Monday, December 27, 2010

Imagine a nation with excellent schools

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 How one of the world’s top educational performers turned around.

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.


Jeff said...

Another great post. Thanks for your work. I agree that it is important for US teachers to emphasize that there other nations we are supposedly trying to compete with are not using the US package of reforms.

One point I think is not emphasized enough in discussions of poverty is the concentration of poverty. I think the effects of concentrated poverty are much more pernicious than poverty in general. A student from a low-income home mixed in with a bunch of middle class kids is probably going to do fine. But in the US we have huge ghettos where virtually everyone is living in poor conditions. Do Finland's 5% of poor people live in a ghetto? I doubt it. This is another issue that the US needs to deal with.

bun2bon said...

Wow. So interesting. I like the "autonomous professional teacher" part. I like it when parents, students, and admin trust me to make the best pedagogical choice for my student's academic needs.

And I like it best of all when it doesn't have to align exactly the same as the teacher next door, who has students that are completely different from mine. Not to mention different teaching styles.

james boutin said...

God, I love this article.

Unknown said...

Vis- a-vis the oft cited Finnish school system.

1) What percent of Finnish college students whose tuition is paid for go into teaching?
2) How many stay in teaching for 2 years? 5 years?
3) What would it cost in America to have new teachers apprentice for two years?
4) What would it cost to pay for future teachers’ undergraduate education?
5) Why don’t those who criticize TFA for 2 year commitment cite their retention data compared to traditional trained teachers? (In Baltimore it is higher.)
6) Are Finnish teachers required to take post graduate training?

Bob Embry

Art said...

Bob ... Some background on Finnish education, including teacher preparation and teaching conditions is here ...


Andrew Jacob said...

After reading your post, i got to know what really missed in my education in America, they simply proved that if you make those institutions to a good living space with social equality, security and provide respectable position in community their are many of high educated people ready to make teaching as their career, really very good one, we can learn much more from Finland to rebuild our education system.

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Stuart Buck said...

I'm not sure that he knows what he's talking about. See

Tryggvi Thayer said...

Stuart Buck, I read your article that you linked to and I think Sahlberg knows more than you think he knows. Sahlberg says in his article, as you quote, that none of the best performing countries taking part in the PISA rely on school choice and competition for school improvement. Yes, as you point out, there are several countries in which there is considerable school choice. I'm not familiar with the educational system in Hong Kong, so I won't say anything about that. However, regarding Belgium and the Netherlands, their freedom of choice policies in education are not intended to be drivers of educational improvement. They came about because of the cultural and religious diversity in these countries. Around the 1980s-1990s both of these countries realized that the way freedom of choice has been implemented has caused considerable segregation between advantaged and disadvantaged groups and policy makers have worked to try to rectify the situation by focusing more on equality issues. At least as far as the Netherlands and Belgium are concerned, Pasi is correct in stating that these countries do not rely on school choice and competition for educational improvement.

Art said...

It is true that the American way of improving schools includes competition and choice. However, contrary to what Sahlberg says, competition and choice are not the key drivers of improving American schools. NCLB requires states and districts to offer choice to parents whose children attend schools that persistently fail to make adequate progress. At the same time, however, when schools fail to make adequate progress NCLB requires states and districts to provide them with extra help and resources.

The extent and effectiveness of these policies are fair game, but schematizing American education and Finnish education into the Finnish way of cooperation and equity versus the American way of competition and choice is incomplete and misleading.

Peter Lydon said... make an important distinction re: choice...but the outcome is the same...there is choice. Given where America is at present, this is perhaps how it should be - but this position does not explain why school fail in the first instance. And once a school begins to fail it is extremely difficult to turn that school around.

There is no reason why cooperation and equity cannot work in America. Who would have imagined that something as simple as 'respect' could lead to the success it has in Finland! Finns respect their teachers and the profession generally. Teacher quality and family income level are the two biggest determinants of student success. The Finns have ensured their teachers are quality graduates and where low incomes impact, they have social structures to ameliorate the worst aspects. Guess what America hasn't got.

The USA, while capable of being No1 in education, never will be - not because of a culture of competition and choice, but because the individualistic nature of American culture prevents the kinds of changes needed to put America on top.

tcyonline said...

School always give sharpness to the mind of the children. To join school is the first step taken by parents of any children. So, to provide best education at school level always gives extra knowledge to the child brain which helps to develop the country more & more. Like, Physics tests always helps to get some practical knowledge about how to see things in practical.

David said...

What American education suffering from:
1) Unions
2) Very less choices to choose from
3) Quality of Education
4) Lack of Teachers & Students communication
5) No one feeling teaching is a respectable career
6) Concentrating more on quantity, competitiveness of education than quality.
7) Teachers suffering from freedom of choice
8) We are doing more on paper, meetings, speeches but doing much less on ground.
9) Education is becoming more costlier (If their is a big money involves corporate companies start to utilize which is again kill the education system).

What i above written are my opinion, may be this reasons may differ from one to other.

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