What can Minnesota learn from Finland’s education system?

/ 23 October 2012 / eunice

Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio, October 23, 2012 – Minnesota education experts and officials have often looked to Finland for guidance or hints on what a great education system looks like. Finland and Minnesota both have about the same size population, with around 5.3 to 5.4 million residents.

What’s Finland doing that Minnesota is not? Pasi Sahlberg, an education expert in Finland, spoke to The Daily Circuit about the traits of his nation’s education system that leads to such high achievement and other positive reviews. Sahlberg was in Minnesota last week.

Here’s a transcript of Tom Weber’s conversation with Sahlberg:

SAHLBERG: In many ways, the state [Minnesota], and the Scandinavian countries are similar. Not only because of the size, but also, I think people seem to appreciate and value same types of things. I think the solution here, cannot be, take the things A-B-C-D-E from the Finnish system or Swedish system or any other, and then say that we now things will be better, because they are not.

One of the fundamental things here, I think is that the issues that are not directly educational have to be included in their education policy and reform. And I’m talking about the health care and well-being policies and all these things that we are doing in kind of an extensive way in Finland and that seems to be kind of a difficult thing here in the United States to accept that for example we should be providing health care and school meals systematically for all the children all the children, everywhere every day.

WEBER: And also child care.

SAHLBERG: Exactly, yes. The early childhood development issue is extremely important.

WEBER: It’s certainly, something leaders here in the Minnesota education circle say we need – all-day Pre-K, we need to be doing this…

SAHLBERG: That’s the only way if anybody wants to have a school system where everybody will learn.

The rhetoric here in this country [USA] is that you want to close the achievement gap and make everybody ready for college. I think the only way to do that is to start from the early years and make sure that everybody will have access to day care.

When I look at Finland, for example, in this way, we have in many ways we [were] able to implement this child-friendly, day care policies thirty years ago because we have so many women in our politics deciding things. Women seem to be thinking very differently about the priorities when it comes to taking care of children or education.

WEBER: You’ve said things along the lines of “The United States has absolutely without a doubt some of the very best schools in the world, and, absolutely, some of the worst. And there’s this huge range.

It’s almost as if you’re saying – and certainly correct me if I’m wrong – that the Finns maybe are getting credit because they’re a little more ‘playing in the middle,’ – you might not be off the charts up but you’re also not off the charts down.

SAHLBERG: Yeah. That’s true but on the other hand you know if you look at the international evidence of how education systems are performing around the word particularly within the OECD (a group of wealthy, developed countries that the United States is, a member together with Finland), the America as a Union is not actually doing that bad.

You [the U.S.] are very close to the international average in terms of the kind of a distribution of quality and also the level of quality. So I think people often make a mistake by concluding, saying that the education system is really bad here and, I think I’ve seen many things and I’ve seen these exactly as you’ve said it. I’ve seen some of the best of the best schools, I’ve never seen better schools than I’ve seen here and I’ve also seen schools that are some of the poorest schools I’ve seen around the world.

The equity in education in this country is… it’s not bad. It could be better but it’s not bad. The quality, as well, if you look at the international studies conclude that it’s not bad. It could be better but it’s not bad.

So, your situation where you are trying to, you know, improve the system is very close to the overall average.

WEBER: What are the red flags you would throw out for Minnesota’s education?

SAHLBERG: Well everybody here in this country has to take equity in education more seriously. And by equity – I want to make sure that we talk about the same thing – the equity in education, to me, [is the] extent the children’s family background, in other words their parents’ wealth and education, is determining their success. I think this is something that the state and this entire country has to probably rethink.

WEBER: So where do you start?

SAHLBERG: You could start by taking the early child development daycare policies seriously and making sure that every child has a good high-quality place to go to before they go to school.

Also, although you have a system for educating the children who have special needs, I think if you look around the world you will see that there are many different ways of doing that. For example, how Finland is – approaching the issue of different learners is very different to what it is here. We have much more sensitive lens through which we are looking at our classrooms and identifying those who should be helped than you have here.

I think you are more likely to provide help to the individual students and the children when the issues are visible enough. And what we are doing in Finland, and this is where we have invested a lot of resources and, and time as well to make sure we can identify these issues, as early as possible so they would never become visible.

WEBER: When people talk about Finland, for example, things including teachers – the esteem with which the profession is held – I believe it’s like 10% of people who apply to become teachers are- that’s all that actually gets in. It’s only 10%, it’s really rigorous.

SAHLBERG: That’s right.

WEBER: And then there’s also the conversation had about testing, and frankly the lack thereof in- in Finland. We look at that, from the US and say, “Wow, those are big. Those are huge.” Do you agree with that, or are we making too much of that difference?

SAHLBERG: No I think both of these issues are, they are- they are important and they- they’re very closely related things.

At least in the Finnish schools and Finnish education… because, you know how we see this thing is that if you have, highly educated teachers as we do, in our- in all of our schools, their all having masters’ degrees, and they’re all, educated too, not only to teach and find the best methods to help children learning but they’re also educated how to evaluate and assess the students.

Because we have this situation of having highly-trained teachers and we are selecting, really, from the top of the high school graduates that we can rely on their judgment. And that’s why we don’t need, standardized testing systems like many other countries are having.

People often ask me here when I travel, particularly in the United States they say that, “How do you know that, kids are learning, if you don’t measure them? If you don’t have standardized testing?” And my reply always is that we ask them. We ask teachers [whether] they learning or not.

We are kind of a- more relying on the soft data… kind of the evidence that is coming from the professionals, rather than insisting that we need to have a hard evidence, we need to have a number, and the average or something like this, before we, we can answer the question whether there is learning or not.

(Transcription by Ben Martin, MPR news)