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What Houston Can Learn from Schools in Finland

Recently Susan Troutman, RUSMP Associate Director for Secondary Programs, attended the Houston A+ Challenge talk given by Finnish educator, Dr. Pasi Sahlberg.  She immensely enjoyed listening to him speak, and so shared the following with us:

View slides from Sahlberg’s presentation
Listen to an interview with Sahlberg by KUHF radio’s Laura Isensee
Read a synposis of the event

Why are educators and policy-makers around the globe so interested in the Finnish way?

The Finnish education system has dominated international rankings for a decade.  In addition, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world. “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education.” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.  Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States. (From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html?c=y&page=1)

Dr. Sahlberg shared with the audience in Houston that the Finnish way of education focuses on collaboration instead of competition, personalization instead of standardization, trust-based responsibility instead of test-based accountability, and equity instead of school choice.

Read more at his blog.  I was especially intrigued by his post, “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?”  Although the entry is long, it is worthwhile to read in entirety.

He claims that the following three beliefs of the impact of teacher effectiveness that seem to prevail in many under-performing nations are fallacies and explains why:

  • “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
  • “The most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers.” 
  • “If any children had three or four great teachers in a row, they would soar academically, regardless of their racial or economic background, while those who have a sequence of weak teachers will fall further and further behind”.

Then he suggests lessons from high-performing school systems, including Finland, and urges us to reconsider how we think about teaching as a profession and what is the role of the school in our society.  Below are excerpts from his post:

“First, standardization should focus more on teacher education and less on teaching and learning in schools. Singapore, Canada and Finland all set high standards for their teacher-preparation programs in academic universities.”

“Second, the toxic use of accountability for schools should be abandoned. Current practices in many countries that judge the quality of teachers by counting their students’ measured achievement only is in many ways inaccurate and unfair. It is inaccurate because most schools’ goals are broader than good performance in a few academic subjects. It is unfair because most of the variation of student achievement in standardized tests can be explained by out-of-school factors. Most teachers understand that what students learn in school is because the whole school has made an effort, not just some individual teachers. In the education systems that are high in international rankings, teachers feel that they are empowered by their leaders and their fellow teachers. In Finland, half of surveyed teachers responded that they would consider leaving their job if their performance would be determined by their student’s standardized test results.”

“Third, other school policies must be changed before teaching becomes attractive to more young talents. In many countries where teachers fight for their rights, their main demand is not more money but better working conditions in schools. Again, experiences from those countries that do well in international rankings suggest that teachers should have autonomy in planning their work, freedom to run their lessons the way that leads to best results, and authority to influence the assessment of the outcomes of their work. Schools should also be trusted in these key areas of the teaching profession.”

Read his entire post here.

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