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.

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Teachers and Policy Makers: Troubling Disconnect

Can the school reform movement accept constructive criticism? Gary Rubinstein hopes so. Mr. Rubinstein joined Teach for America in 1991, the program’s second year, and has now been teaching math for 15 years, five of them in some of the nation’s neediest public schools and 10 more at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He has a bachelor’s degree in math and a master’s in computer science, has written two books on classroom practice and at one point helped train new corps members for Teach for America. For years, he was a proponent of the program, albeit one with the occasional quibble.

Then, in 2010, Mr. Rubinstein underwent a sea change. As he grew suspicious of some of the data used to promote charter schools, be became critical of Teach for America and the broader reform movement. (The education scholar Diane Ravitch famously made a similar shift around this time.)

Mr. Rubinstein, who knows how to crunch numbers, noticed that, at many charter schools student test scores and graduation rates didn’t always add up to what the schools claimed. He was also alarmed by what he viewed as misguided reforms like an overreliance on crude standardized tests that measure students’ yearly academic “growth” and teacher performance. Mr. Rubinstein, who favors improving schools and evaluating teachers, says using standardized test scores might seem “like a good idea in theory.” But he also thinks the teacher ratings based on the scores are too imprecise and subject to random variation to be a reliable basis for high-stakes hiring and firing decisions.

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Obama's 2nd term plan for education

In a newly published policy brochure, the President outlines his second term plan for education

President Obama’s plan for America’s future: Highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 so we can compete and win in the 21st Century economy:

1. Cutting tuition growth in half over the next ten years. We can make college more affordable by continuing tax credits to help middle-class families afford college tuition, doubling the number of work-study jobs and creating incentives for schools to keep tuition down.

2. Recruiting and preparing 100,000 math and science teachers. We can out-compete China and Germany by out-educating them. The STEM Master Teacher Corps and investments in research and innovation into the best ways to teach math and science will help improve math and science education nationwide.

3. Strengthen public schools in every community. Because we can’t compete for jobs of the future without educating our children, we must prevent teacher layoffs. We also must expand Race to the Top to additional school districts willing to take on bold reform. The President will offer states committed to reform relief from the worst mandates of No Child Left Behind, like incentives to teach to the test, so they can craft local solutions.

4. Train 2 million workers for good jobs that actually exist through partnerships between businesses and community colleges.

Education News for 09-05-2012

State Education News

  • Temple creates enrichment program for home-school families (Lima News)
  • A new program at Temple Christian School will offer opportunities for home-schooled children that aren’t as easy to come by at home…Read more...

  • Hunger in the classroom a growing trend (WKYC)
  • A new study that included Ohio found that teachers are reporting many of their students are hungry…Read more...

Local Education News

  • Carroll works on energy savings (Dayton Daily News)
  • A recent energy conservation project is putting Carroll High School in the spotlight. The Catholic school is the first in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati…Read more...

  • Mansfield City Schools celebrate 'turnaround' (Mansfield News Journal)
  • The Mansfield City Schools Board of Education offered reflection and exhilaration…Read more...

  • Perrysburg Public Service Director Jon Eckel retires, rehired under new policy (Toledo Blade)
  • The public hearing on Perrysburg Public Service Director Jon Eckel's retirement was quick Tuesday, lasting only a few seconds, without any public outcry -- as quiet as the ensuing hearing about his rehiring…Read more...

  • Teen Behind Cryptic Video To Be Released, Bomb Squad Checks School (WBNS)
  • A teenager accused of making a video that other parents and students deemed threatening was in juvenile court…Read more...


  • Ohio welcomes Teach for America (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
  • Just as Gov. John Kasich promised in his State of the State address in 2011, Teach for America graduates finally can teach in Ohio. So far, about 50 are assigned…Read more...

  • Ditching private schools (Los Angeles Times)
  • A study released last week by the libertarian Cato Institute showed that students are transferring in unexpectedly large numbers from private schools to charter schools…Read more...

Education News for 03-08-2012

Statewide Education News

  • Voters were sympathetic to schools’ levy requests (Dispatch)
  • Ohio voters approved 75 percent of the tax requests for schools in Tuesday’s primary, the highest passage rate in nearly 12 years. Not since the November 2000 general election have voters approved three-fourths of school levies. In Westerville and other parts of the state, voters opened their wallets in the wake of sweeping cuts in state aid to schools last year, which triggered teacher layoffs and reductions in academic programs, transportation services and extracurricular activities. Read More…

  • Teachers Speak Out Against SB5-Like Proposal (ONN)
  • CINCINNATI - Ohio educators spoke out on Wednesday about what they called the first step in a statewide threat to revive Senate Bill 5, ONN’s Denise Alex reported. “Together Works Better” was the message a coalition, led by the Ohio Federation Of Teachers, wanted to get across to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and others wanting to run schools and limit collective bargaining rights of unions. Melissa Cropper is president of the Ohio Federation Of Teachers. Read More…

  • iPad learning (Marietta Times)
  • Five-year-old Sophie Hutchinson certainly knows her way around the iPad. Quick to display her prowess with one of the hottest technological gadgets, Hutchinson has everything from math games to painting down pat. And she's not the only youngster like that. Technology like the iPad is becoming more and more prevalent among children as young as toddlers, and it's altering the educational outlook for their generation. Read More…

  • Voters pass 75 percent of Ohio's school levies; 5 out of 6 pass in Cuyahoga County (Plain Dealer)
  • CLEVELAND — Public school officials across Ohio woke up smiling Wednesday following a long election night that saw voters approve school levies in higher numbers than they had in several years. Statewide, there were 110 public school money issues on Tuesday's ballot. Eighty-one passed. While many of the state's races were nail-bitters -- more than a third of those that won did so with less than 250 votes -- school officials said that voters seemed to understand the impact of dramatic declines in revenue from property taxes, ongoing state budget cuts and the phase-out of Ohio's tangible personal property tax, which taxes business inventory and equipment. Read More…

Local Issues

  • Teach For America debuts in Dayton this fall (Dayton Daily News)
  • DAYTON — Three Dayton charter schools or systems have signed on for Teach For America’s debut in Ohio this fall, part of the organization’s three-year commitment to place 90 teachers in southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky. The Dayton Early College Academy, Dayton Leadership Academy and National Heritage Academies are among six charter schools or systems and two districts that will partner with TFA, said Ben Lindy, executive director for Teach For America-Southwest Ohio. Read More…

  • Suit demands data on city schools’ use of ‘seclusion rooms’ (Dispatch)
  • A mother says her son, who is autistic, was terrified when he was left in a “seclusion room” at his Columbus high school. The 18-year-old stripped naked and urinated. A state agency that protects people with disabilities wants to investigate but says the Columbus school district has blocked its attempts. The Ohio Legal Rights Service sued the district in federal court on Monday, seeking records to show how often — and why — school employees isolate students in the cell-like rooms. Read More…

  • New-money school taxes fare well statewide but poorly in Akron-Canton area (Beacon Journal)
  • The 53 percent statewide passage rate for new school taxes in Tuesday’s election — 30 of 57 — was the highest percentage since at least 2003, according to the Ohio School Boards Association. “We had about 81 out of the 110 issues pass [Tuesday],” OSBA spokesman Jeff Chambers said. But voters in only one school district in the Akron-Canton area approved new money: the Triway district in Wayne County, which easily passed a 0.75 percent earned income tax. Read More…

  • Southwest Licking Schools serious about saving energy (Newark Advocate)
  • PATASKALA - Southwest Licking Local Schools intends to craft an energy policy to save money on its utility costs. The board recently voted to hire Johnson Controls -- the move temporarily is on hold until the district's attorney reviews the contract -- to perform an energy audit that will highlight ways to save on utility bills, not just in every district building but in every district classroom. Southwest Licking will pay $46,000 in the first year of the five-year contract for the service, but Johnson Controls is guaranteeing the district will realize at least $67,000 in annual savings. Read More…

  • Carlisle to consider cuts following school issue defeat (Middletown Journal)
  • CARLISLE — The day after a combined bond issue and income tax increase failed for a second straight time, Superintendent Larry Hook said the Carlisle Local School District has little option but to proceed with budget cuts. Voters on Tuesday again defeated a bond issue that would have generated $28.1 million and a 0.75 percent income tax increase that would bring in $1.3 million annually for operations. The monies raised from the bond issue would have been combined with $29.8 million from the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission to build a new K-12 facility. Read More…

  • Teen held in high-school hit-list case (Dispatch)
  • A Licking County high-school student, who was arrested after authorities say she wrote a hit-list in a school bathroom on Monday, is being evaluated to see whether she’s a danger to herself or others. Sierra K. Bruner, 17, appeared in juvenile court yesterday afternoon, and a court-appointed attorney entered denials — the juvenile equivalent of a not-guilty plea — to two felony juvenile charges of inducing panic, one felony juvenile count of making a false alarm and one misdemeanor juvenile charge of criminal damaging. She originally faced one count of inducing panic. Read More…

  • Teach for America recruits to work for Cleveland charter schools this fall (Plain Dealer)
  • CLEVELAND - Fifty or more recruits from Teach for America will be in Cleveland-area classrooms this fall, the program announced Wednesday. They will teach at charter schools operated by Breakthrough Schools, Constellation Schools, I CAN Schools and Mosaica Education. Partnership agreements with more schools are likely to be added as discussions continue, said Mike Wang, a senior vice president in charge of expanding the national program. In addition, another 30 or so recruits will work in the Cincinnati and Dayton regions. Read More...

What Teachers Want


  • An end to the teacher blame game.
  • Administrators who have at least ten years of actual teaching experience.
  • Involved, competent parents.
  • Adequately funded schools.
  • Input regarding curriculum decisions (and the input is actually followed).
  • Flexibility when it comes to methodology.
  • Administrative support in matters of discipline.
  • An end to the “teach to the test mentality”.
  • Acknowledgement that teaching involves so much more than test scores.
  • Acknowledgement that as a teaching professional, teachers might actually know what’s best for the students.

Feel free to add to the list in the comments!