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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Finnish Education Leader Offers Some Observations on Ed Reform

Pasi Sahlberg  of Finland wrote a lengthy and compelling piece for the Washington Post's The Answer Sheet.  He calmly and rationally explains why he thinks what is happening in the U.S. won't work.  (To note, he does not address charter schools or Common Core.)  He is talking, very specifically, about teachers and teaching. 

In a short bite, he says:

First, standardization should focus more on teacher education and less on teaching and learning in schools. Singapore, Canada and Finland all set high standards for their teacher-preparation programs in academic universities. There is no Teach for Finland or other alternative pathways into teaching that wouldn’t include thoroughly studying theories of pedagogy and undergo clinical practice.

Second, the toxic use of accountability for schools should be abandoned. Current practices in many countries that judge the quality of teachers by counting their students’ measured achievement only is in many ways inaccurate and unfair. It is inaccurate because most schools’ goals are broader than good performance in a few academic subjects. It is unfair because most of the variation of student achievement in standardized tests can be explained by out-of-school factors.

Third, other school policies must be changed before teaching becomes attractive to more young talents. In many countries where teachers fight for their rights, their main demand is not more money but better working conditions in schools. Again, experiences from those countries that do well in international rankings suggest that teachers should have autonomy in planning their work, freedom to run their lessons the way that leads to best results, and authority to influence the assessment of the outcomes of their work.

What will work:

"...the freedom to teach without the constraints of standardized curricula and the pressure of standardized testing; strong leadership from principals who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty."

Key longer passages:

“Teacher effectiveness” is a commonly used term that refers to how much student performance on standardized tests is determined by the teacher.  This concept hence applies only to those teachers who teach subjects on which students are tested. Teacher effectiveness plays a particular role in education policies of nations where alternative pathways exist to the teaching profession.

In the United States, for example, there are more than 1,500 different teacher-preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Singapore and Finland only one academically rigorous teacher education program is available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor South Korea has fast-track options into teaching, such as Teach for America or Teach First in Europe. Teacher quality in high-performing countries is a result of careful quality control at entry into teaching rather than measuring teacher effectiveness in service.

Finland is not a fan of standardization in education. However, teacher education in Finland is carefully standardized.  All teachers must earn a master’s degree at one of the country’s research universities. Competition to get into these teacher education programs is tough; only “the best and the brightest” are accepted. As a consequence, teaching is regarded as an esteemed profession, on par with medicine, law or engineering.

Among 29 wealthy countries, the United States landed second from the last in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in “child life satisfaction.” 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.

In many under-performing nations, I notice, three fallacies of teacher effectiveness prevail. The first belief is that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”  

The role of an individual teacher in a school is like a player on a football team: all teachers are vital, but the culture of the school is even more important for the quality of the school.

Take the U.S. ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, when a team of college kids beat both Soviets and Finland in the final round and won the gold medal. The quality of Team USA certainly exceeded the quality of its players. So can an education system.

The second fallacy is that “the most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers.”  This is the driving principle of former D.C. schools chancellor Michele Rhee and many other “reformers” today.

A commonly used conclusion is that 10% to 20% of the variance in measured student achievement belongs to the classroom, i.e., teachers and teaching, and a similar amount is attributable to schools, i.e., school climate, facilities and leadership. In other words, up to two-thirds of what explains student achievement is beyond the control of schools, i.e., family background and motivation to learn.

Most scholars agree that effective leadership is among the most important characteristics of effective schools, equally important to effective teaching.

Effective leadership includes leader qualities, such as being firm and purposeful, having shared vision and goals, promoting teamwork and collegiality and frequent personal monitoring and feedback. Several other characteristics of more effective schools include features that are also linked to the culture of the school and leadership: Maintaining focus on learning, producing a positive school climate, setting high expectations for all, developing staff skills, and involving parents.

The third fallacy is that “If any children had three or four great teachers in a row, they would soar academically, regardless of their racial or economic background, while those who have a sequence of weak teachers will fall further and further behind”.

This fallacy has the most practical difficulties. The first one is about what it means to be a great teacher. Even if this were clear, it would be difficult to know exactly who is a great teacher at the time of recruitment. The second one is, that becoming a great teacher normally takes five to ten years of systematic practice. And determining the reliably of ‘effectiveness’ of any teacher would require at least five years of reliable data. This would be practically impossible. 

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, and yes. And I have Pre-traumatic Stress Syndrome over the eventual non-adoption of any of these ideas in Seattle or the United States.

- Tired

dw said...

Thank you Pasi Sahlberg! This article should be a handy link to post on any and all Ed Reform columns where comments are allowed.

I especially liked this: There is no Teach for Finland or other alternative pathways into teaching that wouldn’t include thoroughly studying theories of pedagogy and undergo clinical practice.

But really, people should read the article in its entirety. I wonder how TfA handlers are going to attempt to trivialize this sage advice from a respected "reformer" (no caps).

Melissa Westbrook said...

DW, simple. They will say Norway isn't the U.S. and leave it at that. (They are right but that really is not the issue.)

Unknown said...

I think the challenge to get real reform, i.e., school reform that will in fact produce better outcomes for students, lies on two levels. The more obvious one is defensive, to make sure that the people developing policy don't have economic incentives that become their own ends. And the only way to insure that is to push back against the massive effort underway to privatize public education.

But the larger, and perhaps more important challenge, lies on the level of imagination. We need to play defense, but we also have to play offense, and ultimately it's about reshaping the American culture of education around a vision based in clear ideas about what we understand to be human flourishing. We're not Finland, but Finland took a post war dysfunctional school culture and built a new one centered on promoting human flourishing. That's the most important thing to understand about what Findland did and accomplished. Take care of that, and the test scores take care of themselves.

For us it's not about slavishly imitating Finland, although we can certainly learn from what it did and adapt their best practices to our own circumstances. The task is to undertake, as Finland undertook it, a cultural transformation of our schools. Let's face it, such a transformation is what the corporate reformers are trying to effect, and alas, they are largely succeeding, but it fails because of the problem identified in the first paragraph above. That's what we have to defend against.

Going on offense starts with imagining what a schools culture whose end is human flourishing would look like. And then beginning the long-term process of getting policymakers to buy into it. Keep your eyes on Maryland, California, and Texas. There are key actors there that are way ahead of the curve on this compared to anybody I know of in Washington.

The DFER/LEV/Varner/Crosscut vision for education is just so eighties and nineties. Wasn't the last decade a repudiation of all that neoliberal nonsense? And yet they want everyone to think that people who oppose them are the reactionaries! It would be laughable if we didn't have to suffer through our own version the eighties they are foisting on us.

This seems to be our inevitable fate because their thinking reflects elite thinking in all its pathetic, nerdy, earnest, predictable, business-friendly, flat-souled, Washington second-rateness. And that thinking controls the active agenda when it comes to education policy in this state because nobody of any stature here has emerged to propose something different.

But it is what it is, and we are who we are--a state in which Bill Gates is our most prominent thought leader.

Melissa Westbrook said...

"We're not Finland, but Finland took a post war dysfunctional school culture and built a new one centered on promoting human flourishing.

Take care of that, and the test scores take care of themselves. "

Amen, brother.