What American policymakers can learn from Finland

At last year’s International Summit on the Teaching Profession, I watched and listened to a serious dialogue among the ministers of education and union chiefs from many of the world’s top-performing nations. I was enthralled with the nuances of the convening, who sat where, who talked, and who delivered what messages. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was there. So was Henna Virkkunen, his Finnish counterpart.

The differences in how these two nations approach child development and student assessment as well as the teaching profession are legion. Let’s begin with student results. On the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), Finland’s students consistently outperformed ours in reading, math, and science. In reading, Finnish students were ranked third; we were fourteenth. In math, they were third; we were thirty-first. And in science, they were first; we were thirty-seventh.

Here are a few more stark clashes in teaching and learning policies, which Pasi Sahlberg has helped bring attention to lately through his book Finnish Lessons:

Policy Clash #1: Finnish Teachers Are Very Well Prepared. The Finns not only recruit top students into teaching, but they also insist that every teacher have a master’s degree in education, fully paid for by the government, before they enter the profession. There is no such thing as Teach for Finland.

Policy Clash #2: Finnish Teachers Teach Less and Learn More from One Another. In 2007, Finland’s teachers taught just under 600 hours, while their American counterparts taught more than 1,000 hours. Finnish teachers spend approximately 10 to 20 hours a week on joint professional development focused on understanding why students are learning or not.

Policy Clash #3: Finnish Teachers Are Responsible; They Are Not Held Accountable. Unlike in the United States, where teachers are held accountable to externally developed, high-stakes tests, well-prepared Finnish teachers use their own assessments to gauge their students’ progress. The Finnish public trusts its teachers to assemble evidence and report to them on who is learning or not, and why.

Why are these Finnish lessons so difficult for America’s top-level policymakers to learn? I have some ideas, most of which have more to do with politics and less with substance. No surprise. But perhaps our policymakers have not been taught by some of our nation’s best teachers how to apply these powerful lessons in the American context.

This year, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has invited CTQ to work with 16 state teachers of the year, who will attend the summit (March 14-15 in NYC) and weigh in later with their own TeacherSolutions. I hope you join me in looking forward to hearing how our teachers learn from the Finnish lessons and their own pedagogical experiences to help us reshape our teaching policies.