Washington sidles up to Finland’s glittering education example

Finnish author and education expert Pasi Sahlberg. [Photo: Alison Krupnick]

“It takes a village,” Pasi Sahlberg tells me, “to improve education systems.” Sahlberg is a former teacher, the current Director General of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture’s Centre for International Mobility and the author of the book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?.

In his book, and at a November 13 University of Washington conference on Excellence in K-12 education, Sahlberg detailed the deliberate 40-year strategy that has made Finland one of the world’s top academic performers. Organized by the non-profit Economic Opportunity Institute, the conference included several pro-teacher organizations — such as the Center for Teaching Quality, the UW College of Education and the Seattle and the Washington Education Associations — as co-sponsors.

As with seemingly every national issue, discussions about the state of public education in America are polarized between two extremes: the education reformers, who favor test-based accountability and school choice (including charter schools) and count Bill Gates among them.

The other side of the debate is championed by Diane Ravitch, a long-time education advocate and former member of the reform movement, who believes poverty is at the root of our country’s education woes and is opposed to high-stakes testing and the free-market approach to education. (For a more in-depth profile of Ravitch and the current ideological differences among education advocates, check out the November 19 issue of the New Yorker.)

Sahlberg thinks this polarity is at the root of our problems and that we should look at education strategies as part of a continuum. Vivien Stewart, author of A World Class Education: Lessons from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, who shared the podium with Sahlberg and presented case studies from Canada, Singapore, China and Australia, says  strides made in Canadian education improvements during 2004-2009 were due to an all-stakeholders consensus, with a focus on capacity building rather than name-calling.

Read more by Alison Krupnick on Crosscut.com »

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