Focusing on Equity and Excellence: The Finnish Experience
ASCD's third annual Whole Child Virtual Conference is a free, online event that provides a forum and tools for schools and districts working toward sustainability and changing school cultures to serve the whole child. Built on the theme, "Moving from Implementation to Sustainability to Culture," the conference will be held May 6–10, with international pre-conference sessions held on Friday, May 3, for Australasian and European audiences. The conference features presentations from renowned speakers, educators, authors, and education experts who have successfully implemented a whole child approach in schools around the world, including ASCD Vision in Action award-winning schools and Whole Child Network schools.
Below, we hear from Finnish educator, ASCD Board member, and Whole Child Virtual Conference presenter Pasi Sahlberg, whose session, "The Finnish Experience and the Whole Child," will be held Wednesday, May 8, 10:00–11:00 a.m. eastern time.
There is a "GERM" spreading across much of the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. It is what I call the "Global Educational Reform Movement," and its symptoms are an emphasis on greater competition between schools, more school choice, greater accountability, and a desire for more standardized testing. It is like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems and is passed on from one country to another, not by educators—who frequently are immune to the virus—but most often by pundits, media, and politicians. It results in education systems borrowing policies from one another that have little basis in research but sound right to those infected. As a consequence, schools get ill, teachers don't feel well, and kids learn less.
There is an alternative path, however—a way to transform education systems, boost learning for all students, and empower teachers as real professionals. It is the way of inclusion and equity, teacher professionalism, collaborative practice, and trust-based responsibility. Finland's education system consistently ranks among the top in the world in learning achievement, equity of outcomes, and system efficiency. Many people ask: Why?
Our solution has been to focus systematically on equity, not competition, and to ensure that all schools are excellent, well resourced, and focus on the whole child. If all schools are good, there is no need to have publicly available ranking systems, and your school of choice is your neighborhood school.
In Finland, we also don't use the term "accountability." Instead, we expect that teachers and principals are responsible collectively for making all children successful. It is success by empowerment, not Adequate Yearly Progress achieved through threats and fear.
One frequently mentioned success factor of Finnish education is that shared responsibility has created strong mutual trust within our education system. Many young people desire to become teachers, and that has increased the quality of those entering teacher education programs and, eventually, teaching. As a result, we don't need external standardized tests, teacher evaluations, or inspections to ensure high quality.
You can have excellence and equity in schools simultaneously if education policies focus more on the whole child instead of academic performance, professional development instead of test-based accountability, and empowerment instead of stringent oversight. Another necessary condition of success is early prevention of learning difficulties through universal special needs education. Furthermore, what is needed is the right blend of ingenuity, time, patience, and determination.
Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator, teacher, and scholar. He has worked with the World Bank, the European Commission, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He advises governments in more than 45 countries on equity and excellence in education and is an ASCD Board of Directors member. He currently serves as the director general of the National Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture in Helsinki, where he leads internationalization of the Finnish education system. Sahlberg won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?