A great education for every child is possible – and data suggests that the U.S. and many countries around the world could reach that high bar by strengthening teacher professionalism and focusing more attention on the unique learning needs of each student.

This was the main idea of a lecture by Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of Finland’s education ministry, who shared data and themes from his book, Finnish Lessons, on Oct. 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  Dr. Sahlberg was the first presenter in A+’s annual free, public lecture series, which this year takes an international focus.

Contextualizing U.S. education reform within global trends, Dr. Sahlberg questioned the outcomes of competition among schools and students, accountability systems based on high-stakes tests, and a public education system fractured by families fleeing for private and charter schools.  He presented data showing that over the past decade, countries focused primarily on these strategies have not seen overwhelming gains in student performance, belying the popularity of these reforms.

By contrast, the Finnish education system, which has dominated international rankings for a decade, is characterized by collaboration, personalized learning, trust in teachers, and strong equity among students and schools.  Dr. Sahlberg identified these concepts as the drivers of Finnish success and the key lessons that educators can learn from Finland.

Underlying the success of the Finnish system is a constitutional commitment to a child’s right to great education, as well as a strong social safety net that has reduced child poverty in Finland from its peak in the 1970s – about 22 percent, near the current U.S. rate – to just 4 percent today.  In the U.S. and most countries, socioeconomic status is among the top predictors of a child’s success in school.

Teacher professionalism is a primary driver of Finland’s school success.  Finland’s six teacher education programs accept less than a quarter of applicants and require a six-year commitment that includes masters-level study and extensive apprenticeship.  Professional autonomy, high social status, and pay on par with other highly-educated workers make teaching one of the most sought-after and selective fields for Finland’s top graduates.

Personalization and early intervention are also integral to the education system’s success.  Teachers, administrators, social workers, and health professionals meet monthly to ensure individual students’ needs are identified and met. By the age of 15, nearly 50 percent of Finnish youth have received some form of special instruction.

So what’s the good news for the U.S.? Dr. Sahlberg said that the U.S. is already home to all of the ingredients for great schools: resources, public support for schools, and an education community that has created and studied world-class schools for more than a century. After all, he said — many of the very ideas that those Finnish teachers practice in their high-performing schools originated in the U.S.

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