Finnish educator offers suggestions for American schools – Marin Independent Journal

19 Feb

Marin County educators gathered this week to imagine a world without standardized tests, one in which teachers would teach less and students would study less — yet score near the top on international tests of math, reading and science.

Teaching would be a highly regarded profession in this world, and decisions about curriculum and other aspects of education would be made at the school — rather than the state or county level. The “achievement gap” between rich and poor schools would be unknown, as all schools would provide their students with a high level of education, along with free meals, counseling and health care.

This mythical world of teachers’ dreams has a name: Finland.

Finnish author and education expert Pasi Sahlberg described this world — and what it has to offer American educators — during a special presentation Thursday at the Marin County Office of Education, co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Marin County.

“At a time when we are striving to make sure we meet the needs of all of our kids, there is much we can learn from Finland,” said Marin County Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke. “Their outstanding results (on international exams) consistently place Finland on the top of lists worldwide. Their teachers are highly respected and credentialed, and they are given time to plan and work together in teams. Their educational environment emphasizes quality, collaboration and Advertisement wellness.”

Sahlberg is a former director of the Finnish Ministry of Education, a current adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki and former consultant to the World Bank and the European Commission. His most recent book, “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?” describes the Scandinavian country’s 40-year effort to reform its school system, doing away with hierarchies and tests to create an environment that produces thinkers, researchers and inventors.

“Innovation and research are the backbone of our economy,” said Sahlberg, director of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation for the Finnish Ministry of Education. “We have three times the number of people in R&D as the OECD average,” he said, referring to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 34 developed countries.

“It’s part of our survival strategy, helping us to remain competitive as one of the most prosperous nations in the world.”

Education reformers in the United States and elsewhere have called for a greater use of standardized tests — even tying teacher pay to test results — in order to hold schools accountable for student performance and weed out bad teachers.

In Finland, by contrast, standardized tests are virtually unknown. Instead, the government has set standards high for elementary and high school teachers, ensuring that only the very best candidates ever reach the classroom. As a result, Sahlberg said, Finnish parents trust their children’s teachers — and Finnish teachers are empowered to help their students learn by whatever means seem best to them, rather than being forced to follow rigid government standards.

“Finland has one of the most competitive teacher-education systems in the world, and the teacher training program is more difficult to get into than the schools of law or medicine,” Sahlberg said. “Many young people in Finland go on to study law because they cannot get into the primary school education program.”

While many American teachers tend to leave the profession after five years or less, Finnish teachers almost always remain in their jobs for life. Their salaries are roughly equivalent to those of Finnish doctors, lawyers and other professionals, and salary scales are the same in every Finnish school, regardless of where that school is located. That may explain why there are few differences in quality among Finnish schools, Sahlberg said. “Ours is an education system in which young people learn well, and differences between schools are small,” Sahlberg said. “In the U.S., you have to worry about what is a good school for your son or daughter. That is never an issue at dinner conversations in Finland.”

Sahlberg bristled at the notion that Finland was a socialist state — the nation was, he said, “one of the most competitive capitalist economies on the planet, together with the United States.” Yet Finnish educators take it as a given that schools should provide free meals, annual health exams and counseling services for their students, reasoning that hungry, sick children cannot concentrate on their studies.

“We believe that government has to take care of people’s basic needs,” Sahlberg said. “We understand that you have to deal with poverty first before you can make children learn.”

At the same time, Sahlberg noted that Finland spends much less on education than the United States does. It cost about $59,000 to educate a Finnish student from birth to age 15 in 2002; to do the same in the United States would have cost $84,000. The expense of testing accounts for part of the difference, Sahlberg said, as does the fact that the United States has about 14,000 school districts, while Finland has only 300.

“We’re working to reduce that number (of districts) to 70,” Sahlberg said. “We want to put our money not into administration, but into supporting those people who need it.”

Sahlberg acknowledged that the Finnish system is far from perfect. As a historically small (about 5.5 million people), homogeneous nation, Finland is struggling to cope with a recent wave of immigration; about 60 percent of pupils in some urban schools are immigrants, Sahlberg said. And as in many American schools, girls tend to outperform boys in Finnish high schools, leaving Finnish educators to search for ways to keep boys from dropping out of the system.

Yet Sahlberg firmly believes there is much that U.S. educators can learn from Finland — and vice versa.

“We have to continue to learn from one another,” Sahlberg said. “We must make a difference (in education), and learning from one another is our only hope.”

His words made an impression on teacher and Novato resident Kim Scheidt.

“I think that educational reform is a must in our country, and inequality in schools is a very big problem,” Scheidt said. “Until we deal with a lot of social issues like equity, health and just being able to have enough food for our children to eat, our kids can’t learn.”

They also impressed Scheidt’s daughter, Kari, who is considering becoming a teacher.

“When I left high school in 2006, I felt like the whole system was breaking down,” Kari Scheidt said. “I feel like I need to educate myself so that people my age can be the ones to make a difference, to be good teachers and change the system. I want to figure out what my place in the equation will be.”

via Finnish educator offers suggestions for American schools – Marin Independent Journal.

About these ads

One Response to “Finnish educator offers suggestions for American schools – Marin Independent Journal”

  1. classroomsooth February 19, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

    Great post. I hope this gets the press it deserves.

    We need to call for a national audit on time and money spent on testing and test prep.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: