Article by Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg as shared by Valerie Strauss in her column “The Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

A huge thank you goes out to Valerie Strauss (@valeriestrauss) for sharing the article by Pasi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg), in her column, “The Answer Sheet” for The Washington Post. Pasi Sahlberg is the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland.

I encourage the reader to check out Sahlberg’s article “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. Schools?”

Sahlberg’s most important point is that there is no one approach or “silver bullet” that will solve the problems with education in America. What is needed is a comprehensive approach that addresses every aspect of a nation’s educational system from the way we prepare teachers for their professions, what we teach, how we teach it, and how we involve the entire community.

Our current focus on teachers as both the cause and the solution to the problems of public education in American is a prime example of how little our policy makers, our politicians, and even our business leaders understand about education as a system. We proceed as if the answer is holding teachers accountable on the basis of their students’ performance on standardized competency exams on the one hand and threatening dire sanctions against schools, including closure, if they fail to measure up on the other. Sahlberg’s reference to such a “toxic use of accountability” suggests that the approach itself is harmful to the system and to the children and communities that our schools exist to serve.

Our complementary focus on encouraging the establishment of charter schools and offering vouchers to entice motivated families to abandon their public schools suggests a presumption, on our part, that we expect our focus on accountability and testing to fail.

I share Sahlberg’s belief that teachers, while important, are only a part of the problems with education in the U.S. and, regardless of how effective they are, “schools and teachers alone cannot overcome the negative impact that poverty” and, I would add, the lack of both the motivation of students and support of parents. Sahlberg cites the need to “Elevate children out of poverty by other public policies.”

My only criticism of Sahlberg is his not uncommon assertion that poverty plays the pivotal role in the problems of education in the U.S. As he suggests, however, the data seems to show that poverty plays a bigger role in the challenges facing American children than in most other developed nations. This is a fact that should shake Americans out of our complacency but we reject it because it does not fit into our rather exalted self-image.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, (REHAD), I suggest that it is not poverty so much as it is the lack of hope on the part of the parents of our children that an education offers a way out of poverty. No one can deny that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for American children but the fact is that some children find a way to excel academically, in spite of the poverty they endure.

What we need to understand is “what are the characteristics that distinguish such children from the majority of their classmates?” I suggest that the distinguishing characteristic is that the children who succeed are supported by parents who somehow, in the face of all odds, cling to the hope that an education is a portal to a better life. These parents and guardians possess a relentless commitment to the education of their children and not a day goes by that they do not communicate the importance of education to their sons and daughters.

The problem is not poverty rather it is the hopelessness and powerlessness that so typically accompany poverty. While poverty is a condition that seems to defy our best efforts, hopelessness and powerlessness are states of mind about which we can do something. We may not be able to get our hands around poverty, but we can attack hopelessness and powerlessness one family, one school, or one community at a time.

Sahlberg’s message is that we need a comprehensive approach that addresses every facet of the problems of education in America. I call this a systems-thinking approach in which we step back, sufficiently, that we can view our educational system as an integral whole. It is only from such a vantage point that we can begin to see how the system is influenced not only by external forces but also by internal forces that represent the consequence of our ineffectual tampering.

We not only need to shift our focus from teacher effectiveness to school effectiveness, as Sahlberg suggests, we need to effect a paradigm shift of our focus to the effectiveness of the system as a whole.

“Careful quality control at entry into teaching;” regarding teaching “as an esteemed profession, on par with medicine, law or engineering;” rigorous “competition to get into these teacher education programs” is where Sahlberg suggests we begin. He talks about the effectiveness of leadership within the classroom and school and the important role that parents play. He also talks about the importance of a positive school climate where teachers can “use their skills, wisdom, and shared knowledge for the good of their students’ learning.”

We need a comprehensive plan of action that addresses every aspect of our complicated educational system and process and offering a blueprint for such a plan is the essential purpose of my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, (REHAD). Although I believe the solution I offer in REHAD is practical and effective it is offered as much as a catalyst to a profession-wide brainstorming process as it is a proposal for direct action.

Sahlberg closes out his article with a theoretical exchange of teachers with Finnish teachers coming to Indiana and Hoosier teachers going to Finland. He suggests that the Finnish teachers working in the context of the current American educational process would be able to deliver only marginal improvements in test scores. He suggests that, once acclimated, Hoosier teachers in Finland would begin to flourish.

Interestingly, in one of the drafts of REHAD, I posed a similar hypothetical experiment in which we would exchange teachers from model schools that exist along the fringes of the American educational system with those from our more challenged public schools. The results I envisioned as a result of such an experiment were virtually identical to those envisioned by Sahlberg.

Sahlberg strives, as do I, to challenge Americans to alter the way we think about education and expand the boundaries of conventional thinking. It is my hope that my modest contribution will help ameliorate the difficulty many Americans have in acknowledging that we can learn something from the experience of other nations.

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