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Pasi Sahlberg
Pasi Sahlberg

Justin Snider of The Hechinger Report sat down today with Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. An edited version of their conversation follows.

Sahlberg, who has trained teachers, coached schools and advised policymakers in more than 40 countries, is also a former Washington-based World Bank education specialist. Earlier this week, Finland was once again among the top-scoring nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an exam given to 15-year-olds around the world. U.S. students were in the middle of the pack for science and literacy but below average in mathematics.

The Hechinger Report: Two Million Minutes, a recent documentary by Bob Compton, reveals that American students spend significantly less time learning than their counterparts in India and China. But in your work, you’ve indicated that increasing instructional time isn’t necessarily a good idea. Why?

Sahlberg: There’s no evidence globally that doing more of the same [instructionally] will improve results. An equally relevant argument would be, let’s try to do less. Increasing time comes from the old industrial mindset. The important thing is ensuring school is a place where students can discover who they are and what they can do. It’s not about the amount of teaching and learning.

The Hechinger Report: Given your reservations about things like standardized testing, choice and competition, I’m wondering how you’re received in the U.S. Are you loved by teachers but loathed by some reformers?

Sahlberg: The reception has been very positive everywhere. The thing is that everyone has exactly the same goal – good schools for all – but there are disagreements on how to get there. What I want to do is challenge people to see that things can be done differently. In Finland, we’ve gone from having a very poor system in the 1970s to what the recent McKinsey report called the only excellent system in the world.

The Hechinger Report: How did Finland do it?

Sahlberg: Most educational ideas that we are employing are initially from the U.S. They’re American innovations done in a Finnish way. You know, in the United States, there are more than enough ideas, there’s superior knowledge about educational change and you speak a language that has global reach. If you want to learn something from Finland, it’s the implementation of ideas. It’s looking at education as nation-building. We have very carefully kept the business of education in the hands of educators. It’s practically impossible to become a superintendent without also being a former teacher. … If you have people [in leadership positions] with no background in teaching, they’ll never have the type of communication they need.

The Hechinger Report: So what do you make of the recent trend in the U.S. of hiring non-educators to run large urban school systems?

Sahlberg: This is a very alien idea to Finns. … You know, a former head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks was Finnish, and when he returned to Finland, he was appointed director of one of the largest theaters – a completely different field. He left after one year. There was no buy-in.

The Hechinger Report: What are your thoughts on the use of value-added data to measure teacher performance, which is quite popular in the U.S. at the moment?

Sahlberg: It’s very difficult to use this data to say anything about the effectiveness of teachers. If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away. Finns don’t believe you can reliably measure the essence of learning. You know, one big difference in thinking about education and the whole discourse is that in the U.S. it’s based on a belief in competition. In my country, we are in education because we believe in cooperation and sharing. Cooperation is a core starting point for growth.

The Hechinger Report: Waiting for “Superman” put pressure on teachers’ unions in the U.S. And they’ve also come under criticism from some experts, reformers and the Obama administration. But others, like Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford, have pointed out that top-performing countries such as Finland have strong teachers’ unions. So what do you make of teachers’ unions in the U.S.?

Sahlberg: In Finland, unions aren’t an obstacle. Ninety-eight percent of teachers are unionized. And this is very important to the success of our system. I wouldn’t buy the argument that unions are a problem.

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  1. Sahlberg derides the value-added methodology:

    “If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away.”

    Yet didn’t the Hechinger Institute finance the value-added study published in the LA Times? Any second thoughts on this?

    You didn’t even ask about standardized testing, w/ Finnish schools have very little of as well. Clearly this country is doing super things w/ an anti-Superman approach.

  2. Teach less…learn more! The values that the Finnish educators hold, are increasingly becoming non-existent in the United States. Promoting competition, choice and standardization is ruining the United States. Let Oprah wax on about, but the reality is the neo-liberal agenda is taking over education in the U.S.

    Perhaps we should look more to Finland for direction, and less to Charter and Vouchers.

  3. Thank you for this dose of sanity, clear-thinking AND compassionate engagement….

    Let us be very clear, here in the US…

    Teachers (and their unions) ARE NOT the problem and parents ARE NOT the problem. Those in positions of power in government and the private sector who spend billions keeping us from our rightful place at the table ARE THE PROBLEM. A free and democratic society cannot survive, no less thrive, without our respected participation in all matters relating to the education of our children.

  4. I would very much enjoy reading short interviews or pieces like this one on other national education systems. Finland is always held up as an example of a country doing things very differently and succeeding, but there are other countries doing things in ways more similar to the US that are also doing well on international tests. Could this interview be expanded into a series in which you speak with educators in countries around the world and give us a peek into their priorities and challenges?

  5. @ the Confidential poster at 6:06 pm on Dec 9.

    Uh, this voucher and charter thing is a right-wing republican thing and has been for a LONG time.

  6. Thank you to the Hechinger Report for this presentation.
    Obviously Finland has figured out a set of “best practices.” The next logical question should be “Why isn’t Arne Duncan interested in embracing them?”

    I have my own theories and absolutely do not trust the intentions of the people behind today’s reform agenda (relating to their purchasing power and intense delivery of propaganda). But readers who are new to this debate should be questioning what is really going on.

  7. It is clear that comparisons as to how well children in Finland vs. the U.S. are educated turn out to be useless. The U.S. is a melting pot of various kinds of persons who view the need for education in strongly opposing degrees. That is only one of the numerous differences between the people of Finland and those in the U.S.

  8. Thanks for sharing this interview, though I question many of Sahlberg’s conclusions. Finland has a very different attitude toward early childhood education, health care and taxes. It also is far less diverse, and has much lower rates of poverty.

    Some youngsters in the US don’t need a longer day or year – others clearly benefit.

    Giving people choice among political leaders, among products, and in many other ways is a huge value in the US. I’m glad to see that we have included it via charter public schools.

  9. Would Dr. Sahlberg consider moving to the U.S. and becoming our superintendent of Education? It’s been too long since we’ve had one who was intelligent and knowledgeable about teaching and learning.

  10. The Finns have taken the best of American educational ideas because they treat teachers like professionals. Whole language in the US was a movement led by highly professional teachers who brought the ideas into their school districts and had begun to move into positions of middle level management. That’s why the so-callled “reading wars” focused on whole language. It was working too well and deskilling American teachers was the goal of the neo-cons as they sought to privatize education. I’ve had many interactions with Finnish educators and they have taken much from the same sources that whole language used particularly oon coperation and shared power.

  11. It is interesting if you compare Finland with both Sweden and Norway, Finland is rated higher. Why? One answer is that Finland uses and implements the best research on learning. Sweden and Norway have applied similar “bandaids” used in the USA.

    The bad is that our model of reform is being globalized. The 1 percent see tax payer money as a revenue stream and a way to keep money going into their pocket.

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