Washington sidles up to Finland’s glittering education example

Finnish author and education expert Pasi Sahlberg. Credit: Alison Krupnick

“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.)

Sahlberg thinks this polarity is at the root of our problems and that we should look at education strategies as part of a continuum. Stewart, for her part, says that strides made in Canadian education improvements during 2004-2009 were due to an all-stakeholders consensus, with a focus on capacity building rather than name-calling.

In Washington — though name-calling persists — there is growing evidence of some common ground, especially in the area of teacher professionalism.

Teacher recruitment and quality, long a hot-button issue, has been bolstered by the recent creation of a Teacher Residency program, a collaboration between the Seattle Public Schools, the University of Washington College of Education, the Seattle Education Association and the Alliance for Education. The program, modeled after similar urban programs in Boston, Chicago and other cities, will apply the medical residency model to train new teachers, the first of whom will be in Seattle classrooms at the start of the 2013 school year.

Education was also a key issue in the race for governor here, with the two candidates in synch on most key goals for educational improvement in the state. Governor-elect Jay Inslee has named Renton School Superintendent and former Washington State Superintendent of the Year Mary Alice Heuschel to his transition team. Among her accomplishments in Renton was the development of a math endorsement program for credentialed teachers.

State law passed in 2010 requires the development of a new, four-tiered teacher evaluation system state-wide by 2013-2014, which includes linking teacher performance to student achievement. The new system, which is still in the pilot phase, is a “win-win” for all concerned, says Seattle School Board President Michael DeBell. “Everyone has a stake in it being successful.” Last week Seattle released its first teacher ratings based on student performance

Teacher evaluations were among the issues that made contract negotiations difficult in 2010. This time around though, Debell and Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp, both of whom attended the November 13 event, anticipate productive collaboration in negotiating the new teacher contract, which is up for renewal in the summer of 2013.

There is also evidence of a softening on testing. In their introductory remarks at the event, both Washington State Superintendent Randy Dorn and Seattle School Superintendent Jose Banda indicated they plan to take a hard look at testing. “The data is important,” said Banda, “but are we testing too much?” A spokeswoman for Seattle schools says the district is working to compile costs regarding current standardized tests and expects this information to be available after Thanksgiving. 

In its eighth annual state analysis on educational testing, the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit, national education advocacy organization, cites Washington as one of only eight states that links teacher performance data back to teacher preparation programs, a critical step in improving the teacher pipeline. But, unlike most states, we do not provide student-level data to teachers, principals or parents and don’t train non-educator stakeholders on how to use or interpret data.

The competitive global economy makes comparisons between the U.S. education system and the education systems of other countries “excruciatingly relevant,” Vivien Stewart stresses. 

“But,” she cautioned, “there is no one–size-fits-all.”

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