I attended an amazing conference in Seattle this week, Excellence in Education: Washington State and Finland. We learned about some great things going on in Finland, we learned about some great things going on in Washington, and I experienced some culture shock. Was it the differences between Finland and the United States that struck me? Well yes, there was that, and that is what got me started thinking about culture. However, instead of international differences, I was thinking about some of the cultural as well as philosophical differences between education groups in our own Washington state: differences between people who are in the classroom and those making policy decisions guiding classroom work; differences between policy makers and those doing education research. How to overcome those differences and build on them? Keynote speaker Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of Finland’s Education Ministry, said, “So much of what we do in Finland, we have learned from American researchers and educators.” He then very provocatively said the difference is that in Finland, they actually implement that research! Here in Washington, we need to get those research<—>policy<—> implementation links tightened up, and yes, those are double-headed arrows: information needs to flow each way!
There are some vast historical and social differences between Finland and Washington—an education system cannot just be transplanted. However, Finland has not always been an education high performer—it languished in the mid twentieth century—but over the past several decades, as Pasi Sahlberg said, “Finland has improved a lot, while the rest of the world has improved a little bit.” This improvement can be traced to policy decisions. What are a few of the Finnish Lessons we might learn?
Standardization? Clearly a huge difference. Finland has no standardized tests to evaluate teachers, students, or schools. Finnish national math goals for grades one through nine take up only ten pages. Thinking about my own experience, this contrasts sharply with drafts of the national Next Generation Science Standards currently being reviewed in Washington state—their scope is a concern, and many reviewers have been offering each other hints and tips for reading just parts, because the length and breadth of the draft standards can make them daunting to tackle. (I’d like to point out there is a lot of great things going on in the Next Generation Science Standards as well!)
Pasi Sahlberg explained a choice in Finnish expenditures: instead of spending money on the testing of children, money is spent on improving people. All teachers are required to have a Masters’ degree, but that education is paid for by Finland. Finnish teachers with 15 years of experience make 102% of what their fellow university graduates make: for teachers in the US, the figure is only 65%. Interestingly enough, teachers and principals belong to the same union. It is also incredibly competitive to become a teacher: In 2010, an astounding 6,600 candidates applied for 660 primary school training slots. A thought provoking quote regarding standards and education? Andreas Schleicher of the OECD: “In Finland, the teachers are the standard.”
What about educational goals? Sahlberg stated that Finland never had a goal to be number one in the world—rather, their goal was to have a school system where pupils’ success doesn’t depend on their home background. This is achieved through trust in local schools and teachers instead of through test based accountability. One of the most talked-about sentences of Sahlberg’s speech? “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility is removed.” When I think about our state and accountability, Finland has nothing comparable to the Washington State Board of Education’s Achievement Index with its rating systems and school comparison functions.
One of the strengths of this conference was the diversity in the participants–teachers, administrators, policy makers, researchers, activists, they were there. There was diversity in the sponsors as well: the Economic Opportunity Institute, OSPI, the WEA, the UW College of Education, the League of Education Voters, among others. Emcee Ron Sims left us with this charge: “You don’t ever want to leave a meeting like this and not commit to change.” Alright, there’s a legislative session coming up—let’s get to work!