Reporter: Tomi Hinkkanen
Photos by P. Shalberg, Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho, Karri Huhtanen and  ‘Tungsten’

Finnish education system has repeatedly been ranked as the best in the world.
We asked Paul Sahberg, one of the most qualified experts in the area, what is so good about it  and what could be done to improve schools in the United States.

Q. Could you give us your title in English, explain what Cimo is (what does it do, who is behind that organization, etc.), and what do your duties there include. Also, if you could tell us a little about yourself – your background, family, etc?

My title is Director General at CIMO. CIMO is the Finnish Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation that operates as an agency of the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland. CIMO advances internationalization of Finnish society by offering students and youth opportunities to international exchange, internships, development cooperation and joint projects. CIMO serves as an information service point for foreign people who are interested in studying in Finland and supports teaching Finnish language in foreign universities, e.g. Columbia University and University of Madison in Wisconsin. CIMO has 110 staff in Helsinki and 22 in foreign universities around the world. I am director of CIMO.

I was born in Oulu, Finland and studies in Turku and Helsinki universities before receiving my PhD in Jyväskylä university. I have worked as teacher, teacher educator and policymaker with the Finnish government. I lived in Washington, DC, for five years in early 21st century working for the World Bank and have been back home now for two years. I am author of Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn for educational change in Finland? Teachers College Press, 2011).

Team work in action

Q. Finland has been ranked the best country in education. Could you talk about the criteria, what organization did the ranking and what was found to be so exceptionally good in the Finnish education system?

I would be careful to conclude that Finland has the best education system in the world. First, there is no commonly agreed criteria for making such ranking of education systems. People and especially media often use the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA by the OECD (based in Paris) to compare education systems internationally. PISA is a useful tool to learn more about how education systems are working but it is just a part of the story. We need to look at participation, drop-out and graduation rates, too. How equitable education systems are, in other words, how they provide opportunities for different learners to succeed is important. And, of course, we need to look at how much education costs for tax-payers and parents before we can say whether education system is good or not.

Second, we have more comprehensive and comparable data only for about one third of worlds education systems. So, being best in the world only refers to this part of the globe. Finally, PISA only deals with school system upto age 15 trhat is in the U.S. the end of junior high school. We have very little data of the performance of high schools or universities in the world.

Finland has been successful with its K-9 school system in all respects mentioned above. Finnish education system is probably the most equitable, accessible and affordable in the world. It also produces high learning outcomes. But since we can not say much about high schools or universities in Finland in the international perspective I would say that we have very good basis for our education but would remain silent about the education system as a whole at this point.

Q. In the United States, much emphasis is put on evaluating each school and ranking all schools in terms of academic success. Parents even move to areas with good schools. Some people would like to give students / parents vouchers so that their children could attend a better school. Now, could you explain us, how this is done in Finland and how does it differ from the American system?

Well, the first think in Finland is that we don’t measure our schools using external standardized test as is done in the U.S.. These test almost solely assess academic achievement and in very few subject areas. Therefore Finnish parents don’t know where the good schools in the sense of academic performance are. Actually, most Finnish parents don’t think that this is the most important issue in the first place. For many it is more important to be sure that the school offers programmes and support that their children need. Parents offen choose school that is in the neighborhood and if they don’t, they look for a school that has more arts or sports or foreign languages for their child. Academic achievement in primary schools is secondary issue. It turns to primary issue in upper secondary school.

Q. What do you do in Finland, if one particular school is found to have problems, like bad teachers, violence on campus or poor academic success?

Schools are governed by municipalities. Therefore all these issues must be processed and solved within and by the municipality. Finland has systematically worked over the last two decades to upgrade school leadership to the level where school principals are able to deal with most of these issues independently. In some cases they need support and advice for other schools or the municipality. The government never intervenes in these matters unless there is a serious legal matter that requires more thorough authority. Finnish schools are also closely networked in the municipalities and are able to help one another when difficulties emerge.

Q. There is a tendency in the U.S. to reward good schools and good teachers and punish bad schools by withdrawing funding from them and dismissing bad teachers. Is this kind of “carrot and stick” method used in Finland?

Because we don’t have data from standardized test, we are not able to label schools or teacher ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as is done in the U.S. commonly. Rather than punishing teachers or schools we concentrate on identifying those who are struggling and likely to end up in troubles early and then make support and resources available to help them out of that situation. This is a very different policy than ‘carrot and stick’ that you mentioned. We think that merit pay to teachers based on students’ standardized test scores is a bad idea. However, we do think that teachers who work more should be paid more. And this is what we do here. All teachers are paid the same throughout the country. When teachers progress in their seniority path, their salaries also gradually increase.

Q. There have been school shootings both in the U.S. and Finland. What have you there learned from these incidences – can anything be done to prevent them?

First of all, these are very very sad incidences regardless of where they happen. I think that these acts of crime are not motivated by school alone but, at least in two Finnish cases, more by the society in which young people live. I have noticed here in Finland that we have an increasing number of young people, often boys or young men, who spend much of their free time with the Internet, computer games or TV and thereby away from other people. We have, unfortunately, more and more single-parent families where children lack proper parental love and care. To prevent any further bloodshed in our societies or schools by anybody we need more love, caring of one another and humanity in our schools. I think we should seriously reconsider our thinking about technology in schools and whether increasing it in schools is really a smart thing to do. Instead, I believe, we should transform our schools as places for social interaction, mutual responsibility and well-being where all young people would belong to a community. If we let things go and leave it upto the world of entertainment to decide, I am afraid we are doomed to a road of more violence and sadness in and out of our schools.

Q. You have visited the U.S. several times and toured schools here. What do you see are the major problems in the American education system and what kind of advice could you give to remedy them?

Indeed, I have seen schools in different parts of the U.S. and learned a lot. First of all I want to say that we in Finland have learned a lot from American educators and schools. Teaching methods, innovative schools and teaching self-confidence in schools in American schools have been inspirations to the Finnish education system. We all have problems in our schools, even we here in Finland. I think American education today suffers from three main deficits. First, I think you rely far to much on standardized data from academic knowledge tests. In this respect American education system is over-tested and under-assessed. By this I refer to classroom assessments that teacher do and use for monitoring the progress of their students. Current testing system is expensive, focuses on narrow part of curriculum and leads to teaching to test as several American research projects have clearly shown. Second, in many states you have moved to hyper-accountability in schools where individual teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance. Teachers’ pay is tied to this accountability system that has led to massive misconducts and corruption in schools and districts as we have seen in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. I think that as accountability gets stronger in school system, responsibility and trust get weaker. When we lose trust in schools and school systems, only bad things are ahead. Third, there is a serious devaluation of teaching as a profession in America. Half of teachers leave their profession before the end of their fifth year in service. Teaching is a primary career choice for decreasing number of high school graduates. This is kind of catch-22. Poorer intake in teacher education leads to lower-than-expected quality of new teachers who are not able to convince younger generations that teaching is a noble job. Although Teach for America may help some schools and be an experience for some young professionals who teach in that program, I doubt it will ever be able to solve the deeper rooted problem of teachers in America. Charter school movement and involvement of larger corporations in public education will further jeopardize the moral of teachers and ethos of teaching profession in America, I am afraid.

Q. How would you rate the American school system?

American school system will in any case remain an inspiration to others. It is an innovation-rich system with some of the best schools in the world operating in it. Unfortunately, as I see it, American school system today is moving to wrong direction. It is moving away from whole child idea where well-being, happiness and health of children would matter the most. It gives too much value to numeric data and misses the human side of schooling. And by doing so, American schools are able to serve only some of the youth in their communities, not all of them. I think American school system can make the transformation that its current leaders are hoping to see but it requires rethinking of some of the core policies and reforms of today.

Q. You give lectures in the U.S. about the Finnish school system. Could you talk about that. Where do you give these lectures and to whom, what has the reception been and what are the most often asked questions that your audience members ask you?

I speak to very diverse audiences in the U.S. ranging from State School Officers to superintendents, principals, teachers, students, parents an business leaders. Most people know very little about Finland or Finnish education. They often ask how do we test our students, how do we find bad teachers, what children do after school day, and how to build trust in the school system. I often hear also comments about Finland being homogeneous and small and therefore not comparable to the U.S..

Q. Finally, could you share an anecdote about your own family, perhaps something interesting about your own school days or if you have children, about their school?

I often tell people about my son who has already completed his schools successfully. When he came home from school I often asked him about homework he got for the following day. His regular answer was ‘I did it already on my way home in the bus’. And that is true. Finnish schools don’t believe in homework. They rather provide children time during the school day to completed whatever they are asked to do for the next day. My son did all sort of other things after school that he found interesting: played music, played basketball or just hanged around with his friends. I think it is very important to hang around without any plan when you are young.

Mr. Sahlberg is currently on a speaking tour in the U.S.

Here is his schedule:

12/5 Chicago, Univeristy of Illinois at Chicago
12/7 Washington DC, Finnish Embassy
12/8 New York, Columbia University
12/9 Nashville, Vanderbilt University

1/12 Washington, DC Education Week Conference
1/13 New York, Harvard Club
1/17-18 San Francisco, Stanford University

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