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What Lessons Can Finland Teach?

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June 15, 2011 06:19 pm


Ever since Finland first ranked at the top of all nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Scandinavian country has attracted a great deal of attention from educators around the world, including in the United States. And, inevitably, this attention has sparked a backlash: Finland is too small, too homogeneous, too affluent to say anything to the U.S., where schools are large, diverse, and populated with large numbers of students in poverty. All true (except that Finland is more diverse than many Americans believe). Yet the detractors cannot deny the results. So what lessons can Finland teach?

Pasi Sahlberg, the director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki, provides the details in an article in the summer 2011 issue of American Educator (Sahlberg’s article was excerpted from Teacher and Leader Effectiveness: Lessons Learned from High-Performing Education Systems, a report published in March by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education). His article makes clear that Finland’s success is based on the same idea that is motivating much of the reform effort in the United States today: great teaching matters.

Finland’s example, along with those of other high-performing systems such as Ontario and Singapore, suggests five lessons that could help shape the debate in this country:

It takes a system. Finland’s policy makers do not look at policies affecting teacher effectiveness as discrete practices; they are intended to build on one another and form a system to recruit, prepare, develop, and reward teachers throughout their careers.

Get it right from the start. Teacher preparation in Finland is highly selective, so that only the most qualified and committed candidates go into preparation programs. And then all candidates receive rigorous, intensive preparation, which includes substantial clinical experience.

Make teaching an attractive profession. Teachers in Finland are practically rock stars. But they don’t get paid like rock stars; teachers’ salaries are about average. Rather, the country has established its preparation programs and working conditions so that teaching is a highly respected profession.

Invest in continuous learning. Finnish teachers spend about half the amount of time before students as U.S. teachers, which means they have considerable time to devote to working with colleagues and strengthening their knowledge and practice. In addition, Finnish teachers are expected to take on responsibility for curriculum development and assessment.

Proactively recruit and develop high-quality leadership. Finland requires all principals to be qualified to teach in the school they lead, and prepares and supports principals to be instructional leaders.

Does this mean the U.S. should become Finland? Of course not. But these lessons suggest some directions reformers in the U.S. might turn if we want to get results that are comparable to Finland’s. The good news is that many states are moving this way. The challenge will be to create a system that prepares, supports, and develops teachers so that all teachers can indeed be highly effective.

International Comparisons

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