EDITORIALS

Learning from Finland

Posted July 19, 2011, at 6:58 p.m.

There has been much talk in Maine and across the country about teacher accountability. Make teachers accountable for their students’ performance, the logic goes, and the students will do better. This is a likely outcome, but several steps are missing.

Finland offers a model for filling in those gaps.

When leaders in the Scandinavian country realized that growing and cutting trees wasn’t going to sustain their economy for much longer, they realized that the Finnish education system needed to be improved to prepare students for a new economy. How they did it is chronicled in “The Finland Phenomenon,” a documentary by filmmaker Bob Compton and Harvard researcher Tony Wagner.

They began with teachers. Not just holding them accountable, but preparing them to head classrooms. Every teacher got a master’s degree, not in education but a content area. Only one in 10 applicants was hired to be a teacher. “So what has happened since is that teaching has become the most highly esteemed profession. Not the highest paid, but the most highly esteemed,” Mr. Wagner said to David Sirota, who hosts a radio show and writes for Salon.

Over the course of 30 years, Finland has turned its education system around. Today it is considered one of the best in the world.

Teachers are considered scientists and their classrooms their laboratories, Mr. Wagner said. Teachers are also given time to collaborate with one another to find ways to improve.

“This is what Finland has done that’s different — they’ve defined what is excellent teaching, not just reasonable teaching, and they have a standard for that,” Mr. Wagner said.

“Second, they’ve defined what is most important to learn, and it’s not a memorization-based curriculum, but a thinking-based curriculum.”

In other words, Finland doesn’t rely on students taking standardized tests to measure how well they’re doing. Instead, teachers are trusted to know what is important and teach it well.

Some will argue that Finland is more homogeneous and wealthier than the U.S., but even in places that aren’t racially diverse, such as Maine, student performance is lagging. As for money, even schools that have seen infusions of funds from corporate donors — investing in schools was de riguer in recent years — haven’t seen sustainable gains.

Focusing on teachers makes sense, as does holding them accountable. Proper preparation and high standards to enter the profession must be part of the picture as well.

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