“It takes a village,” Pasi Sahlberg tells me, “to improve education systems.” Sahlberg is a former teacher, the current Director General of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture’s Centre for International Mobility and the author of the book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?.
As such, he makes a compelling case for data; particularly the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s country-specific data related to income distribution inequity and its correlation to academic performance. The data Sahlberg doesn’t find compelling though is what can be gleaned from a student’s standardized test results.
Sahlberg’s “village” comment was prompted by my question of whether education strategies are like parenting strategies, with the perennial quest for the perfect approach. Sahlberg said he preferred the village analogy, because to improve a system you have to be open to a host of other people’s ideas.
In his book, and at a November 13 University of Washington conference on Excellence in K-12 education, Sahlberg detailed the deliberate 40-year strategy that has made Finland one of the world’s top academic performers. Organized by the non-profit Economic Opportunity Institute, the conference included several pro-teacher organizations — such as the Center for Teaching Quality, the UW College of Education and the Seattle and the Washington Education Associations — as co-sponsors.
In 1972, hindered by a high level of poverty, yet bolstered by a desire to provide equal educational opportunities for all children, Finland decided to make child welfare a cornerstone of its education system, providing social and medical services at every school. The country embarked on a strategic plan, partially inspired by the U.S. education system, to improve its academic performance by investing in teacher training and personalizing every child’s education.
Finland eschews competition among schools, has no standardized tests, no national curriculum and a highly competitive process for selecting teachers, all of whom must have the equivalent of a master’s degree. Schools are given autonomy and homework is limited, especially in the lower grades. Teachers are respected and trusted and they spend far less time in the classroom than U.S. teachers, who are given less time for class preparation. If Finland, the union enjoys 96 percent membership and is viewed as a tool for professional collaboration, with an equivalent status to medical and legal professional organizations.
“For us, ‘school-readiness’ means getting the school ready to meet the needs of its students, rather than getting the students ready for school,” Sahlberg explains.
Despite our own efforts to overhaul the system, U.S. academic performance has remained flat, while other countries have improved, says Vivien Stewart, author of A World Class Education: Lessons from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, who shared the podium with Sahlberg and presented case studies from Canada, Singapore, China and Australia to demonstrate academic systems that have improved dramatically in recent years.
Though these and other countries differ in their approaches to creating, funding and administering successful education systems, Stewart says they share common elements: long-term vision, sustained leadership, ambitious standards, making equity an operational reality, high-quality teachers and school leaders, alignment and coherence, intelligent accountability, effective use of resources, student motivation and engagement, and global and future orientation. Targeted teacher recruitment, training and retention are essential to a strong education system, she adds, and provide more attractive career paths for teachers.
As with seemingly every national issue, discussions about the state of public education in America are polarized between two extremes: the education reformers, who favor test-based accountability and school choice (including charter schools) and count Bill Gates among them. The other side of the debate is championed by Diane Ravitch, a long-time education advocate and former member of the reform movement, who believes poverty is at the root of our country’s education woes and is opposed to high-stakes testing and the free-market approach to education. (For a more in-depth profile of Ravitch and the current ideological differences among education advocates, check out the November 19 issue of the New Yorker.)
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