School Reform: “Finnish Lessons”

Summary: Some characteristics of Finnish school reform give perspective to similar American efforts to change, particularly in the autonomy granted to teachers, the trust of whom is grounded in rigorous preparation and a successful lure of top students into the profession.

Trust. Remember that word.

Pasi Sahlberg is a long time Finnish school official and one time teacher whose book, Finnish Lessons, reflects on thirty years of progress in Finnish schools, from also ran status to one of the more successful school systems among the nations of the world, as measured by the very same testing regimen that kicks American school butts, and impels us with cacophony toward our own schools future, however it shall come clear.

Mr. Sahlberg touches on multiple dimensions of the Finnish success as he sees it, but the constellation of changes that most interests me at the moment are those that have apparently transformed the teacher corps into a professional body comparable to other professions, with wide ranging prerogative in how they educate their young charges within broad guidelines set by the government.

For the sake of contrast and argument, the broad tone of American schools can be depicted as top down, where “accountability” in the form of test scores can be interpreted as a kind of tyranny, tentacles reaching from nether heights into the classroom to control the professional instincts of teachers, and thereby deprive them of autonomy, professional dignity, and finally perhaps the most finely tuned productivity of which they are capable.

The hegemony of test scores is understandable, given that the alarm has sounded for American education by the relative weakness of our academic test scores compared internationally, but the Finnish experience will suggest that the measurement of outcome by testing need not imply that testing also be at the core of reform.

The value of such outside perspective is that we may be so much within a certain forest that we cannot see the trees – that is, the extent to which testing may impede progress. I take no particular stance on this issue, and in fact most recently worked in a school where it seemed to me grudging individual progress has been guided by micro testing. But I am also aware of musings on the part of teachers that the spirit that should animate various academic disciplines has been squeezed to extinction by the ultra focus on skills growth. And I’m not even talking about the civic education of future voters.

In fact, Mr. Sahlberg argues that testing overmuch can retard the pure academic skills growth of students, and cites international test results that show lower national scores in recent years as testing to guide instruction distributes more widely around the world.

Finally as preamble, Mr. Sahlberg bends over backwards to insist that the USA should not copy Finnish reform slavishly, and cites the much greater complexity and diversity of our problems in evidence, though in his private thoughts one wonders if he doesn’t in fact think we are taking exactly the wrong tack along several dimensions.

For example, (and here I wander a bit from my main point), according to Mr. Sahlberg, a number of practices of Finnish schools seem counter productive from the zeitgeist common on this side of the Atlantic. Kids don’t enter school until seven years of age (though widely attend preschool), and then are not graded until fifth grade. In the name of cooperation rather than competition, the relative test scores of different schools, when they are finally taken, are not noted nor published, and the total amount of testing is drastically reduced from our norm. Students experience less contact time with their teachers during the school day as well as less homework, and expenditures per pupil are less than is common in State-side schools.

Each of these Finnish conventions cast doubt on trends generally promoted in our current educational communities.

That said, Finland is a land of five and a half million people, with modest variations on the basic Lutheran Finn. Many of our states match it in population, more or less, but fewer if any will match it in homogeneity, whether racial, ethnic, or land of origin.

We should hope that many of the “Finnish lessons” apply only poorly here in our culture, otherwise we are faced with the prospective reality that we are wandering into a trackless wilderness upon fictitious assumptions rather than upon pathways rationally constructed by social science and attuned to the successful experience of other cultures.

But, back to center, my current curiosity about Sahlberg’s message concerns the apparent transformation of the Finnish teacher from mediocrity to a skilled professional on par in our culture and theirs with doctors and lawyers. It is not merely a story of transformed preparation and heightened standards of entry, though it is that, nor merely a tale of improved pay – which may be a theme in only a minor key.

In my hearing, the critical flip has been to “trust” the educational future of Finnish children to the autonomous ministrations of teachers and principals within schools, absent the prying eyes of anxious politicians and bureaucrats, and absent also the autocracy of standardized tests other than those of the exit variety from high school. Out comes the Finnish student in the wash, much more skill ready for the world they enter than the average American student, by contrast tested to distraction.

The implication, that the critical ingredient of learning lies within the classroom in the hands of highly qualified teachers with full portfolio granted by their culture, is one that seems ancillary in our current American march to educational reform.

More commonly, the American teacher corps is bashed, and blamed, without coordinated questions being asked about the hierarchical structure of American schools, which too little rewards teacher initiative and too much rebuffs teacher ambition, and which therefore bears some of the responsibility for the dysfunction observed.

Much of my commentary is built on a YouTube recording of a talk Mr. Sahlberg presented at Vanderbilt University’s Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations on December 9, 2011, and comments by Lynne Varner’s op ed piece on Sahlberg’s work in the Seattle Times November 16, 2012, and Linda Shaw’s article in the same paper on Sahlberg November 14, both stimulated by his talk around the same time at the University of Washington.

Whatever the reform machinations of Finnish policy in the 1970’s and 1980’s, today the primary school teacher training programs at Finnish universities take only the top 10% of Finnish graduates from secondary school. Even for the primary grade training, good math and science skills are required of the graduates in order to be competent to mentor young Finns toward careers on the technological and scientific cutting edge; interestingly, skills in music are also important for the holistic exposures they imply.

Once enrolled by various demanding metrics, prospective teachers undergo an exacting, research based curriculum that culminates with a master’s thesis that according to Sahlberg will allow graduates to be “easily hired” in various other markets should they not continue on into teaching. Such broad work place applicability of the university teacher education is clearly an additional inducement for high quality applicants to seek entry.

Following a candidate’s completion of their formal training, an education board examines, among other issues, the candidates’ motives in entering teaching, and presumably their characterological suitability to engage young students. In Sahlberg’s telling, it is not uncommon for students to complete their teacher education, but still be denied entry into the profession.

And so the rigorously vetted teacher enters a system where they are “trusted” (the word again) to collaborate with their principal and their teaching colleagues to construct curriculum that follows general state guidelines, and to be responsible for their young charges often for as much as the full six years a given student spends in the lower grades. Clearly the stakes are high, because one mistake in accepted application and subsequent hire could spell disaster for a classroom of children over time.

The “trust” in the responsibility granted to teachers is a tough swallow from the perspective of an American steeped in “accountability” which, let’s face it, acknowledges that too many schools and teachers and students fail to muster up to standard, and so cannot be trusted, at least in the current system, to be left on their own to produce, when the stakes are as high as they are.

Put yourself in the position of the squires of the American educational system, the state and national bureaucrats, the superintendents, the principals. Are you going to make a leap of faith and “trust” when your job depends on progress in the institutions beneath your sway? No, I think you are going to become more controlling, not less, which from what I see is the current state of affairs.

One more thing, one more set of Sahlbergisms. He describes the current arrival point of teaching as a profession in Finland as “dignified”, though he may have meant “prestigious”, the distinction lost in translation. In this country, we do not use either word to describe the cultural estimation of the teaching profession.

It is not clear to me if salaries have markedly changed. Teachers make approximately the same as other publicly employed professionals with the same educational attainment. However, the salary curve, with years of experience, is fairly steep.

In surveys that have examined those aspects of their work important to Finnish teachers, professional autonomy or freedom ranked among the most important attributes; put another way, if that autonomy were compromised, for example if inspection were instituted in the form of standardized testing, many said they would leave teaching.

Easy to make threats. However, since we know that 47% of American teachers leave the profession within five years of their start, under conditions hypothetically surveyed in Finland, perhaps that very same professional autonomy is a necessary component in motivated professionalism. I wonder what American doctors and lawyers would have to say on this topic in their professional world. How also will elite American university graduates be lured into a rigidly tethered educational world their Finnish counterparts claim they would exit?

Deep professional responsibility and autonomy seem linked in the Finnish experience to the attraction of highly capable people to exacting preparation for culturally valued work, which still begs the question how the Finns have managed to perform such a pivotal about face in the culture of their teaching profession.

The Finns have undergone a conscious process to get there; according to Sahlberg, in the 1980’s Finnish schools were centralized, managed in a top down fashion, and mired in mediocrity. Sound familiar?

The Finnish lesson is heeded in principle by some elements of American school reform, in terms of revised teacher preparation, the call to raise salaries, and the effort to bring a more elite sector of American secondary and university graduates into the teaching field. I am not sure these movements have gone much or widely beyond the voice stage, Teach for America notwithstanding.

The voices that seem to understand that teacher professionalism at base means autonomy and the associated responsibility are less prevalent, and in my reading seem sidetracked as too liberal, too soft, too little admissible to hard data and, yes, accountability.

Yet to the Finns, or at least to Pasi Sahlberg, this set of issues form the beating heart of school reform, a leap of faith the culture has made that has transformed Finnish schools to among the world’s most successful. One irony is that he gives some American school thinkers some of the credit for early stage inspiration.

In the greater irony, it has been the relatively more socialist state, Finland, which has let go of control, while it is the more freeform relatively more capitalist nation, the United States, which controls in bureaucratic fashion.

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