Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) in Finland, called the global education reform movement a “wicked germ” spreading around the world at the Askwith Forum on April 23.
“It [the education system] is run like a marketplace rather than a professional place,” Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? told an audience of educators.
While showing a slide of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) performance rankings since 2000, Sahlberg pointed out how most countries, including the United States, have continued to decline in performance following an education reform while Finland continues to improve.
To date, Finland remains one of the top performers around the world in education. Since PISA ranked Finland number one in 2010, educators, policymakers, and politicians have admired the country’s successful education system and pondered how to emulate such transformations at home. But as Professor Bob Schwartz pointed out during his introduction of Sahlberg, the real challenge is determining what parts of Finland’s education system are products of culture and what parts are actual policy decisions that can be applied in the United States.
Sahlberg said he didn’t come to Harvard to convince everyone that his country had the “best education in the world.” “We should not think like this,” he said, noting that the media is ultimately responsible for such a declaration. “I can’t say that one education system is better than another one.” He called the American education system a big inspiration for Finland. Ultimately, he believes that we can learn from each other.
Finland’s education system has been transforming over the past 40 years. Along the way, there have been key policy changes to improve equity including an emphasis on early childhood development and child health, a focus on early interventions for special education and strict teacher professionalism. As a result of these changes, the country has risen from the lowest performing school systems in the world to one of the highest.
Sahlberg shared five aspects of the Finnish system that he says sets it apart. At the forefront, the Finnish system was built without trying to be number one. He emphasized that competition was never part of the system. Instead the focus has aimed at creating good schools for all children.
Beyond the lack of emphasis on competition, Finland also has a culture that truly values education. When the Finnish are asked about major accomplishments in its past 100 years, 75 percent acknowledge the free, public education system, and rank it as one of the country’s top five accomplishments. In addition, Finnish also lists public education as the second most trusted institutions in the country, next to police, earning 89 percent. This is in stark contrast to the United States, he said, where only 29 percent trust the public education system.
A fairly equal wealth distribution within Finland also impacts the education system. As a result, Finland continues to do well in many areas beyond education, like women’s empowerment, technological advances, child well-being, and prosperity.
“Maybe its education will do well if the country is doing well in other things,” Sahlberg said. “There’s no miracle.”
Perhaps the starkest contrast between Finland and the United States is how things are done. Sahlberg outlined differences between what he called the “Finnish Way” and the “Global Education Reform Movement,” which he referred to as “GERM.”
He reiterated how “GERM” focuses on competition instead of Finland’s emphasis on collaboration. The impact of competition has resulted in standardization and created immense expectations including that “everyone learn the same and in the same way.” Instead, Finland has stressed personalization of education – where every school sets its own standards based on a national framework. He said this approach created a system where a student’s only competitor is him or herself.
A direct result of standards in tests in countries like America is increased focus on accountability, particularly teachers. “Accountability is what’s left when responsibility is taken away,” he said.
In Finland, the teaching profession operates as a trust-based responsibility. In fact, teaching is a highly-selective and thus highly-regarded profession where only 120 students are chosen out of 2000 applicants to enter the only teacher education program in the country.
Last, Sahlberg debunked the idea that choice in America’s system was a means for equity. In Finland, there is little choice and it is largely controlled. “If you are going to run education like a marketplace then you are not going to have equity,” he said.
A Brandeis University student asked Sahlberg whether a capitalist society like America, could truly apply Finland’s changes, especially in terms of equity.
Sahlberg said that it wasn’t necessarily about moving the Finnish education system like a box and bringing it to America, but perhaps taking pieces of it and applying it.
“People are trying to do the wrong things a little bit right and that’s the wrong thing to do,” he said. “You have everything it takes to get things right.”
BY JILL ANDERSON 26/4/2013