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.



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