MBAE has been pleased to public blog posts from members of the Massachusetts education delegation to Finland and Sweden. Last week, almost a month after our trip, some of us presented our “take aways” to members of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees at their annual conference. Here are my responses to the two questions we wanted to answer on our trip:
1) How does Finland structure teacher preparation, education policy, and teacher in-service programs to promote student achievement?
Higher education, including professional development, is free to anyone who qualifies. Fine print – it is really hard to qualify! Result? Most students are taught by highly effective teachers who take responsibility for their students’ success. Teachers have time built in to their day to collaborate and to discuss the students they have in common. They identify what those students need to succeed and come up with a plan to provide it. After-school tutoring is the rule, not the exception.
2) How do the education systems in Finland and Sweden prepare students for the interconnected world of the 21st Century?
In Finland, education is a strong cultural value and priority. Teachers are respected and it is difficult to gain entry in to the profession. We learned that Sweden is just now making it more difficult to become a teacher. But, there is a culture that says every child is equal and must be provided the opportunity to learn. Every student is multi-lingual. This may at least partially be due to the geographic circumstances of Europe, but it also speaks to the expectation that everyone will be interacting with people from other countries and cultures.
In a week’s time, it was hard to dig deeply into what we say or to distinguish what we were told from the reality. Clearly, there are cultural differences that make it difficult to compare our schools to theirs. Yet, I couldn’t help to reach some conclusions with implications for MBAE’s policy focus in Massachusetts:
Finally, a word about high stakes tests – you’ll hear that there are none in Finland or Sweden. Adults kept telling us so. Yet, students are admitted to high school based on their grades and/or scores on exams in both Finland and Sweden. Students we spoke with in their first year at an elite high school in Stockholm told us that although they had already been performing well enough to gain admission to the school, they were already nervous about the exams they would have to take to get in to a university program. The language barrier was evident here – tests in Finland and Sweden may open or close doors to professional training at a very early point in a child’s education. That seems much more “high stakes” than an MCAS exam to me.
There is an Exxon/Mobil ad that says, “nothing transforms schools like investing in advanced teacher education”. That is my key take-away from our trip. Making sure the United States does whatever it takes to have the best teachers in every classroom is going to bring the greatest return for students and for our society.