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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Penn-Finn Learnings 2013: How We Value Our Teachers

Brandon Wiley

Director, Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network (ISSN)
The Penn-Finn Learnings 2013 team at the University of Helsinki

Much has been made in the media and press about the Finnish education system. Our goal this week is to uncover the beliefs and practices that contribute to a successful education system here. To help us delve into this topic, we spent time visiting the University of Helsinki, a leading teacher education institution in Finland. Dr. Jari Lavonen shared the history of the Finnish education system and several key characteristics of their approach. Lavonen called our attention to these four characteristics:

1. Common, Consistent and Long-Term Policy

The models for teacher preparation and comprehensive education are 40 years old and do not change drastically from year to year. Unlike in the United States, Finland's education policy is not tied directly to political parties or the "reform of the day." Sustained, strategic policy and practice are the norm.

2. Educational Equality

The Finnish system attempts to mitigate socioeconomic backgrounds, education is free, and well-organized special education and counseling are available to any student who needs them.

3. Devolution of Decision Power to the Local Level

Leadership and management reside at the school level, with decisions about curriculum and assessment residing with the faculty.

4. A Culture of Trust and Cooperation

In the Finnish system, trust and cooperation are based on professionalism. Teachers are viewed as professionals with academic expertise. There are no inspectors making sure that teachers are doing what they should, and there are no widespread national exams.

The Notion of Experts

It's been hard to reflect on these characteristics and not compare how they would play out in the United States. One could argue that education policy in the U.S. has become highly politicized and far from consistent over the last 40 years. Having a consistent, sustained focus has allowed schools in Finland to adjust to meet the needs of students and local expectations, while not spending inordinate amounts of time responding to top-down mandates and regulations.

Teachers in Finland attend one of eight higher education institutions that focus on teacher preparation. Having a smaller population allows them greater oversight and consistency in their approach to preparing teachers. Much of the autonomy that is afforded to teachers is due to the rigorous education they must complete before entering the teaching ranks. But even before the teachers earn their degree, the admissions process is much tougher than you might find in the U.S. At the University of Helsinki, there were 1783 applicants for the primary teacher Master's of Education degree, but only 120 were accepted (a 6.7% acceptance rate). In essence, being selective about who enters the teaching force is a major cause for the trust that is extended to teachers and schools.

Dr. Lavonen was joined by his colleagues, Dr. Heidi Krzywacki and Dr. Atso Taipale, who both confirmed that part of the reason teachers are trusted and afforded respect is because of the level of education they attain. According to Dr. Krzywacki, "We believe in the notion of 'experts,' and trust individuals whether they be doctors, teachers or plumbers." As such, teachers are viewed as experts in youth development and learning. Based on this expertise, they are expected to engage in scholarly endeavors, such as consuming and producing research, and are provided tremendous autonomy to make decisions about curriculum, instruction and assessment in their classrooms.

Do We Really Trust Our Teachers?

I wonder if the United States can say it trusts its teachers the same way. The evidence would suggest not. In the U.S., there are many approaches and pathways for training individuals to become teachers, causing inconsistent expectations and outcomes in teacher education. It would seem that the ongoing discussions about "teacher effectiveness" and the creation of evaluation systems focused on measuring a teacher's capacity (increasingly based on test scores) often do very little to actually develop that capacity. A strong emphasis on teacher evaluation and measuring effectiveness has led to increasing skepticism about American teachers and a lack of trust. Compared to the Finnish approach, it would seem that teachers in the U.S. are viewed through a deficit model instead a model that focuses on their competence and expertise.

Dr. Taipale shared that, as a former principal for over 30 years, he was not expected to conduct formal teacher "evaluations" or observations. Instead, his role was to "work side by side his teachers, support teachers in professional development and solve educational problems." When I asked him what would happen with a teacher who struggles, he explained that teachers who struggle get assistance from peer teams and targeted training. He shared the belief that making mistakes was acceptable, but that support would be provided to build the teachers' capacity to ensure growth.

Dr. Atso Taipale presents the Finnish Principal

Credit: Joe Mazza

It strikes me that the conversation and tenor around teachers in the United States is not as forgiving or supportive at this time. Instead of respecting teachers as the well-prepared professionals that they are, many policies seem to be dismissive and reductive in nature. Perhaps this is just as much an indictment of the teacher preparation programs in the United States as it is of the teachers themselves. If our communities, education leadership and policy makers displayed more trust in our teachers, how would they respond? If we made the assumptions that teachers are highly trained professionals prepared to make the best decisions about their students' needs, would our culture of testing and teacher evaluation look different? Lastly, if greater autonomy and decision-making were reserved for the local level, would schools be more responsive to student needs and provide more personalized learning experiences?

If nothing else, the United States could certainly take a page out of the Finnish "play book," and make the effort to raise the prestige and standards for teaching excellence the centerpiece of U.S. education policy and reform.

Brandon Wiley

Director, Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network (ISSN)
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Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

chris dudek's picture
chris dudek
12th grade Government teacher

bring these ideas back from finland...they do not seem impossible to implement...i am forced to give an exam and then am told that they do not want me to grade my own students exams...no trust...great observations/insights

amyjthacher's picture

We just had a guest speaker at my school who taught math strategies to encourage number sense. Almost all the strategies are from Finland. The results are there...why aren't we catching on?

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
English teacher

"Instead of respecting teachers as the well-prepared professionals that they are, many policies seem to be dismissive and reductive in nature." Right, but many teachers here in the U.S. are not well-prepared professionals. They're recent college graduates who have had a five-week training course. And some of our billionaire foundations are spending a lot of money to promote this model: teachers as temps. We're driving down the competition to get into teaching, instead of driving it up, as the Finns have done. If you imagine a state had only eight accredited teaching programs, all of which were free to admitted applicants, all of which were university-based and had strong partnerships with the local public schools, and all of which resulted in a master's degree upon completion, that might be something more like the Finnish system. But that's not the direction we seem to be headed.

susan offen's picture
susan offen
Literacy Graduate Student

I am currently enrolled in a graduate program which will certify me as a literacy specialist. We have studied many trends and issues in literacy education. One issue that is very frustrating to me is adolescent literacy and the "middle school problem" in the U.S. Our class text described two different scenarios of middle schools in the U.S. The chapter on adolescent literacy began by describing the Middle School problem. It compared the two schools, Oglethorpe Academy and Jefferson Middle School. Oglethorpe Academy is not a "typical" middle school. Its parents are well educated and , through a state charter, agree to volunteer extensively. Most of its students had strong academic records at the elementary level before entering Oglethorpe. On the other hand, Jefferson Middle School is more "representative" of the nation sadly enough. Twenty seven percent of eighth grade reader cannot read at even a basic level. Their reading problems did not begin when they entered Jefferson. Parents have limited education and poverty level is moderate. I don't know if this sits well with anyone else but WHY isn't Oglethorpe more representative of our nation. Many people retort "poverty" is the reason. The problems began in elementary so why do these students keep getting passed on in our country? Since we have began this course I have researched other countries because we are currently ranked 17th internationally. Our educational system is not working. There are many reasons for this as we know but what has happened to our culture? Many international educators call us Americans lazy and entitled. Where has our value of education gone? Anyone can visit a site as simple as scholastic.com and click on Finland who is rated number one in the world for international student assessment tests. We are not a socialist country but Finland was in a national educational crisis thirty years ago and they were still better condition than our country is currently. Our country needs an overhaul. It seems as if we keep trying to assign more homework to make up for poor standarized test scores. The first standarized test that is presented in Finland is when students are sixteen years old. We are consistently concerned about standardized test scores when we know that each school functions entirely different from another as it we read about Oglethorpe Academy and Jefferson Middle for a variety of reasons yet we try to keep everyone performing well on the same standardized test. And now that the core curriculum is being implemented, the responsibility will reflect the teacher when students score below average. Most teachers I have interviewed discuss the feeling of pressure to teach to the test. Is this truly going to help a nation in educational crisis? Our students know how to take a test but can't tie their shoe at recess? or they can't read a environmental sign, "do not enter, or hazardous."
Our chapter mentioned true causes of our Middle School Literacy Problem which are education and culture; poverty; text demands and lack of instruction. The key here is "Literacy is an attainment that is not universally valued. Its importance is viewed differently by individuals and groups within the American population."(Robinson, Issues and Trends in Literacy Education. p. 191) We are such a vast country yet we are trying to make a common mold and reinforce that everyone goes to college. We are so busy trying to make everyone succeed and be ready for college that we can't stop to realize how many are lagging way behind; missing the very basic reading skills and furthermore overlooked. All of this is out of concern for good state testing results. Whose ego are we nurturing? Certainly not our students. Poverty was listed as another cause of our M.S Literacy problem. It creates a vicious cycle that develops from one generation to the next. Literacy is the key to the cycle that must be turned from the outside by educators. That is a lot of weight to bare as a teacher but I agree that it is important when poor families simply cannot provide assistance with literacy. It is the students school to help change the pattern. I truly believe that if teachers could focus more on teaching students to be literate as well as focus on the individual student as a unique "person" and not a number, our students would be much more successful at achieving literacy skills. The third cause was text demands. I think that if we were successful at teaching from the beginning and catching poor reading skills from the beginning we wouldn't have this text demand problem. Once again, we are treating symptoms in education not the illness. Lastly, lack of instruction was listed as the other cause. Perhaps all this time, money and effort spent on the core curriculum will help this problem. It seems to want to tie in systematic instruction in vocabulary and comprehension strategies into content area subjects. Literacy should be instructed in all content areas not just English class.
The chapter lists many ideas how to address the problem of adolescent literacy so given this challenge how do you think you could modify your teaching methods to address the problem?

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