PasiSahlberg-SmallFinland’s education success story is one of the world’s best-known: over the past 40 years, Finnish schools have transformed from a diffuse collection of schools varying in quality to a unified network of independent yet high-performing schools that serve all children well.  These reformed have not only made Finland a star in international education, but also propelled the country to top rankings in an array of economic and social indicators ranging from “best country to start a company” to “best country to be a woman.”

In his October 3 lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as part of the Houston A+ Challenge Speaker Series on Public Education, Sahberg shared insights into Finland’s impressive reforms – including four must-haves for a school reform movement to take root.

1.  We must be in it for the long haul.  It took Finland four decades to transform from an unremarkable system with a substantial achievement gap to a paragon of achievement and equity.  Whether at the local, state or national level, a substantial reform movement in our schools must outlast the administrations that initiate them.

2. We must focus on equity.  When Finland declared that quality education was the right of every child, it narrowed the system’s focus to ensure that each and every child, no matter their circumstances, had every support necessary to achieve at high levels.  That’s why poverty alleviation policies at the national level and nutrition, health, social services and counseling providers at the school level have played such an important role in Finland’s reform strategy.

3. We must invest in great teaching.  A school system cannot exceed the quality and effectiveness of its frontline educators – and Finland’s corps of carefully selected, highly trained, well paid, empowered and entrusted teachers are among the best in the world.  Whether investments are made in teacher pay, recruiting & training, ongoing professional development, or workload, a successful school reform movement must center on great teaching & learning.

4. We must spread our own best practices. The U.S. may perform below the world average as a whole, but it is home to some of the world’s best schools, teachers, and ideas.  Many of the pedagogical tenets and strategies practiced in Finland and other top-performing systems originated right here in the U.S.  If the U.S. seeks to make a system-wide change, we need look no further than the top research and practice happening in our backyard.

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