy is largely free of politics. Whether it’s the status and prestige of teachers or the problem of educational inequity, these are matters on which politicians on the right and left agree.

But that’s Finland. Where does that leave so many other countries, including the United States, whose national conversation over education is tarnished by divisive, partisan politics and competing interests? How can public education advocates cut through the noise of grandstanding politicians and bad research and lead in transforming the teaching profession?

It’s time for the public to stop listening to those who have never been in front of a classroom and who espouse ideas that undermine public education, says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

“You have to remember that many people who are talking about reform are not really talking about education, as in what’s really works for teachers and their students. Their interest is something else – privatization, for example. We know what works and we need to be out front.”

“The status quo is not acceptable,” Van Roekel said. “And we can change it. But the idea now is for educators to stop asking for permission.”

[readon2 url=""]Continue reading...[/readon2]

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success

Everyone agrees the United States needs to improve its education system dramatically, but how? One of the hottest trends in education reform lately is looking at the stunning success of the West's reigning education superpower, Finland. Trouble is, when it comes to the lessons that Finnish schools have to offer, most of the discussion seems to be missing the point.

The small Nordic country of Finland used to be known -- if it was known for anything at all -- as the home of Nokia, the mobile phone giant. But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life -- Newsweek ranked it number one last year -- and Finland's national education system has been receiving particular praise, because in recent years Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world.

Finland's schools owe their newfound fame primarily to one study: the PISA survey, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are still near the very top. Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States has been middling, at best.

Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model -- long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization -- Finland's success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland to visit schools and talk with the nation's education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media marveling at the Finnish miracle.

So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Earlier this month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit received national media attention and generated much discussion.

And yet it wasn't clear that Sahlberg's message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.

[readon2 url=""]Continue reading...[/readon2]

Guest Post: Proposed education reforms misguided

To the Editor:

More and more we hear assertions that our schools are failing. There are also increasing comparisons between education systems in the US and Finland, with specific attention to the 2009 results of PISA where Finland scored first or second in math, reading and science. Consequently, there are some who believe we should be competing with them and that we can learn from the Finnish model.

Others think that through changes with charter schools, teacher evaluation, school funding, common standards, student assessment and school choice that we can improve our international test scores and student achievement. Many are advocating for the implementation of elements of the Finnish model and these reforms.

However, these beliefs are quite contradictory and two key points are problematic. First, the reforms fly in the face of the foundations of Finland’s education system. Second, the reforms and increased accountability measures do not address the larger national issue of poverty and its impact on student achievement.

A central focus of the Finnish system is the priority on local innovation and absence of standardized testing. Actual teaching time in Finland is among the lowest in the world and teachers spend more time planning and collaborating than many school systems. Their school days are shorter and students study less at home. Becoming a teacher in Finland is a privilege; in fact, less than 10% of applicants become teachers.

Conversely, the U.S. is stuck in conflict between an impetus for 21st century instruction and a spotlight on standardized testing and common curriculum. By definition, “standardization” and “common” actually inhibit innovation and creativity. In many parts of the U.S. the trend is towards extended school days, increased teaching time and significant amounts of homework. And while teacher quality is an enduring issue with calls for improved performance and preparation, we are in the midst of layoffs and waning resources for teacher training and development. We are making teaching less attractive and more difficult to foster success.

A second problem with the direction of educational reform is that it appears less attention is paid to the negative effects on student performance of family poverty and concentrations of poverty in schools. Iris Rothberg of George Washington University claims the assumption that accountability, school choice, and common standards will solve our education problems is off-base.

Our schools are not failing. In the U.S., socioeconomic status of students accounted for almost 80% of the difference in reading performance between schools on the PISA. When examined separately, affluent schools in the U.S. scored among the best in the world.

I agree with Rothberg that current policy deliberations touch the periphery of these realities and that tougher accountability and test score comparisons will not address the problems of poverty and our country’s divide. Historically, accountability measures have not resulted in meaningful improvements in student learning.

Despite this, we illogically continue developing new policies not employed and often discouraged by countries such as Finland whose results we seek to emulate. While there is nothing wrong with holding professionals accountable for performance standards, what we really need is to reposition conversations and focus actions on the real targets; implementing known, proven practices and addressing issues of poverty.