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Finnish Lessons

Thanks to Lynnfield School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Jefferson for providing this commentary piece to local media about his recent visit to observe schools in Finland and Sweden.

The following was provided to local media by Lynnfield Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Jefferson: 

Finnish Lessons

November 2012

As you may be aware, in recent years the global community has begun to pay a great deal of attention to public schools in Finland.  For the last decade that country has ranked at the top of international comparisons on measures such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). What is unique about Finland’s success is that they have done this in a country that does little standardized testing, appears to have significantly less homework than most Asian or high achieving American districts, and pays little attention to the ranking of schools or the evaluation of teachers. 

Last month I had the privilege of serving as a member of a delegation of Massachusetts policy makers and educators who travelled to Finland (and neighboring Sweden) to learn firsthand about their approach to education and see what, if any, lessons could inform policy and practice in the United States. That group included executive directors of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (see our blog at www.mbae.org) and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, two members of the state legislature (including the chair of the education subcommittee), officers from both the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) and Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC), along with a representative sampling of superintendents, principals, teachers and curriculum specialists.  We had the opportunity to visit schools, talk with students and teachers, and meet with officials from the teacher training program at the University of Helsinki as well as Finland’s Ministry of Education.

If you had to capture what stood out about the Finnish system in a single word, that word would be trust.  Everyone we spoke with reiterated the importance of the trust Finnish people have in their public school teachers (interestingly, there are no private schools in Finland).  Teaching in Finland is considered a highly prestigious profession.  Only one in nine applicants for teacher training programs are selected, and those students are drawn primarily from the top 10% of their university class.  Their training program is quite rigorous with strong emphasis in pedagogy, learning theory, internships and specific academic disciplines.  While it is much more difficult to enter the teaching profession in Finland than other countries, there is certainly greater autonomy once one becomes a teacher.  Teachers in Finland appear well versed in research skills, curriculum development, and assessment practices. 

While Finland’s performance is among the highest echelon among industrialized nations, there is one area where they ranked lowest:  variation in performance between schools.   Nearly all schools in Finland, irrespective of neighborhood, seem to do well. In Finland there is a great emphasis on equal opportunity as well as excellence. 

Many of the teaching practices we observed were similar to those seen in the best American classrooms.  Like Lynnfield, there was a strong emphasis on early intervention to support students with special needs.  Typically one third of all Finnish students in grade one receive some type of intervention/prevention supportAs a result, there is less need for more costly remediation at later grades.  Several members of our delegation noted that there seemed to be less emphasis on the bureaucratic and legalistic aspects of special education with more flexibility given to individual schools and teachers. This limitation on “regulations” was an earmark throughout the system, therefore giving more autonomy to school principals and teachers.

Education in Finland is comparatively inexpensive, accounting for a substantially lower percentage of GDP than either the US or other industrialized nations.  Teacher salaries are comparable to those in the US, and similar to most American schools. There is no merit pay system. 

Those involved at policy and planning levels confirmed that Finnish success has been built on a long-term unwavering commitment to public schools.  Going back fifty years, the Finnish people and their leaders realized they were a county with few natural resources other then the intelligence and capacity of their citizens. This is where they have focused their investment. They have fared well on the global stage as the home of Nokia, one of the foremost telecommunications and technology companies.  In past decades they have improved their school through a rigorous research based, apolitical, consensus driven improvement model.  This has included: 

  • Rethinking the theoretical and methodological foundation (1980s)
  • Improvement through networking and self-regulated change (1990s)
  • Enhancing efficiency of structures and administration (2000-present).

While it was an extraordinarily informative and thought provoking trip, our group found no single “silver bullet” that could be easily infused into the American system.  We did, however, come away with ideas that might influence how we better recruit and train the best teachers possible, clarify national educational priorities, and rethink those educational policies and regulations that restrict, rather than empower, individual schools and teachers.  There are lessons from the Finnish model that would certainly transfer to Lynnfield – especially with regard to a strong emphasis on focusing on the development of teachers new to the profession.  In closing, our group was united in the affirmation of the critical value of early intervention and a national focus that puts long term meaningful growth at the forefront.   

Sincerely,

Thomas W. Jefferson, Ed.D.

Superintendent of Schools

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