Report from Finland

March 25, 2013

This is the first post from my observations after a visit to Finland to learn about its education system. In all, I will post four sections through this week. This introduction talks a bit about trust and the teaching profession. Next, I’ll add information about the system structure and accountability. Let me know what you think…

I just returned from a trip to Finland earlier this month as part of a 22-member Kentucky team of educators and policy makers eager to learn the secret behind the country’s consistent high performance on international assessments.

Finland has regularly ranked at the top on the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA), sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), given to 15 year olds every three years. Sixty-five countries participated in 2009.

This trip was sponsored by Northern Kentucky University where several students, including a tight-knit group of six Kentucky superintendents, were finishing up their work toward their doctorates in education.

Our observations of the country’s successful system included not only actual policies and practices, but attitudes and values, as well.

The value weaved throughout its policies features a strong drive for equity in access to excellent education, matched by a structure of social services to ensure the general well being of the population. Trust of education professionals and support of the public school system also provides a strong foundation for success. Finnish people have the attitude – tied to a strong Lutheran ethic – that this investment is worthwhile.

Education professionals are the backbone of the school system. Our first presenter representing the center for continuing education at the University of Helsinki set the stage by saying, “In Finland, we trust our teachers.”

After learning more, I would say it this way, “In Finland — we respect the professionalism of the profession, we select the best applicants for teaching programs, educate them in content, pedagogy and research methods, provide significant on-the-job training and mentoring, require they earn a Masters degree before they can teach, and, then, when they go to work — we trust our teachers.” And, later, through their careers, educators are provided quality professional development.

Unfortunately, trust is not a word nor attitude exhibited in our society with regard to public education, or other public service. Recent days in our own state a propensity to use criticism and competition has been adopted as a means to encourage improvement. This is anathema to the Finnish system experts.

Educators on the trip commented immediately on the reduced tension in the Finnish system observed in presentations about the schools and through actual visits to schools.

In Finland, teachers are as highly valued as doctors and lawyers, and entrance into the universities to study teaching is restrictive. Only ten percent of applicants is accepted. Teacher applicant screening includes a test with an analytical element, and an interview with groups of peers.

About 90 percent of those accepted in to teacher programs finish. The university officials we spoke with reported there’s very little “burnout” or turnover in the teaching force.  Our team acknowledged that in the U.S. we lose a significant number of teachers in the first five years.

Trust is shown also by devaluing competition and emphasizing collaboration and school autonomy, recognizing that these professionals will take the responsibility to make sure the students in their care know what they need, and they will focus on each individual child to ensure learning.

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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25 Responses to Report from Finland

  1. Paul Wesslund says:

    I was most struck by the quotation, “In Finland, we trust our teachers.” Sadly, in the U.S., much of our system seems based on the idea that we don’t trust each other, from testing, to union contracts, to overall general tones of attack and criticism. Striving for more positive approaches seems worth considering.

  2. Stu Sampson says:

    How lucky we are to have Debbie on our Jefferson County Board of Education. I hope she can continue to “rise above the fray” and partner with our new Board members to begin the process to address the “apartheid” issues that plague JCPS.

    Stu Sampson
    JCPS, retired

  3. David Jones says:

    Sincere thanks to Debbie both for making the trip and for digesting her thinking into this thoughtful, provocative comment. I look forward to the next three installments. Like Paul, I’m struck by the “we trust our teachers” quotation — but especially by Debbie’s insertion, which outlines the path we’d have to travel as a society to (re?)gain that trust.

    David Jones, Jr.

  4. Carol Edelen says:

    Thank you Debbie for sharing your thoughts and ideas from your recent trip to Finland. There have been similar observations made by others who have also visited and/or wrote about Finland. My question is what has stood in the way from taking some of these not so new but excellent points and making it happen here? I look forward to reading your future blogs that perhaps addresses this question. Again, thank you much for the opportunity-and congrats on a great first blog!
    Carol Edelen

  5. Cindy Baumert says:

    I agree with both Paul and Stu, we are lucky to have Debbie on the JCBE, and we must strive for positive approaches to “trust our teachers”, and would extend that to say “trust our school administrators and teachers”. Sometimes we trust our teachers, but then school administrators don’t support what needs to be done for whatever reason or because they are faced with balancing shrinking budgets. In other cases we trust our administrators, but then some classroom teachers won’t buy into what needs to happen for whatever reason or are restricted by adult driven contracts and bureaucratic maneuvers.

    Or maybe its that budgets are adequate but not developed with a “strong drive for equity in access to excellent education, matched by a structure of social services” aligned with the needs of the students quite yet. Somehow we have to strip away all the “adult issues” and start with student needs to be met in order to achieve academic outcomes and build from there.

    Furthermore, Finland trusts their teachers because they are prepared to teach based on a “strong drive for equity in access to excellent education”. We would no more trust a doctor who when presented with symptoms of diabetes and developed a treatment plan of unlimited carbohydrates which caused a loved one to lose their vision. So when we see teachers who lack proper preparation and are still hired, or demonstrate obstinate behavior and are still allowed to keep their jobs in that profession, it makes it hard to trust.

    I am eagerly looking forward to your insights about system structure and how it compares to our system structures. Thank you so much for taking the time to blog about this in such a meaningful way.

  6. Paul Lenzi says:

    I too was struck by the “we trust our teachers” quote… but that goes hand in hand with their respect for the profession of Teaching. Kudos to Debbie for her leadership in starting this conversation and her focus on creating an school environment that creates stimulating educational opportunities for all children. I am anxious to learn more about the Finland model.

  7. Regina MJ Kyle says:

    So glad you went, Debbie. There is so much to learn from what Finland has done over the years.

  8. Bill Marsh says:

    I am especially disheartened by general conflict I have observed between our teachers and boards of education. It seems to be a product of the political process in selecting board members.

    • Bill Marsh says:

      Reading this again, I must have been in a grumpy mood. We have been struggling here in the San Diego area. Thanks for setting up this blog to share your observations. It is important that we learn from successes in other countries.

  9. ken brooking says:

    Great observations. A few years ago a great documentary was done on Finland and Japan education systems, i will look for it to post,,, here are some further comments,,
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/05/02/the-finland-phenomenon-inside-the-worlds-most-surprising-school-system/
    I am a retired teacher (23 years)

  10. Missy Smith says:

    Great story. I am so happy to see JCPS and Kentucky exploring new approaches to teaching and student learning. Looking at successful or even failing models of education and learning from them, can only help us improve as a community. I am looking forward to your other blogs.

  11. Michael Kelly says:

    It is very interesting that educational programs in Finland are restricted to the top 10% while in the United States they are often the least restrictive. Students need our best!!

  12. Michael Newman says:

    Debbie,

    It is great to see you have been inspired so much within one day. Your words depict a society who centers its values around the education of its people. Already ideas of strengthening JCPS’s partnerships with local colleges of education come to mind. Also, the idea of a meaningful professional development system would be greatly received by the local teaching community. I will look forward to future posts.

  13. Pat Todd says:

    Congratulations on an excellent opening of your blog. I can’t wait to continue the thought provoking conversation about teacher preparation, induction to the profession, and on-going professional growth and the relationship to student achievement and public trust. As educators we have much to learn from our international colleagues and so do our state and federal policy makers and politicians. It is significant that an elected member of the local Board of Education has started a positive and thoughtful conversation about these important issues. Thank you Debbie !

  14. Eileen says:

    I’ve heard about Finland’s success in education. How great that you had and are sharing first-hand observations. I hope our educators will take note of what’s working and move in similar directions. I look forward. to the next installments.

  15. Bob Stephens says:

    In a democracy every class is a team, a learning team of classmates of all academic levels and backgrounds. Every classmate must learn and help and encourage all other classmates to stay on task. The team should have strong support from and within family and families. The students, all educators and all families are the school. As classmates succeed, the educators and families should be recognized for their commitment to supporting the accomplishments of the teams of classmates.

    Bob Stephens

  16. Kelly Downard says:

    Debbie, you are welcome to post my comments yesterday which were sent to you directly. I was struck by several issues in this second post. Principles interview future teachers and send their list of preferred candidates to the Dept. of education for approval. For the secondf day, you allude to the theory of NO seniority guarantee. I was entralled by your comment that 60% of students choose higher education while 40% choose a polytechnic school. It is refreshing that learning a skill is respected so highly. I bet they will never lack for people to repair their jet engines. Wow, religion and/or ethics is taught and the student and family get to choose which one with no one forced to do either and everyone allowed to do either one. Multiple languages required from an early age when it is easy to learn- I learned something with your comment relating to having multiple languages help develop keen learning skills, thanks. Ah, last but not least, the government pays for education which means that it is available to everyone but not just higher education degrees as we know them but skilled technical training also. Where does all the money come from? Can’t wait for installment 3 and 4.
    Kelly Downard

  17. Carol Edelen says:

    Debbie, have I missed any mention of the ARTS and ARTS education in Finland? Funding?

  18. bluegrasspb says:

    “Recent days in our own state a propensity to use criticism and competition has been adopted as a means to encourage improvement. This is anathema to the Finnish system experts.”
    The competitiveness of American culture and schooling is, perhaps, and insurmountable challenge for those hoping to adopt some Finnish values in education. Cooperation and sharing seem to produce great results in many facets of life, but it’s anti-American to many. This is a shame. Has anyone read Alfie Kohn’s No Contest: The Case Against Competition? Compelling read.

    • Paul, I am so impressed you have taken time to read my reflections this last week. Today, I have spent some time looking through your blog – mindfulstew.wordpress.com. What a wonderful, thought-provoking collection of observations based on your experience as a teacher. I will spend more time making my way through your words, and I urge others to do the same. Thanks, Paul.

      • bluegrasspb says:

        Debbie,
        I’m excited to know that a school board member is testing out blogging, and your reflections are thought-provoking. Thanks for checking out Mindful Stew and sharing with others. I’m convinced certain forms of blogging is the new persuasive essay, and I’m glad to be mentoring a few writers at Fern Creek as they launch their more serious digital writing lives. Have a great day,
        -Paul

  19. Bill Beran says:

    Good job! Loved your report.

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