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Topic: [ncsm-members] What if Finland's great teachers taught in U.S. schools?
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] What if Finland's great teachers taught in U.S. schools?
Posted: May 23, 2014 2:10 PM
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From The Washington Post, Friday, May 16, 3 See
. Our thanks to Rheta Rubenstein for bringing this piece to our
Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss

What if Finland's great teachers taught in U.S. schools?

By Valerie Strauss

Finland's Pasi Sahlberg is one of the world's leading experts on
school reform and the author of the best-selling "Finnish Lessons:
What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?" In
this piece he writes about whether the emphasis that American school
reformers put on "teacher effectiveness" is really the best approach
to improving student achievement.

He is director general of Finland's Centre for International Mobility
and Cooperation and has served the Finnish government in various
positions and worked for the World Bank in Washington D.C. He has
also been an adviser for numerous governments internationally about
education policies and reforms, and is an adjunct professor of
education at the University of Helsinki and University of Oulu. He
can be reached at

By Pasi Sahlberg

Many governments are under political and economic pressure to turn
around their school systems for higher rankings in the international
league tables. Education reforms often promise quick fixes within one
political term. Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Finland are
commonly used models for the nations that hope to improve teaching
and learning in their schools. In search of a silver bullet,
reformers now turn their eyes on teachers, believing that if only
they could attract "the best and the brightest" into the teaching
profession, the quality of education would improve.

"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.

In recent years the "no excuses"' argument has been particularly
persistent in the education debate. There are those who argue that
poverty is only an excuse not to insist that all schools should reach
higher standards. Solution: better teachers. Then there are those who
claim that schools and teachers alone cannot overcome the negative
impact that poverty causes in many children's learning in school.
Solution: Elevate children out of poverty by other public policies.

For me the latter is right. In the United States today, 23 percent of
children live in poor homes. In Finland, the same way to calculate
child poverty would show that figure to be almost five times smaller.
The United States ranked in the bottom four in the recent United
Nations review on child well-being. 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.

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. There is another "teacher quality"
checkpoint at graduation from School of Education in Finland.
Students are not allowed to earn degrees to teach unless they
demonstrate that they possess knowledge, skills and morals necessary
to be a successful teacher.

But education policies in Finland concentrate more on school
effectiveness than on teacher effectiveness. This indicates that what
schools are expected to do is an effort of everyone in a school,
working together, rather than teachers working individually.

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." This statement became known in
education policies through the influential McKinsey & Company report
titled "How the world's best performing school systems come out on
top". Although the report takes a broader view on enhancing the
status of teachers by better pay and careful recruitment this
statement implies that the quality of an education system is defined
by its teachers. By doing this, the report assumes that teachers work
independently from one another. But teachers in most schools today,
in the United States and elsewhere, work as teams when the end result
of their work is their joint effort.

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. Team sports
offer numerous examples of teams that have performed beyond
expectations because of leadership, commitment and spirit. 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. This false belief is central to the "no
excuses" school of thought. If a teacher was the most important
single factor in improving quality of education, then the power of a
school would indeed be stronger than children's family background or
peer influences in explaining student achievement in school.

Research on what explains students' measured performance in school
remains mixed. 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.

Over thirty years of systematic research on school effectiveness and
school improvement reveals a number of characteristics that are
typical of more effective schools. 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. In other words, school leadership matters as much
as teacher quality.

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 theoretical
assumption is included in influential policy recommendations, for
instance in "Essential Elements of Teacher Policy in ESEA:
Effectiveness, Fairness and Evaluation" by the Center for American
Progress to the U.S. Congress. Teaching is measured by the growth of
student test scores on standardized exams.

This assumption presents a view that education reform alone could
overcome the powerful influence of family and social environment
mentioned earlier. It insists that schools should get rid of
low-performing teachers and then only hire great ones. 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.

Everybody agrees that the quality of teaching in contributing to
learning outcomes is beyond question. It is therefore understandable
that teacher quality is often cited as the most important in-school
variable influencing student achievement. But just having better
teachers in schools will not automatically improve students' learning

Lessons from high-performing school systems, including Finland,
suggest that we must reconsider how we think about teaching as a
profession and what is the role of the school in our society.

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. These
countries set the priority to have strict quality control before
anybody will be allowed to teach - or even study teaching! This is
why in these countries teacher effectiveness and teacher evaluation
are not such controversial topics as they are in the U.S. today.

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. Most teachers understand that what students learn in school
is because the whole school has made an effort, not just some
individual teachers. In the education systems that are high in
international rankings, teachers feel that they are empowered by
their leaders and their fellow teachers. In Finland, half of surveyed
teachers responded that they would consider leaving their job if
their performance would be determined by their student's standardized
test results.

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. Schools
should also be trusted in these key areas of the teaching profession.

To finish up, let's do one theoretical experiment. We transport
highly trained Finnish teachers to work in, say, Indiana in the
United States (and Indiana teachers would go to Finland). After five
years-assuming that the Finnish teachers showed up fluent in English
and that education policies in Indiana would continue as planned-we
would check whether these teachers have been able to improve test
scores in state-mandated student assessments.

I argue that if there were any gains in student achievement they
would be marginal. Why? Education policies in Indiana and many other
states in the United States create a context for teaching that limits
(Finnish) teachers to use their skills, wisdom and shared knowledge
for the good of their students' learning. Actually, I have met some
experienced Finnish-trained teachers in the United States who confirm
this hypothesis. Based on what I have heard from them, it is also
probable that many of those transported Finnish teachers would be
already doing something else than teach by the end of their fifth
year - quite like their American peers.

Conversely, the teachers from Indiana working in Finland-assuming
they showed up fluent in Finnish-stand to flourish on account of 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.
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Finland's education expert Pasi Sahlberg - see
UNICEF, 2013. Child well-being in rich countries. A comparative
overview. Innocenti Report Card 11. Florence: UNICEF.

McKinsey & Company (2010). "How the world's best performing school
systems come out on top". London: McKinsey & Co.

Teddlie, C. (2010). The Legacy of the School Effectiveness Research
Tradition, in A. Hargreaves, A. Lieberman, M. Fullan & D. Hopkins
(Eds.). The Second International Handbook of Educational Change.
Dordrecht: Springer.

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