What’s that standard? Excellence in Washington State and Finland

by Maren Johnson

Pasi Sahlberg 1I 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!

4 thoughts on “What’s that standard? Excellence in Washington State and Finland

  1. Al Gonzalez

    Wow, that is so awesome! Sounds like it was a great conference! And you got to hear Pasi Sahlberg!
    Even though we are different compared to Finland I still think we have a lot we can learn from what they’re doing. I think the fact that they respect and TRUST teachers and don’t standardize and don’t test their kids to death are things we can easily do!
    Testing and standardizing aren’t working so I think we should try something new.

  2. Todd Miller

    How about respect for the profession. The local pundetratzzi http://seattletimes.com/html/editorials/2019692095_varnercolumnfinnishschoolsxml.html are quickly picking apart his speech. We aren’t Finland blah, blah blah, but how about affording the profession more respect. It does’t cost anything, it is cross cultural and even if we never meet Finland’s level of competition for teaching jobs, a little respect would go a long way toward encouraging our best and brightest to try teaching instead of MBAs.

  3. Sarah Applegate

    Maren- I agree! It was a great conference and I was glad to finally get to see Pasi Sahlberg speak! What always surprises me, after spending 4 months in Finland last year looking at schools, is that the methods are not radical- choose the best to teach, make the job “good” by providing a reasonable workload and training and trusting them to do the work they were hired to do, and respect the developmental levels of kids-but they can sound shocking in our context of testing, accountability and blaming.
    I was especially heartened to see that a state, or even a district, is looking at the Finnish approach. From the federal level, it looks too big, too overwhelming. But from a district or state level, I really believe that some of the systems COULD be implemented, and even don’t cost much. Giving primary students outside breaks every 45 minutes, selecting the best folks for training AND more being mentors in special teacher training schools, and keeping elementary students with teachers for multiple years, are all low cost or free and start to bring some of the foundations of their system to us.
    What also really impressed me about the country were the general social agreements that exist around taking care and investing in all citizens. Yes, their taxes are high, but every single day I was there, I saw the impact of those taxes. The snow was cleared, the parks were abundant and kids ate healthy lunches everyday. There are more conservative political views in the country, but amazingly, they agree on the fact that investing and providing health care, education and training, and public service makes for a stronger country. They aren’t quibbling about if someone should be able to get a checkup each year or if people should be required to purchase health care or if new moms and dads should be provided 6 or 7 weeks materinity leave to take care of their kids…they provide a lot of support early on, which I think adds to their ability to have a successful education system, measured in a wide variety of ways.

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