Education Trends

How Can We Reframe the Ed Reform Debate?

Drawing inspiration from Finland

April 11, 2012

Two experiences recently reignited my thinking about educational reform.

My friend and colleague Rick Curwin wrote an Edutopia column opposing teacher performance pay. My first response, based on the extremes of teacher quality I've observed, was to write a respectful rebuttal. But I realized that I agree with most of his points; tying teacher pay to test scores is a terrible idea, using administrative assessments and student initiatives isn't much better, and there are pitfalls in colleague reviewing.

Equally important, using the term "performance pay" reinforces the dominant idea of tying teacher pay to student test results. It keeps us stuck in an outmoded paradigm. Semantics are important. Additionally, the all too prevalent either-or educational debates are a waste of time and creative energy.

The second experience that got me thinking about educational reform was when I attended a presentation by Pasi Sahlberg, the author of The Finnish Solution and the leading spokesperson for Finnish education. My daughter, a career teacher working in an urban high school, accompanied me. If you know what's happening in Finland (if not, where have you been!?), you can imagine how inspiring this was for both of us. But the following week, back in her overcrowded, impoverished school, she emailed me: "Hearing Pasi was inspiring but it left me more frustrated. I need to talk with you about steps short of visiting Finland! How can I start making some of that happen here?"


I'm still wrestling with integrating these two experiences. I've reached the conclusion that pay differentials for teachers should only be considered within a context that contains at least the basic characteristics of the Finnish system, a threshold of very good teaching conditions. Our challenge, as reflected in my daughter's question, is how to get there.

Granted that Finland has a different value system and that teachers can't immediately effect change in our cultural values or nationwide policies, there are many aspects of that system that can happen here and that teachers can help make happen. These minimally include reduced teaching time, adequate funding of faculty development, and built-in time for collaborative planning. That foundation of teacher support is achievable on a school and district level.

I also think the potential for support is there in many districts. Despite what our national policy makers are saying, there is mounting interest in creating a new culture of teaching. Sahlberg has been playing to full houses of teachers, parents and administrators across the country. There has been major media attention, and his book Finnish Lessons is in its third edition in four months. There is a hunger here for much of what is being done in Finland.

So how do you get there when you're teaching a five-period day, in relative isolation, in an overcrowded and/or underfunded school?

Resources and Reminders

For starters, there is a very important new book from Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan that every teacher and administrator interested in changing the culture of teaching should read. Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School is at the top of my "must read" list. The chapter on "Enacting Change" is particularly important.

Look next at Barnett Berry's excellent Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools Now and in the Future. The book grows out of Berry's work with both the Center for Teaching Quality and the Teacher Leaders Network. The book was a collaborative effort involving many teachers and could easily serve as both a conceptual and strategic manual for teacher collaboration to bring about change. At the very least, consider joining their network. One of the biggest challenges for teachers who want to bring about change is their isolation. This is one way to help combat that.

Additionally, think about familiarizing a small group of like-minded teachers in your school with education in Finland, if only to increase the motivation for change. Besides the Sahlberg book, there is an excellent film, The Finland Phenomenon, in which noted educator Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap) provides an inside look at the Finnish secondary education system. Consider having a special showing of the film for interested teachers in your school and perhaps in the district.

And here are a few reminders that I shared with my daughter.

  1. Change is slow and can start with bringing together a few highly respected teachers within a school.
  2. A cohesive small group of highly motivated, strategically savvy teachers, administrators and parents within a district can bring about major change.
  3. Without administrative support, significant change is very difficult, so work to make your administrators your allies.

Finally, I was particularly struck by the recent advice to teachers from Barnett Berry: "Simply begin by engaging colleagues with 'what if.' . . . Find common ground and passions. Fine-tune your vision and message. Engage parents and students as well as community leaders. There are many kindred spirits to be found. One cannot create what one cannot imagine."

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Education Trends
  • Professional Learning

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.