Finnish Educator Refutes U.S. Approach to Education Reform

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has posted an article by a prominent Finnish education policy expert, Pasi 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:

  1. Attracting more high-level teachers (whatever exactly that means) is a silver bullet for education reform.
    1. 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.
  2. Effective teachers are made once they are in the profession, not beforehand.
    1. 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.
  3. Effective teachers can overcome all barriers of poverty and background.
    1. 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.
    2. 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.” Teachers alone may not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.
  4. School culture and leadership matter little compared to teachers.
    1. 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 more 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.
  5. Greater standardization of teaching policies will ensure more effective teachers.
    1. The toxic use of accountability for schools should be abandoned. Current practices in many countries that judge the quality of teachers by counting their students’ measured achievement only is in many ways inaccurate and unfair, according to Sahlberg. It is inaccurate because most schools’ goals are broader than good performance in a few academic subjects. It is unfair because most of the variation of student achievement in standardized tests can be explained by out-of-school factors. Most teachers understand that what students learn in school is because the whole school has made an effort, not just some individual teachers. In the education systems that are high in international rankings, teachers feel that they are empowered by their leaders and their fellow teachers. In Finland, half of surveyed teachers responded that they would consider leaving their job if their performance would be determined by their student’s standardized test results.
  6.  More money will bring in the most effective teachers
    1. In many countries where teachers fight for their rights, their main demand is not more money but better working conditions in schools. Again, experiences from those countries that do well in international rankings suggest that teachers should have autonomy in planning their work, freedom to run their lessons the way that leads to best results, and authority to influence the assessment of the outcomes of their work. Schools should also be trusted in these key areas of the teaching profession.

    Sahlberg’s conception of teachers as members of teams that include excellent principals and other education leaders is an encouraging one.  In his model, teachers must be well-qualified to enter the teaching profession, but once they are there, they should enjoy fruitful collaboration, respect from society, and teacher evaluations that are fair.  Despite the obvious differences between the U.S. and Finland, Sahlberg’s comments are salient and worthy of consideration. For more information, please visit:


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