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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 10/22/2011

Transporting Finland’s education success to U.S.

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

Finland is dominating my educational radar screen.

When I read Linda Darling Hammond’s excellent “The Flat World and Education” (2010) a few months ago, her description of  “The Finnish Success Story” fascinated me.  Watching the film American Teacher last month, the most hopeful piece of information for me was that in Finland teaching is the most admired job by college students. In the Q and A that followed a local showing of the movie, questions and comments about the Finnish system dominated. A few days later The Answer Sheet reprinted a compelling letter from Diane Ravitch to Deborah Meier reporting on her visit to Finland and on the Finnish system of education.  Finland. Finland. Finland.

And now comes a book by Pasi Sahlberg, the leading authority on Finland’s educational reform strategy, “Finnish Lessons,” to be published next month by Teachers College Press. A former teacher, leader of professional development for the Ministry of Education and then with the World Bank, where he wrote a definitive report on Finnish education, Sahlberg is now the leader of one of Finland’s major organizations in the field of innovation.

Ravitch, Darling-Hammond, American Teacher, and now Sahlberg, have sold me. There’s something happening there and what it is is exactly clear. The Finnish approach to education has something to teach us.

Here is a system in which teaching is highly valued, teacher recruitment is highly competitive, teacher education and continued faculty development is supported by the state, there is minimal testing, decent teacher salaries, and high student achievement. Phew! Find me something here that isn’t compelling.

As Sahlberg writes: “The Finnish way of educational change should be encouraging to those who have found the path of competition, choice, test-based accountability, and performance-based pay to be a dead end.” He also notes, that education policies there are the result of “systematic, mostly intentional, development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society in general and within its education system in particular.”

It should be noted that for Finnish teachers it is not primarily about salaries; it is about status, authority, autonomy, and respect.

Of course there are differences between the challenges in each of our countries and no one, including Sahlberg, argues that we should adapt the Finnish system. The question is what can we learn from Finland that we should adapt and how can we make that happen?

Here we get stuck. “Yes but” responses seem to dominate.

“Yes, but we don’t have the money.” Wrong, we just choose to distribute our money differently and don’t tax fairly. Besides, most of this has nothing to do with money. It has to do with cultural values.

“Yes, but we have more cultural challenges and far more poverty.”  We do, but we can still do far better in reaching our culturally and economically disadvantaged students.

“Yes, but our Congress is so stalemated that no reforms are likely to pass.” Wrong, changes do not require federal government action.

So then I think, why is it that when we have agreement among many of the best minds in education, people with high visibility, and now a world respected leader in educational and social change, Paso Sahlberg, that there is a model that can help guide educational change here, so little happens?

My dad once taught me that while it’s very important to have hope, hope is passive.  His words have stayed with me. “It’s important to act, to do something to make things happen. Life is too short to keep hoping someone else will do it.”

So then I wonder if my columns and others like it are really out of the Don Quixote playbook, tilting at windmills. I know words are not passive but they clearly aren’t enough. I want us to act, not just talk, and not just “hope that someday…” Are we all just preaching to the choir and tilting windmills? I want to do more and I think we can.

Then I think, why not capitalize now on the ideas coming from Finland? We need a ground swell and perhaps that could start with a high profile “summit” meeting that includes prominent leaders like Ravitch, Darling-Hammond, and Sahlberg and, perhaps, some enlightened policy makers as well. I think it needs to also be well publicized, with extensive use of the media.

The task should be to come up with a visionary and realistic action plan, utilizing what has been learned from Finland. Perhaps someone who is an effective facilitator of change, like Peter Senge, could lead the meeting.

Most importantly, it needs one of our prominent leaders to step forward and organize this. Pasi Sahlberg will be in the United States in January.  Is this plan to ride the waves coming from Finland too grandiose? I don’t think so.  It certainly beats just writing and hoping.

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By  |  07:00 AM ET, 10/22/2011

 
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