Monday, December 27, 2010

Can US Learn Ed Reform from Finland?

Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, offered some interesting advice regarding what the United States education reformers could learn from them in a recent article “Learning from Finland: How One of the World’s Top Educational Performers Turned Around.”

According to Sahlberg, “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.” Our education reformers dismiss all of what Finland does because “that country lacks diversity” or because the business world suddenly thinks it knows how to educate our citizens. What exactly are these big differences in education system characteristics?

  1. Finland approaches testing in an entirely different manner.  According to Sahlberg, Finnish children never take a standardized test. They also do not use standardized tests to compare schools or teachers. Instead, teachers, students, and parents are all involved in “assessing and deciding how well students are doing what they’re supposed to do.” Students are given sample-based learning tests to provide information to school leaders and politicians regarding how students are doing.
  2. According to Sahlberg, “Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. What does this mean? It means all teachers in Finland are required to have higher academic degrees which guarantees both teaching skills and content knowledge. Teachers are respected on the same level as medical doctors. Finns trust public education more than any other public institution.  Finn teachers are trusted as professionals.
  3. Sahlberg also says school leadership is different in Finland. He says that without exception, school principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are former teachers. This is in contrast to American culture that idolizes business CEOS and non-government leaders, who may have excelled in their distinctive lines of work. Our current batch of ed reformers think that if you can lead a corporation successfully, you can lead a school system, even though you have never taught a single class.

What can the United States learn from the Finns? Here’s Sahlberg’s three takeaways from the article and my commentary:

  1. First, the United States needs to reconsider those policies that advocate choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement. Not a single one of the best educational systems in the world rely on them. Sahlberg points out that Finland shows that a “consistent focus on equity and cooperation, not choice and competition,” leads to an education system where all students learn well. The United States is a world leader among developed countries in poverty rates and in income disparities. We continue to hang on to the American Dream (Myth) to our own peril. Education reformers believe that the same market-based system we have used to distribute income in this country will work for our education system. It will work as advertised. Those with resources under this system will get a quality education; those without resources will not.
  2. Provide teachers with government-paid university education and more professional support for their work. Make teaching a respected profession. The Obama administration education policy has done a great deal to erode professional support for teachers and respect for teachers. While both President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan talk about supporting teachers, their words and actions indicate the contrary. When the Secretary of Education applauds mass firings and the posting of student test scores tied to individual teachers, one hardly believes that he truly supports teachers. This administration no longer has credibility in this area when it claims to support teachers.
  3. Finally, Sahlberg says the United States has “much they can learn from these other world education systems.”  Will Americans let go of their pride and undying belief in American exceptionalism long enough to learn from these countries? I’m not sure culturally this country is ready for that.

After reflecting on Sahlberg’s article, I am not convinced that the United States can learn from Finland or any other country for that matter. Too often politicians with political agendas and a persistent belief that this country is somehow better than the rest of the world prevents us from looking to others for better ways of doing things. Our insistent belief in doing things our way, and pride will most likely cause us to continue to look for “educational silver bullets.” Instead of showing arrogance, perhaps it’s time to look for ideas to improve education in places that have found some answers.


  1. Wow. Powerful post. I recently reflected (and just posted) on Finland and their reading scores. I appreciate the way you broke this down. The question is, if the nation isn't or will never be on board, what can we be doing locally to change, to do what's best for our students... ?

  2. I started to comment on this post, then I realized how long my response had become, then I removed it and posted to my own blog instead:

  3. john,

    i'm wondering what your thoughts are when peter gorman, char-meck superintendent, says that a teacher's credentials are overrated--that it's no a degree or experience, but whether one has national board certification.

  4. Stephanie, the whole problem with the teacher credential and pay equation being used by Peter Gorman and the economists is basically they are saying "Higher degrees do equal higher test scores for students." Or, "More experience does not equal higher test scores." That is an approach that is way too simplistic. To think that one factor like that could have any kind of sizable impact on test scores shows ignorance at minimum, and some other kind of agenda at maximum. Peter Gorman is looking for ways to cut costs. So are all the other economists. That is their agenda. They are looking for silver bullets and simplistic answers. The truth be told, you could probably do some kind of correlational study that says serving breakfast to elementary kids does not increase achievement (Test scores.) But we feed young kids because they come to school hungry, not because we want them get higher scores, at least that is what I hope. If your measure of effectiveness is always test scores, you will always find some crazy correlations.