Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, the esteemed Finnish educator, scholar and speaker who visited Seattle this past November to discuss the applicability of Finland’s education system to Washington state, recently proposed an interesting idea in a column for The Washington Post: what if, in a perfect world, we simply supplanted Finnish educators – who are considered among the best in the world – to Indiana schools? Would Indiana all of a sudden become the world’s bastion of academic success?
The answer – unsurprisingly – is no.
While Dr. Sahlberg is quick to note the importance of adequate training for teachers, he condemns the notion that “poverty is only an excuse not to insist that all schools should reach higher standards.” In his mind, children should be elevated out of poverty by public policy, and “teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to school everyday.”
Understanding the burdens children bring to school – and go home to – is crucial in predicting academic outcomes. According to Dr. Sahlberg, 23 percent of U.S. children live in poverty, which is five times higher than that in Finland. Still, policymakers and “reformers” are consistently harping on increased accountability toward teachers, many of whom are struggling to teach underfed and distracted students.
In his column, Dr. Sahlberg lays out three main fallacies regarding education that many believe:
- “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
- “The most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers.”
- “If any children had three or four great teachers in a row, they would soar academically, regardless of their racial or economic background, while those who have a sequence of weak teachers will fall further and further behind.”
Finland, because of the high importance (and consequently, salary and prestige) it places on teachers, has some of the world’s best educators.
But Dr. Sahlberg doesn’t stop there. He notes Indiana’s hypothetical educators in Finland would benefit from the freedom to teach without strict curriculum and test standardization, from strong leadership provided by principals with teaching experience, from a culture of collaboration, and from the low rate of poverty among children and families.
Even the world’s best teachers don’t instruct in a vacuum; instead, both forces inside and outside of the classroom are crucially important in determining whether a child will sink or swim. More importantly, the same factors will be determinants in deciding whether the system as a whole will be successful or fall further behind countries that better have their act together.
A school filled with the world’s most qualified teachers would still be at the mercy of the environment around them. Students need teachers, but they need a whole lot more, too.
By EOI Intern Bill Dow
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