What can the U.S. learn from Finland’s educational success?

Finland became a global education superstar by doing exactly the opposite of what the United States is trying to do, Finnish education official Pasi Sahlberg told an Indiana University audience last week.

No school choice and competition, no high-stakes tests, no top-down accountability and no union-bashing. Instead, Finland pursued egalitarianism for students and high-level professionalism for teachers – and became a world leader on international measures of student performance.

Is Finland’s experience relevant to the U.S.? Certainly there are differences between the countries. Finland is a small; its population, 5.4 million, is less than Indiana’s. It is culturally homogeneous, although its immigrant population is growing.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the child poverty rate is about 5 percent in Finland, compared to over 20 percent in the U.S.; and we know that poverty is strongly correlated with student achievement. But other European countries – e.g., Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany – also have low child poverty rates but trail Finland on measures such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.

Advocates of American-style reform tend to dismiss Finland. For example, Rick Hess, education policy director for the American Enterprise Institute, calls it a “tiny island of homogeneity” and argues the U.S. should pursue its own path based on “uniquely American strengths like federalism, entrepreneurial dynamism, and size and heterogeneity.”

But if we listen to what Sahlberg and others are saying, what lessons might we learn from Finland? Here are a couple:

Maybe it’s not all about me. Americans, with our habit of making everything a competition, tend to think of “good schools” as a finite commodity. There are only so many seats, and if you get your kid gets one, there’s less for mine. Sahlberg says Finns don’t understand the concept of good schools and bad schools, because schools are largely the same. And there are almost no private schools, so there are no opportunities to opt out of the program. Finnish parents are all in this public education thing together. For them, apparently, “your kid” kid gets the same opportunity as “my kid,” and that’s OK.

Teaching is complicated. Teachers in Finland are required to have master’s degrees, and they’re accorded autonomy and expected to act as highly trained professionals. They also spend considerably less time in the classroom than American teachers and more time meeting with each other, collaborating and planning. Sahlberg calls this “less is more,” but in fact it reflects a difference in how we see teaching. Here, people complain that teachers work only six hours a day and get summers off. We think they’re working only when they’re in class, a perception that is sometimes reinforced by contracts that restrict what teachers are supposed to do after school hours. Finnish lesson: Change our mental picture of teaching from “stand in front of classroom 180 days a year” to “do what it takes for every child to learn what he or she needs to learn.”

Sahlberg doesn’t set Finland up as a model. But he argues that we can learn from each other – and that the U.S. and states such as Indiana should think twice before heading further down the path of high-stakes testing, accountability and competition.

“I would say you have very little chance to be successful with these policies,” he said.

For more on Finland, see Indianapolis Star reporter Scott Elliott’s recent blog post on Sahlberg’s IU talk and Sahlberg’s recent essay in Education Week, as well as an upcoming Q&A with NPR State Impact Indiana. There’s also a lot of information, including links to presentations, on Sahlberg’s website.

Indiana update: Quality Counts grades, voucher decision, Finnish education

Indiana leads the nation with its educational standards, assessments and accountability, according to this year’s Quality Counts report.

But overall, the state’s education system is barely above average. Indiana earns C+ and is ranked 22nd among the states by Quality Counts, an annual initiative from Editorial Projects in Education that tracks education indicators and grades the states on their policies and outcomes. The state’s grades in sub-areas include:

– C for “chance for success,” which includes family income, parent education, preschool and kindergarten enrollment and adult educational attainment.

– D+ for K-12 achievement, including National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, high school graduation rates, achievement gaps and AP exam scores.

– A (and No. 1 among the states) for standards, assessments and accountability, with the latter category encompassing Indiana’s A-F rating system for schools and sanctions for low-performing schools.

– D for efforts to improve teaching, such as teacher education, licensing and pay. This score is likely to improve next year when Indiana schools implement a mandated teacher-evaluation system.

– C- for school finance. Indiana does OK for spending equity between districts but ranks low for per-pupil spending, even when adjusted for regional cost differences.

– B+ for education alignment, including school readiness, high-school-to-college transitions and workforce and career preparation.

Voucher lawsuit setback

It was disappointing but not surprising that a judge ruled last week against the parents, teachers and religious leaders who challenged Indiana’s private-school voucher program. As Indiana University’s Center on Evaluation and Education Policy explained last fall, the “choice scholarship” program was carefully crafted to withstand legal challenges.

Marion County Superior Judge Michael Keele ruled that the voucher law doesn’t violate provisions of the Indiana Constitution that call for a uniform system of common schools, prohibit people from having to support religion against their consent, and bar the use of state money to support religion.

There’s no question that the vouchers, which go almost entirely to Catholic and Evangelical Christian schools, amount to using state money to support religion. But Keele says it’s OK, because the state isn’t choosing which religious institutions get funding — parents are making that decision.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, which is supporting the lawsuit, says the decision will be appealed.

Finnish lessons

Folks in the Bloomington can hear this Friday about what’s behind Finland’s educational success. Pali Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in the Finnish education ministry, will speak at 1:20 p.m. in Wylie Hall 005 on the Indiana University campus.

Sahlberg is the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?, which explains how Finland transformed itself from educational mediocrity to powerhouse. Since 2000, its students have scored at or near the top on international assessments.

Sahlberg writes in Education Week that Finland imported good ideas from other countries and developed reforms through consensus with teachers and local education officials.

“Finally,” he writes, “the key driver of education-development policy in Finland has been providing equal and positive learning opportunities for all children and securing their well-being, including their nutrition, health, safety, and overall happiness. Finnish authorities, in this regard, have defied international convention. They have not endorsed student testing and school ranking as the path to improvement, but rather focused on teacher preparation and retention; collaboration with teachers and their union representatives; early and regular intervention for children with learning disabilities; well-rounded curricula; and equitable funding of schools throughout the country.”

Spotlight on teachers

With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett putting “identify and reward great teachers and principals” at the top of their education reform agenda, it’s a good time to share some of what’s being said and written about the subject of teacher quality.

The Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel, working in partnership with the New York-based Hechinger Report, is wrapping up a multi-part series titled “Building a Better Teacher.” Every Sunday since early November, the paper has included a story on the challenges to training, identifying and rewarding great teachers.

Topics have included teacher evaluations, merit pay, steering better teachers to high-need schools, teacher education, the role of unions and the importance of principals. The stories tend to focus on Wisconsin schools and issues. But they’re well reported and clearly written – a good overview of the questions that the Indiana Legislature will be considering.

Part Two, titled “Grading Teachers is No Easy Assignment,” and Part Three, “School Districts Evaluate Merits of Merit Pay,” report on the nationwide push to measure teacher effectiveness and use the results to determine how teachers should be evaluated, paid and retained in their jobs.

What does the public think?

According to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll reported this month, Americans think teachers should be paid more but that it should be easier to fire bad teachers.

The poll found that 78 percent of respondents think principals should be able to fire teachers whose performance isn’t up to snuff. At the same time, 57 percent think teachers are paid too little and only 7 percent think they are paid too much.

Only 35 percent said the number of bad teachers is a serious problem in American schools; and just 45 percent blamed teachers’ unions for the problem. Higher percentages were critical of parents and federal, state and local education officials.

A commission on teacher quality

The nation’s biggest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, announced recently that it will establish an independent panel on teacher quality, called the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.

The commission will include 21 accomplished teachers, who will be supported by researchers, policy experts and academics, the NEA said. Their goal will be to “craft a new teacher-centered vision of teaching and the teaching profession.”

The commissioners will meet four to six times over the next year and hold public meetings to gather input on the topics they’re considering, according to the NEA.

School improvement the Finnish way

Hechinger Report has a Q-and-A with Pasi Sahlberg, an official with the Ministry of Education of Finland, which was once again among the top-scoring nations on the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Here’s what Sahlberg says about using “value-added” data from test scores to evaluate teachers: “It’s very difficult to use this data to say anything about the effectiveness of teachers. If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away.”

Daniels and Bennett have said they want student achievement – measured by improvement in test scores – to count for at least half of the annual evaluation of Indiana teachers.