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Book Review: Wilson on Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons

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Today's guest post, written by John I. Wilson, is a review of Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (Teachers College Press, 2011).

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We have studied them. We have admired them. We have envied them. What we have not done is figure out how to replicate them. Who are they? They are the strongest performers in the world when it comes to academic achievement. They are the schools of Finland.

Pasi Sahlberg, the director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, in Finland, in his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? provides the clearest analysis of how Finland's schools were able to achieve their world standing. And who better to tell that story than this man who spent his life in education as a teacher, professor, professional development strategist, researcher, commentator, innovator, and champion for a great education for all Finnish children.

Sahlberg begins his story with a history lesson. He describes in an engaging manner how Finland transformed from a poor agriculture-centered nation to a knowledge-based economy with a world-class education system and a culture of innovation. This transformation began after World War II and escalated between 1965 and 1990 with the creation of a comprehensive public school system (peruskoulu). This was followed by expanding higher education opportunities as a driver of technological advances to build the foundation of a strong economy.

If there is one very important lesson that Sahlberg provides, it is the focus on "equity of outcomes." This lesson highlights the Finnish commitment to equity and stands in sharp contrast to our focus on competition which Sahlberg strongly criticizes. Finland pays more attention to social justice, early intervention (especially for special needs students), and strong collaboration among public sector units like health and social services. The results have been an increased level of student achievement while closing gaps among an increasingly culturally diverse student population. If that is not a valuable lesson for American educators and policymakers, I do not know what is.

In showcasing teachers and teacher education in Finland, Sahlberg's writing does not disappoint us. The culture of teaching in Finland is focused on "professional dignity and social respect." Collaboration with other professionals is just as important as teaching students. This has caused teaching to be very popular, and that popularity has resulted in the country's ability to attract the smartest and most dedicated people into a long teaching career. Sahlberg lays out in detail this lesson that is envied by all around the world. Finland shows us that respecting and trusting teachers provides the results that the United States is seeking. When are we going to trust our teachers?

A particularly strategic lesson that should be of interest to every business and political leader is addressed by Sahlberg. This is the lesson of the power of linking education and the economy in an intentional manner. The rise of Nokia as a technological leader happened because of an education system that fosters creativity, risk-taking, and an unyielding determination to reach the goals that are set for all students.

Sahlberg rejects the agenda of the global education reform movement. American competition and choice are not as effective as Finnish collaboration and equity. Testing and test results, as the heart of an accountability system, are not as effective as great teaching and being able to trust that teachers are doing their job. Merit-pay for teachers is not a system that would fit the Finnish model of creativity and its assurance that all students have meritorious teachers. Sahlberg has results on his side. I would follow the world leader.

I know many reformers and politicians will not want to read this book because it will negate all the "reform" that has been embraced by our country, but we will all miss out on some very important opportunities if they don't. Neither the size of Finland nor the country's demographics should be used as an excuse by any state or by the United States not to pay attention to what works. This book will give hope, vision, and strategies to anyone who is sincere in bringing a great education to every child. Pick it up and read it.

John Wilson is a teacher of 23 years and an advocate for the teaching profession through his leadership at the National Education Association. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow with the Pearson Foundation and the Chair of the Purple America Advisory Committee. His blog, John Wilson Unleashed, is hosted by Education Week.

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