Understanding the Right Lessons for Education Reform in North America from Finland’s Success.


As we come to the end of another frustrating year in education reform — much ado about the adults and, still, too little about the children — I found these observations from a Finnish education policy expert, Pasi Sahlberg, very much in line with our work at Learning Ovations.  In fairly typical type-A fashion, education reformers in the US have benchmarked Finland because of their world class success in education, and then they have either emphasized why Finland is not like the US or they have tried to short-circuit the lessons to be learned in a “ya but” exercise of blame and deckchair shifting that has only succeeded in preserving the status quo.

I have excerpted parts of, and added comments to, Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post blog wherein she has posted an article by Sahlberg, which argues persuasively that the American focus on teacher effectiveness is missing some key components. Without a shift in thinking about how to reform American education, Sahlberg, who admits some of the large differences between the United States and Finland, sees little room to believe that America’s educational system could reach the level of Finland’s.

Here is a compilation of the misconceptions that Sahlberg believes many American education experts have, and his corresponding corrections as augmented and amplified by Learning Ovations research and outcomes.

1)  Attracting more high-level teachers (whatever exactly that means) is a silver bullet for education reform. 

Sahlberg: Research on what explains students’ measured performance in school remains mixed. A commonly used conclusion is that 10% to 20% of the variance in measured student achievement belongs to the classroom, i.e., teachers and teaching, and a similar amount is attributable to schools, i.e., school climate, facilities and leadership. In other words, up to two-thirds of what explains student achievement is beyond the control of schools, i.e., family background and motivation to learn.

At Learning Ovations: We have a reservation on this perception and we have some more contemporary and compelling research findings.  First, the reservation.  Yes, family background and motivation are important BUT that cannot be taken as a dispensation for schools or community.  This is the thinking (permission) that has gotten us to intergenerational poverty.  Once we believe something is out of our control, then our expectations and performance are circumscribed.  Rather, at our Working Differently communities we have cited this very research as to why a community and schools are, by necessity linked in their work of overcoming this “two-thirds” disadvantage.  See this community interconnection detailed.   In other words, we need to work differently to assure that these environmental deficits not be allowed to artificially constrain our children.

I say “artificially” because Learning Ovations has a large body of research that demonstrates how these very children — high poverty, ethnic minority, single -parent homes — can be ready for kindergarten and can be reading, on average at the fifth grade level at the end of third grade.  The central difference is that Learning Ovations helped teachers, schools and communities achieve control over the outcome!

2)  Effective teachers are made once they are in the profession, not beforehand.

Sahlberg:  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.

Learning Ovations:  We, too, think there is much to be desired in our present way of preparing teachers.  BUT, this is not insurmountable, it is simply the environment.  And waiting for post modernism to die out from our teacher colleges, seems like a uniquely disempowering strategy.  Instead of cursing the darkness or allowing it to give communities permission to accept the status quo or, worse, denigrate meaningful ways to infuse the profession with a diversity of energy and talent through programs like Teach for America, Learning Ovations asked a more fundamental question: how can we respect and empower all teachers to succeed with all children?  This shifts from passive to active; from blame to strategy; from confrontation to tools.  In the seven randomized control studies referred to above, Learning Ovation supported all existing teachers in achieving outcomes for their students — which is the core definition of effectiveness.

3)  Effective teachers can overcome all barriers of poverty and background.

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 Sahlberg, 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.”

For Learning Ovations, this is very similar to the slippery slope we discussed in #1 above.  Clearly, the US must address child poverty.  We simply believe the way to address child poverty is to get all children successful readers by the time they finish grade three.  The evidence for this is profound.  If it is a chicken and egg, go with what you can act on today!

4) School culture and leadership matter little compared to teachers. 

Sahlberg: Over thirty years of systematic research on school effectiveness and school improvement reveals a number of characteristics that are typical of more effective schools. Most scholars agree that effective leadership is among the most important characteristics of effective schools, equally important to effective teaching. Effective leadership includes leader qualities, such as being firm and purposeful, having shared vision and goals, promoting teamwork and collegiality and frequent personal monitoring and feedback. Several other characteristics of effective schools include features that are also linked to the culture of the school and leadership: Maintaining focus on learning, producing a positive school climate, setting high expectations for all, developing staff skills, and involving parents. In other words, school leadership matters as much as teacher quality.

Learning Ovations: Here too, we are not going to argue against the importance of leadership.  But rather, we are very comfortable in pointing out that leadership is delineated by expectations.  Why not move forward on a strategy which empowers teachers, significantly enhances student outcomes and transforms what is possible?  This, rather than investing significant dollars in leadership retreats and letting more cohorts pass through our schools underachieving while we “wait for the godot” of a chairasmatic leader, seems to be a more compelling action.

In the distinctions Pasi Sahlberg makes between Finland and the US approach to education reform, I feel he has misread a key difference.  US educational reform will continue to be a random walk of failed bromides until we take for granted what Sahlberg fails to emphasize, but what is at the heart of Finlands success — the adults expectations for childrens’ success have immensely more impact than any environmental limitation the students might have.  Whereas, at Learning Ovations, and in our working differently communities, our mission starts where Finland is: all children succeed.

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