Dr. Pasi Sahlberg: A Quality Education for Every Child

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg is an experienced educator and scholar. Born and raised in Finland, he is one of the world’s leading experts on the Finnish education system. Today, I was fortunate enough to hear him speak Chicago. His presentation, hosted by Raise Your Hand Illinois and sponsored by the Chicago Community Trust, centered on developing quality education for every child in the United States. To begin his presentation, Dr. Sahlberg addressed common myths that surround the Finnish education system. He focused on three myths in particular: the question of size, the lack of diversity, and the question of superhero teachers.

  1. Size Matters Myth. The main grudge held against the successes of the Finnish educational system begins and ends with the issue of size. Finland’s successes cannot be compared or transferred to the Unites States because Finland’s population is much smaller than the US population. Dr. Sahlberg’s response to this was very interesting. While the differences in populations are undeniable, Dr. Sahlberg reminded the audience that the United States does not consist of a single educational system. As our national laws require, individual states and districts are ultimately responsible for determining educational policy. While we all know there are 50 states in our Union, there are also thousands of school districts in the US. Additionally, each and every school system in our nation is smaller than Finland. Therefore, it is impossible to completely disregard the successes of the Finnish system due to size alone.
  2. Lack of Diversity Myth. Another knock against the success Finland has had in recent years is that the country lacks ethnic, religious, and social diversity. On the other hand, the United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Home to countless ethnic, religious, and social minorities. However, Dr. Sahlberg reminded the crowd that there isn’t a country in the world that is homogeneous. He added that there are two national languages: Finnish and Swedish as well as Sami, an unofficial national language.
  3. Superhero Teachers Myth. And then there is the question of teachers. Finland is known as a global leader in teacher prep programs. While the United States higher education system is at the top of its class, the 2000 plus teacher prep programs cannot compare to the elite, masters-level programs that occur at Finland’s 8 top-tier research institutions. But what would happen if teachers in both Finland and the United States swapped schools? A recent article on Dr. Sahlberg’s website argues that the Finnish teachers would be completely unprepared to teach in the American schools. Finnish teachers do not possess superhero qualities. Rather, they are trained, trusted, and creative professionals. If transplanted to an American school, which would presumably emphasize standardized test results and concept mastery, these same creative professionals would fold under the pressure. According to Dr. Sahlberg, one of the main reasons for the success of the Finnish schools is the emphasis on creativity in the classroom. And the conductor of this creativity is the classroom teacher.

Dr. Sahlberg then transitioned from three myths about the Finnish educational model to three truths about all successful educational systems, including Finland.

  1. Truth 1: Successful State. In order to produce a successful educational system, a nation must first produce a successful state. A successful state consists of quality economic and social systems. Dr. Sahlberg pointed out that when it comes to economic competitiveness, the United States and Finland are relatively close to one another in the global rankings. However, when it comes to social competitiveness, Finland is far superior to the United States. Educational performance is not simply a question of economic circumstances, it is also a question of social equity.
  2. Truth 2: Equal Society. Equity must be a part of any country’s educational agenda if they are to become a successful nation when it comes to education. Dr. Sahlberg pointed to the United State’s floundering equity statistics in several international poles. His main focus was on the lack of equality for two groups: women and ethnic minorities. Unlike Finland, women in the United States do not receive as many fundamental services and representation as they should. A successful society is one with a successful educational system. And a society with a successful educational system demands equity for all of its citizens.
  3. Truth 3: Real Winners Don’t Compete. This final truth was, in my opinion, the most powerful. According to Dr. Sahlberg, Finland became one of the world leaders in education by doing exactly the opposite of what one might think. Instead of focusing on becoming the top educational system in the world, Finland focused on creating great schools for each and every child. As Dr. Sahlberg put it, competition leads to an obsession with data and standardization. Analysis of years of PISA data have consistently proven that nations who set out to create the top educational system in the world, fail miserably to do so. Furthermore, Dr. Sahlberg stressed that ranking educational systems goes against the nature of successful education. Education should not focus on determining winners and losers. Instead, the focus should rest on creating opportunities for outstanding education for all children.

In Finland, the question citizens ask themselves when it comes to education is this: “Do we trust the schools we are sending our children to?” Trust is an essential component in creating a successful society and a successful education system. In Finland, over 95% of all citizens say that they trust their local public schools. Evidence of this can be seen in country’s minuscule drop-out rates, successful academic and vocational programs, and dominant public schools. There are no private schools in Finland. On the other hand, only 29% of the citizens in the United States say that they trust their local public schools. There is a laundry list of evidence to support this figure: high suspension and drop-out rates, low graduation rates, and a rise in privatization. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the City of Chicago.

However, Dr. Sahlberg made it clear that Chicago already has all of the pieces it needs to create successful school systems at its disposal. In fact, the same systems and innovations that helped to make Finland a global powerhouse when it comes to education, originated in the United States. American schools don’t need rapid innovations. They already exist. What our school systems are in terrible need of is a vaccine to kill the recent GERM infestation. In the past half century, the industrialized parts the world have undergone a Global Education Reform Movement, aka GERM. Rises in privatization, competition, standardized testing, school choice, accountability, fast-track teacher prep programs, and focuses on math and reading at the expense of the arts are all trends that carry GERMs. These GERMs, according to Dr. Sahlberg, are destroying successful public schools by stripping them of the things they need to be successful.

Additionally, Dr. Sahlberg made it clear that those who crunch the PISA results have found evidence that GERMs do not benefit educational systems. In fact, GERMs diminish school performance. The data also presented the following conclusions:

  1. School choice and competition are not related to improved performance.
  2. Greater equity and autonomy over curricula and assessment seem to improve performance.
  3. Poverty explains up to 46% of the PISA scores in OECD countries.

Do you think Finland is dealing with a GERM infestation? If you guessed not, you would be correct. While most of the Westernized world is fighting off this disease, Finland has remained immune. How? To help his audience wrap their minds around Finland’s success, Dr. Sahlberg presented the following comparisons between American educational attitudes and Finnish educational attitudes:

  1. Kids ready for school v. School ready for every kid. In the United States, it is the job of the student to be ready for school. In Finland, it is the responsibility of the school to be prepared and ready for each and every child.
  2. College readiness v. Innovation readiness. College is the expected norm for every student in the United States, regardless. In Finland, it is understood that not every citizen needs to attend an college-level academic institution. The country has highly successful vocational and art schools.
  3. Reach predetermined standards v. Find your talent. American schools are obsessed with high-stakes testing. Educational policy is data-driven. In Finland, education is catered to the individual. Once a student reaches high school, they are not placed in grades. Rather, they can pace themselves as they would like through their experience. Some students spend 3 years while other spends 5 or 6. Every student’s educational experience is personalized.
  4. Teaching is an individual race v. Teaching is a team sport. Teachers in the United States are now being assessed based on their students’ performances on high-stakes tests. These results literally have financial incentives for the teachers: merit-based pay is becoming the norm. Neither one of these systems exist in Finland. Teacher prep programs are the most elite schools in the nation and teachers are respected in the same way medical doctors are. Teachers in Finland are also more comfortable with engaging in professional collaboration to ensure all students’ instructional needs are met and they are successful graduates.
  5. Good school for me v. Good school for everyone. School choice is quickly becoming a prescribed right in the United States. In Finland, each and every school is of the highest quality. There is no need for school choice because all of the schools provide an elite educational experience.

Dr. Sahlberg concluded his talk with three lessons for the future.

  1. Rethink the role of play in child’s lives Art, Theatre, Physical Education. In Finland, each lesson in 60 minutes of which 15 minutes is student-directed. Essentially, recess is a right of every student every 60 minutes. It is their job play. Additionally, evidence has shown that play is the best activity to grow an active and creative mind. On the other hand, a lack of play leads to the rise of ADHD. Students are prescribed a pill to sit still for 7 hours instead of running around like their bodies are telling them to. In Finland, ADHD is known as childhood
  2. Gender Equality Equal representation leads to more equitable improvement. In Finland, women are political empowered and serve equally in the nation’s ministerial positions. Successful educational systems are crafted by the synthesis of male and female minds working together.
  3. Equity is Excellence. They are the same thing! You cannot have one without the other. In Finland, equity can be thought of as the wellbeing and overall happiness and health of a student as opposed to their rank or if they have met the predetermined standards.

Dr. Sahlberg’s talk was extremely enlightening. There was so much powerful information to process. While it is impossible for me to determine the most important aspect of his talk, as it is all extremely relevant and needed now in our field. However, I will say that his comments regarding the current state of education in the United States were inspiring: we have the tools in our tool belt to fundamentally change American pubic education for the better. While the construction process will not be easy, it is not an impossible task. Thanks to Dr. Pasi Sahlberg and Raise Your Hand Illinois for this amazing presentation.

Remember: Real Winners Don't Compete.
Remember: Real Winners Don’t Compete.
Dr. Sahlberg highlighting the differences in Finnish and American cultures of education.
Dr. Sahlberg highlighting the differences in Finnish and American educational policy and culture.

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