A Lesson from Finland

If someone were to ask you what kind of career requires an advanced college degree, a 40+ hour work week, constant research and development, and demanded critical thinking, constant adjustment, quick decision-making, and management skills most people would be inclined to guess a doctor or a lawyer or some other prestigious high salary job. Few would probably guess that you were asking about the education profession, at least not in America. In other parts of the world, teachers are seen in a much different light then they are here in the United States.

I don’t usually like to reference back to articles that are over a year old, but one of the powerful things about Twitter is that relevant information has a way of getting recycled back into the mainstream. In the article linked below a Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, discusses some of the differences between highly ranked countries in education and the United States. In reading the article, several points jumped out to me that I highlighted in the article and will discuss here.

What if Finland’s great teachers taught in the US

From previous posts, I hope that I have made it clear that I am not a big fan of comparing the education systems of one country to those of another. It always seems to be the case that there are too many variables to develop clear conclusions. Anyone that has worked extensively with data will tell you that you can make the numbers say what you want them to if you look hard enough. I have found that to be the case with comparison studies in the past; the study conducted makes certain assumptions and inevitably apples are compared to oranges.

One of the points that Sahlberg states is that in top performing countries, specifically China and Finland, there is one very rigorous and selective problem for teacher certification in comparison to over 1,500 different teacher certification programs in the US. In America we are searching for ways to entice the best and brightest into the profession through talks about increasing starting salary, performance pay, etc. We ignore, however, the fact that the quality and quantity of our paths to education vary significantly. In a sense this variance in certification has been the lead domino that has brought us to the point of increased emphasis on standardized testing, school accountability, and educator effectiveness. These factors, in essence, have a retroactive clean up fill to them while the programs described elsewhere seem to take a front-end approach.

The most striking aspect of the article to me is that Sahlberg acknowledges that teachers have an impact on student learning, but not as much as we tend to believe here in the United States. Teachers work as part of a bigger team of adults in a building that creates culture and leadership. The article cites that, “schools and teachers alone cannot overcome the negative impact that poverty causes in many children’s learning in school.” When the article was written in May 2013 that poverty number was around 23%. Viewed from the perspective of free and reduced lunches that number is near 51%!

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches.

This is where Sahlberg argues that public policy must come in because, “Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.”

American teachers work very hard to hurdle great odds. They face a lot of criticism, yet find a way to overcome, persevere and get a lot of children to amazing heights. They cannot, however, change the baggage that comes with students when they enter the classroom, nor should they be held accountable for what happens to a student between the end of one school day and the start of the next. 70+% of the time of any regular school day is spent outside of the school and thus outside the influence of the classroom teacher, maybe it is time that we stop restricting and penalizing the hard-working front line teachers and start addressing the root cause of student struggles.

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