George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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."

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David Phillips's picture
David Phillips
District Librarian for Prairiland ISD

The debate, regardless of what's going on in Finland, needs to be about the way people actually learn. Finland is a small country with a business and government atmosphere quite foreign to the U.S. and a remarkably heterogeneous student population. Of course we want to learn from anyone who has lessons to teach that will actually apply to our situation. What's primarily different about the U.S. is that we've been involved in an industrial education model for many years that is an abject failure. It fails because it's artificial, attempting to force kids to learn in ways that are counter-intuitive for human beings. Few people learn well sitting in rows of desks and filling out worksheets. Most of us are hands-on, experiential learners who can be inspired to learn, but primarily learn something when we find it interesting or profitable to do so. That's why PBL works so well and what we usually do fails so miserably. If we're going to reform, let's start at the core and then move on to the system that works around it.

Mark Wilding's picture
Mark Wilding
Ed PassageWorks Institute

This is so well said...thank you! Supporting teachers is critical right now - "change is slow" and requires an investment in 'professional capital.' Lets spend more time on engaging colleagues and capacity building and less time on debate. We are already in midst of reading Fullan & Hargreaves -- and then on to Teaching 2030. Have you seen Marzano's new "Becoming a Reflective Teacher" (Here @PassageWorks - We are also working on a new collaborative book for teachers. We will keep you posted.)
Cheers, Mark

Bernice German's picture
Bernice German
Math Whisperer

Mark, you have so many well supported ideas in your writing. So I am especially distressed to read your bold statement: "tying teacher pay to test scores is a terrible idea," given without any support. Based on my experiences in education and business, for math it's a great idea. Of course there is tremendous resistance. And yes, implementation has been uneven and not always well thought-out. I would appreciate reading your reasoning for math.'s picture

After so many years of fighting for education based legislation to reform education in America, it's become painfully obvious that it is time to remove the band aid. Perhaps we all need to refocus on "what will work" rather than to fix what we have. Our education system is antiquated and irrelevant. For all of our awesome, incredible, inspiring teachers, they are confined to performing within the constrains of what we believe to be a "proper" education. I don't have the answers but I am willing to say what we have now can not be reformed. It needs to be replaced.

NWDan's picture
High School Physics Teacher

Reform! Wow! That's what education in this country needs, something NEW! Please. The oldest thing in education is "something New!" Every single year that I have been teaching, and that's 25 and counting, I have started the year with training in what administrators have found to be the magic New thing. Most of these new things are of course old things. "Project Based Learning" last made the rounds as "Inquiry" and before that it was "Hands-on! Learning." The previous new thing to hit our district (and which we are still grappling with) is "Credit by Proficiency" which last made the rounds as "Back to Basics" and a generation before as "The Three R's" None of these ideas are new, and the way administrators continue to buy into and implement them wreaks havoc with teachers' ability to refine and master effective techniques that work best for them and for their students. The big problem with education today is not methodology, and not teachers. The big problem is as obvious as the sun coming up in the morning. It's money. I am teaching in a room designed for 24 but swollen to 30 or 40 or more per class. I have no books for most of my students, and an annual supply budget of about 3 dollars per student. My preparation time has been cut in half over the last two years and my salary has been frozen or reduced for the last five. All of this is due to underfunding and my situation is not exceptional, it's typical. You want reform that works? Reform the way we pay for education. When we start paying teachers the way we pay doctors, lawyers and bankers instead of the way we pay baby sitters and the guy at the car wash, our kids will be the big winners.

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

Why districts need to adopt a year round program?

There is a great deal written about how much valuable education students lose during the summer. Academic, social and physical skills mastered during the "school year" are lost during this time. There is a solution to this problem that districts should consider, adopt a three-semester system that includes one semester of virtual online education for a student that is fostered by asynchronous and synchronous learning. The K-12 learning environment can be extended throughout the school year by including PBL activities, game based education, simulations, and other interactive online activities using social media. The one semester would be a great time to interact with global groups that will help extend and encourage students to be better 21st century students.

Think about the aggressive nature of learning if students were encouraged to participate in One World-Education, Global SchoolNet, , Flat Classroom, Project Learning LLC,, Epals, and other selected programs. Students would do math/science-based games and simulations using TI calculators, visit video sites, create their own activities - art, music, etc to share with others.

Here is an even scarier idea, take the third semester away from the local schools and make it a national program sponsored by groups like the Library of Congress, or other agencies so that students have an opportunity to do incredible activities. We have Disney, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media sources that can help sponsor these programs. The Lucas Foundation, Apple, Kauffman Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, and other groups could help fund and build one semesters worth of enriched education. These groups can help students gain accessibility and demonstrate accountability that makes these topics not as big an issue as might be imagined.

And, yes, there is a need for physical accountability on the part of students. There are a lot of gyms, recreation programs and organizations that could be used to help students achieve a minimal state of physical growth. During the school year students only take one or two days of PE. And districts like Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada have taken away recess so the students get even less physical activity. Are there minimum standards for physical education to graduate as there are English, Math, Science and Social Studies?

Finally, how easy would it be to test a students learning style, knowledge at the start of the summer program and retest the results at the end of a semester. Not only by asking students to do standardized testing but to demonstrate their skills with projects that they had worked on during the semester. This is the challenge, we have the tools, where are the leaders to make it happen?

Ms. Samp's picture

Hi Mark,

I really enjoyed reading your blog about Finland's teaching system and the comparison with our educational system. I agree with your daughter being a teacher myself, that it is frustrating at times trying to create that change and have people understand how education should be valued. Now that is has been a couple of years does your daughter see any change at her school? Thank you for also sharing Barnett Barry's readings I will have to look into getting my hands on those. I am looking forward to hearing about your daughter's view now.

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