Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education

Lessons from Finland

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:

  •  Teachers make a difference   – and teacher preparation programs are the lever for raising the levels of teacher effectiveness in our schools and professional stature in our society.  We can have immediate impact if school districts simply refused to hire from programs known to be inferior.  School Committees and Superintendents must structure their policies to limit the number of last minute hires and to fill positions early in the hiring season, when the pool of candidates is strongest.  We also need long-term system change by making it much harder to earn a teaching credential.  In Finland, people acted as if we were crazy when we inquired about evaluation and removing low performing teachers.  These issues are not relevant when only the best are admitted to the profession and those who are continually hone their practice and accept, even demand, feedback.
  • Individualized learning – Every student is expected to realize their potential.  Teachers on a number of occasions talked about meeting to discuss their pupils and the individual attention they provide both in and out of the classroom to make sure that everyone learns.
  • Attitudes and expectations are key to performance – Parents and families are engaged in their student learning, not by constantly intervening on junior’s behalf but by making sure their children fulfill their own responsibilities and by reinforcing the value that education is important.  School cultures are child-focused.  It’s not about the adults.

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.



Visit to a Swedish Charter School

This guest blog shares “random commentary on what we learned” by Maureen LaCroix, Retired Superintendent of Schools, The MA Delegation to Finland and Sweden Visits

Gymnasium School: Viktor Rydberg High School
Private School Run by a Foundation

This is a foundation sponsored charter school. Other charter schools in Sweden are for profit and very controversial.Viktor Rydberg represents one of first charter schools in the Stockholm area. Schools in the foundation are small units.

As a foundation, they are trying to be in the forefront and try new techniques. In terms of     school mission, they look to see what each individual student needs to be successful
They note that since entry to the school is determined by grades, they attract really good students. Programs are based on students’ passions and interests

Throughout Sweden, all the high schools market themselves to attract students.
In terms of travel, students use public transportation. Public schools can take in students by choice resulting in some students getting pushed out of the region where they live. In either case, the system relies on a voucher system where the state money follows the student. In addition, there are for profit schools which now represent 20% of the schools.

In terms of mission, the Victor Rydberg School has an international focus that in includes both Bilingual Education and Project Work. It is interesting to note that not every teacher at the school has teaching credentials. New government regulations will require that they have the credential. The challenge into the future is how do you maintain bilingual profile with the change in the rules for teacher credentials.

The visit to Sweden revealed that the teacher training is too minimal and viewed as problematic.

Salaries for teachers are a problem so in Sweden not enough people are entering the teaching profession. This is in sharp contrast to Finland where acceptance into a teacher training program is a very competitive process.

It is interesting to note, however, that Project Work and working ” cross-curriculiarly” across subjects is part of Sweden’s national curriculum. It permeates every aspect of what they do.

Funding depends on how many students you have. This school gets money from 34 communities. Money follows the students in both the public and charter schools. What seems to differ is that in Sweden, the policy is a school for all.

Visit to Rhetoric Class
Who Survives?

Students present for one minute making a case for why the character they have chosen should be the survivor. After 4 students present, they leave the room. Another student assumes the role of teacher to lead the discussion of who should be selected as the balloon survivor.

Next we visited a Chemistry class where students were highly engaged in collaborative problem solving.

In a candid Interview with an English teacher, we learn about some concerns, such as teacher, licensure, mentoring and worries about bullying in Sweden that are comparable to the US. In Sweden, teacher licensure, bullying, and appropriate mentoring are challenges and mandates Included in national reform. Status of teachers, the recruitment of teachers, and salary are identified as problematic. Swedish schools are anti-authoritarian. State has taken care of social justices issues. Swedish students have little access to volunteer opportunities Entrepreneurship is one of the national drives. Collaboration, independence, move to privatization.

The teacher tells us that parents exert a lot of academic pressure especially at times of grading. Strong movement among teachers to use formative assessment. But in the new reform there is. movement from grades (report cards) to unlabeled assessment. Parents are very anxious about this because they want to know their child’s place in the class. Teachers seem to be more interested in formative assessment.

It is interesting to note that Sweden is looking to Finland noting their place in the Pisa standards.

In Sweden, standardized tests are focused on problem based learning, The teacher indicates that this is a very strong measurement instrument that shows teachers how his/herstudents are doing. The English teacher is proud that she challenges students more than the curriculum demands.

Founders of the school stress that they created this school because their own children were not engaged in school. Idea was to wake up the guy sitting at the back of the classroom so he wanted to learn. If you get the best teachers, they believe you get the best students. they also stress the importance of connecting the learning Citing that the Arts and Sciences go together. Yet they acknowledge that even in Sweden, it is difficult for them to keep Arts Education since the government wants more Science focus. They are very worried that if Sweden loses the Arts, the country will lose the creativity they value.  Folks are also worried that there has been very poor teacher education in Sweden for many years. It is not a competitive entry process and is not a challenging program.  Notes that the methods of the Finnish Education Teacher Preparation Program are so much better.

Since our group is very interested in Teacher Evaluation, we asked about that. One of the founders noted that in their schools, student engagement is very important so they give teachers a great deal of freedom. Teacher Evaluation is based on student and parent feedback done through an anonymous online survey. In addition, the headmaster observes teachers.

As we concluded our visit, the MA Delegation noted that returning to the US we appreciate that we have learned as much about our own accomplishments and challenges as we have about the schools in Finland. We will use the learning to spark a debate and renew the commitment to “Every Child Is a Winner.”

Cornerstones of Education Policy in Finland

After two school visits in Finland, we visited government officials and Helsinki University to learn about teacher preparation education. Then it was off to Sweden via overnight ferry! What a trip! Some reflections from a busy couple of days:

Our meeting with the National Board of Education (which roughly compares to our state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in function) gave us an understanding of the context and history. (And, fun facts like there is a 1:2 ratio of saunas to people in Finland — which may explain why everyone is so calm!)

Education was originally run by the church, which had decreed that both men and women had to be able to read and write in order to get married. Mothers taught students at home, which may be the root of the cultural expectation of parental responsibility and engagement in education. Since compulsory education became law in 1921, there has not been a big debate about the importance of education. “Everyone thinks in similar way about it,” was how it was described. There is a shared belief that education can change social status.

As others have observed, and Rep. Jennifer Benson blogged, we have heard recurring themes about the value of education and respect and trust for teachers. Leo Pahkin, Counsellor at the Board, told us about the five cornerstones of education policy that have been consistently applied regardless of the party in power. These are worth repeating:

1. Common and consistent long-term policy – Education reform started in 1970 and led to the shared goal and expectation that all kids will get an excellent education. Teacher training, both for new teachers and in-service professional development, has been a key focus to raise standards.

2. Broad commitment to a vision of a knowledge-based economy – Changes are creating pressures for educational innovation. The skills that are easiest to teach are also easiest to digitize, automate or outsource. As the economic input of routine manual jobs declines, teaching needs to adapt to the new economic demands. Families share and convey the message that school is important.

3. Educational equality – All children have rights and talents. Every student gets the general, intensified and special support they need. Comprehensive schools are free of charge to all including books, food, transportation and health care; with well-organized and effective special education (SPED).

4. Devolution of decision power and responsibility at local level – Principals have great authority and give direction to the school. They fill many roles and are very important. Municipalities can organize schools in different ways and make hiring decisions in various ways that meet local needs. Communication between school and home is part of the core curriculum and a professional expectation.

5. Culture of trust – “Finnish handshakes are the strongest in the world.” There are no statewide or national exams until one given for upper secondary school that is competitive and high stakes, causing concerns about the kids who don’t get accepted to a program. Government accountability ended with elimination of the “inspection” system – students are “inspectors” and provide feedback to their teachers.

You can find the presentation here and more information on the website.

These points were reinforced at the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture,where Ilkka Turunen, Special Government Advisor, explained that these attitudes are embedded in Finnish thinking. When polled about the most important occurence in their history, 3 out of 4 Finns say it was the establishment of compulsory education.

Our challenge? What policy changes are needed to embed this value and trust in our education system in the culture in Massachusetts? More to come…

Entering Teaching Profession in Finland a Rigorous Process

This guest post by Emily Parks, Assistant Superintendent in Westwood Public Schools, is another in a series by members of the Massachusetts Education Delegation touring Finland.

During our time in Finland, again and again, we have heard from Finnish educators and policy-makers about a pervasive culture of trust.  We keep asking questions about evaluation and accountability; they keep telling us about the expertise of teachers, teachers’ ability to work collaboratively to make choices about how to best teach each child, and the trust that principals and parents have in these professionals to do their job effectively. 

I was particularly interested today, therefore, to go to the University of Helsinki to hear about teacher education.  Once again, the respect afforded to teachers and the trust that society has in them to teach children was apparent.  What emerged for me today is that this belief in teachers’ effectiveness is tied to how they are prepared to enter the profession. 

We learned today that at the University of Helsinki (one of 20 teacher education programs in the country – all run by the state), fewer than 10% of applicants to the teacher education program are admitted.  The admissions process is rigorous:

  • A written test in which applicants are given several articles to read and then demonstrate their ability to analyze what they have read
  • An interview designed to understand their motivation for becoming a teacher
  • A 90-minute process in which a group of applicants are given a pedagogical task and the admissions evaluators observe how the candidates think, communicate and interact with the group.

Very important knowledge and skills are assessed not as the final step in a licensure process, but at the outset of the training process.  Our speaker, Matti Meri, the head of the teacher education program at the University of Helsinki, emphasized that the university wants to select people who are good thinkers, strong communicators, ready to work in a team, and able to reflect on their own experience as a student. The admissions evaluators spend 3 days in training to clarify and calibrate the admissions criteria so that they are ready to make careful selections about who is admitted.

Clearly, just getting accepted to a teacher education program is a challenge.  From there, students begin the 5 year process to becoming a teacher, including earning both a bachelors degree and a masters degree.  These university students spend multiple years in schools observing teachers and students while completing coursework at the university before they complete a teaching practicum.  They have one full-year of study about instructional pedagogy before earning their degree.  To then get a job as a teacher, a candidate might be asked to spend 2 or 3 days in a school, teaching sample lessons, meeting with potential colleagues, and speaking with parents while being considered for a position.

As our group tries to understand the layers and complexity that contribute to Finland’s educational success, it’s apparent that there isn’t just one magic factor to be identified.  It seems clear to me, though, that the high caliber of teachers in Finland must be related to rigorous process of entering the profession.  And as I keep coming back to the echoing theme of trust, something is starting to take shape for me.   I do trust people who are highly-skilled, reflective, and collaborative and who have a keen understanding of and commitment to the purpose of their work.  As a teacher, those were the kind of people that I wanted to work with and learn from.  As a principal, those were the kind of people that I endeavored to hire.  (And, was often fortunate to do so.)  And, as a country, those are the professionals we should be sending into our classrooms.  Which leaves me to wonder:  How do we make the teaching profession attractive enough to recruit and retain talented people who have many choices for the direction of their careers?

 Emily J. Parks is Assistant Superintendent in Westwood, MA Public Schools

Finnish Culture’s Influence on Education System

This guest post by Massachusetts State Representative Jennifer Benson is another in a series by members of the Massachusetts Education Delegation as they tour Finland.

After 2 days, 2 school visits and a meeting at the National Board of Education I have begun shaping some impressions on the Finnish educational system, and more importantly, the Finnish culture.  I have had the opportunity to talk with teachers and administrators, students and parents, as well as an education official and believe that much of the successes in the Finnish system is due to the inherent Finnish culture and their choice to enhance those cultural advantages through policy.  

The Finns clearly have a strong belief in supporting families, and value children and their advancement beyond all else.  Education is free through the university level.  This is stated in law – no family can be charged for education – including books, transportation or meals.  Leo Pahkin, Counsellor of Education at Finnish National Board of Education, summed it up this way “Finland’s main exports are wood and heads, but now wood not so much”.  The Finns believe that their future success is in innovation, and the key ingredient is a strong education.  In addition to education, the Finns provide health care, high quality childcare, and very generous paid maternity leave.  Childcare providers must be university trained.  

Education policy is built upon 5 guiding principles: 1 – Common, consistent long-term policies, 2 – A broad commitment to a vision of a knowledge-based society, 3 – Educational equality; must be free to all and equal regardless of ability, 4 – Devolution of decision making power to the local level, 5 – Culture of trust.

Their common curriculum framework is simple and straight forward.  Much of the decisions around curriculum are left to local communities and much of the teaching methodology is left up to individual teachers.  There are no formal teacher or school evaluations, each building self-evaluates and teachers assist each other with problems in the classroom.  It is considered a hallmark of Finnish culture to trust one another to do his or her best.  

Teachers are well trained; only 10% of University students are accepted into the 5 year required university programs.  The profession is highly regarded, I believe more so than in the US.  They are held to a similar esteem, though not financially, to doctors and lawyers within society. Teachers are rarely fired, instead they are expected to ask for help when struggling with an issue and colleagues will assist.

Students are not tested nearly as often.  A typical evaluation model is to treat the teacher as a coach who evaluates a child by writing as assessment of strengths and areas to improve, believing that it is more beneficial to improvement.  Children are also taught about how to learn, study techniques and personal learning style, in order to empower them as individual learners.  The only “high stake test” is the comprehensive assessment completed at the end of the compulsory education period, which is 9th grade.  A student’s future plans, whether to continue on to an upper secondary school, and which one, or to a professional institute is decided partly on this test.  Upper secondary schools are competitive, a student can only apply to 6, and if no acceptance is granted a student is out of school until the next year’s testing date comes around to retest, or can attend a professional institute.  There seems to be some stress on parents at this point, and it seems to be the only area of competition in the pre-university school system.

Finding ways to mimic the Finnish success model is difficult.  So much is based on cultural aspects that are vastly different than that of the US. There seems to be little debate on the direction of education, regardless of political ideology, which allows continuity in education that can be improved over time with small changes that are measured and based in research.  Finland is also fairly homogenous as far as language, religion and background with a small population and a strong centralized government.  All of these criteria, I believe, help to make change easier to implement and to track successes.  

Tomorrow we will be meeting with the Ministry of Education and the University of Helsinki where we will learn more about teacher training. Tomorrow night we will leave for Stockholm.  I am looking forward to comparing the Finnish and Swedish systems.

Here is a link to the presentation we received today:

Jennifer Benson represents the 37th Middlesex District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Perspective Matters

MBAE welcomes this guest blog post from Julia de la Torre, Executive Director of Primary Source, one of the organizations that has organized the Massachusetts Education Delegation’s tour to Finland.  

Every  time I step foot outside of my home country, I realize how critically important it is to assume a different point of view. Quite simply, perspective matters.

Today, we visited our first school just outside of Helsinki on the island of Lauttasaari. We listened to a wonderful presentation by a language teacher, sat in on a few classes, and even had lunch in the cafeteria. Although we talked about the many obvious similarities and differences in school systems, daily schedule, and course load, it was the intangibles that left the biggest impression on me. It was these subtle aspects of our school visit that reminded me how much it matters to step out of your home culture and enter the doors of another. Only then can you truly examine your own self and cultural context.

I noticed how calm the school environment was. Whether in the classroom or just hanging out, students were laid back, happy, and “chill,” for lack of better word. You got a sense of peace in the hallways that I don’t typically feel in an American school. The facility was impeccably clean and we were greeted by students who so comfortably and effortlessly told us about their daily life in school. The cafeteria was so orderly, flowers adorning every table, and students gathered in small table groups, chatting like any teenagers would…regardless of country of origin.

For months, we have been reading and discussing the Finnish education system, hearing stories of minimal homework, short school days, respected teachers, and noteworthy PISA scores. And although I saw evidence of this today, it was the intangible feeling of calm and happiness that made me feel like I, too, would excel here as a student.

In just one day, I felt on an emotional and personal level what I never could have learned in books. Simply being in Finland, being in a school, being with the students, and being in their environment taught me so much more than I ever would have expected. Stepping out of my own sense of what school should feel like gave me an even deeper understanding of what school can be like. Each time I travel, I realize just how important it is for us to assume a different perspective if we truly want to understand our place in the world. I look forward to the coming days in Finland and Sweden as we peel back the layers of the education system—not only revealing more about our Scandinavian neighbors, but providing an invaluable perspective on our own school system.

Visit to the Lauttasaari School

Our tired but cheerful group arrived at Helsinki yesterday at 5:30 p.m. after about 13 hours of traveling. We enjoyed a salmon dinner and good night’s sleep and were ready to go this morning!

My day started with a visit to the Lauttasaari Comprehensive and Upper Secondary School, which is considered a “private” or independent school but compares in structure to a charter or pilot school in Massachusetts.

In Finland, preschool begins at age 6 and is optional, with about 80% or more of eligible students attending. Preschool teachers must meet the same requirements as teachers of any grade – five years of university education.

When we entered the school, we approached a group of students and talked to them about their experience. In response to a question about what they did before they reached age 6 and entered preschool, their answer was, “we played”. This is consistent with the articles I read for the trip which emphasized the value that Finns put on the lessons learned through play.

Members of the Massachusetts Education Delegation to Finland chat with high school students

Our visit was a great introduction to the structure of the Finnish system. There is compulsory attendance for students from age 7 through 16. After grade 9, students who need remedial help or have certain special needs can go to a 10th grade program located at selected schools. All others go to either an upper secondary school (usually a gateway to higher education) or a professional institute which may lead to further study at the college level or to entry into a trade or vocation. Students compete for seats in these schools based on an exam. They also take exams after three years in one of these types of school for entry to a university program (4-5 years) or a polytechnic program.

There were no obvious signs of what makes the Finnish system successful by PISA standards, but our guide, language teacher in charge of “international relations” Heikki Kotilainen, explained a few things about what he thinks makes teaching successful in Finland:

1. Tradition – this might translate in to school culture in American education-speak. It is basically a professional standard of pride and expectation that teachers can help each other solve any pedagogical or curriculum problem to help all students learn.

2. Respect – Schools and teachers are highly respected and respect each other. In fact, teaching is a top choice as a profession – in part, Heikki explained, because it is one where people can enjoy a good quality of life.

3. Good pay – Although salaries are not terribly high (he said they don’t compare with law or medicine), they are considered good ones. According to Heikki, a principal earns as much as “a member of Parliament” but doesn’t get the same perks or benefits as a legislator.

We’re off now for some sightseeing and I’m anxious to see more of Helsinki!

Lessons from Finland

Finland is known as an international success story as a result of reforms instituted decades ago that led to top scores on the PISA exams. A good summary of their “whatever it takes” attitude is in this
Smithsonian Magazine article.

How does Finland do it? That’s what a delegation of Massachusetts educators, policy makers and yours truly are hoping to find out as we head to Helsinki for a week of school visits, meetings and fact-finding. The trip has been organized by Primary Source and EF Education.

I had the opportunity to travel with this group to China two years ago and many of my fellow travelers are joining this trip as well. MBAE has invited these education leaders to post their impressions and ideas on our MassEdForum and we hope you will follow our journey over the next week.

Right now, it is Saturday night and we are at Logan airport waiting for our 10:20 p.m. flight! More to come… and follow us on Twitter @MBAENews!

Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education