Written by Janet English

20. Pasi Sahlberg on Equity and Education

“We should not have different expectations and hopes for our own children than for the others.”

Chapter 20

Over two days I had the pleasure of getting to know the warm, reflective Pasi Sahlberg. My first experience was when we traveled to and from the Nordic Comparative and International Education Society (NOCIES) conference in Turku. The second experience was during his interview at his office in Helsinki. On the car ride to and from the NOCIES conference, which lasted several hours in both directions, he spoke about being a father and the life and educational interests of his “grandfather’s grandfather’s father” (and his family heritage of being in a line of many generations of educators). He also spoke about what drives his passion to improve education for all children—not just a few.

When we met in his office for the interview, I told him I would like him to talk with me from the perspective of being a father—and as if we were talking over a cup of coffee in traditional Finnish style. Ours became a discussion of warmth, friendship and revealing conversation; we focused on children, equity, educational policy, and the pursuit of excellence. I asked him to describe the schooling he would wish for his son and he said he wished that the school “would help his son become a passionate learner, so that when he leaves school he would say, ‘I want to learn more about the world, I want to learn more about the people who live here; I want to learn more about nature and (I want) to learn more about countries.’ He wished that his son would be able to say at the end of his schooling, ‘I want to learn more,’” and that he wished this for all children, not just his own.

“We should not have different expectations and hopes for our own children than for the others. I think the problem in education often is that we speak about other children’s schools and other children’s education and we think about schooling and education for our own children as a very different thing. And I couldn’t say anything else about anyone else’s children than I would say for my own.”

“If you could put ten people in a room whose job it was to ‘fix’ American education,” I asked, “whom would you choose?”

He paused. “That’s an interesting question. Only ten?”

“Yes,” I said, but of course there was no reason that the number be ten, only that having a limit makes one’s decisions more critical.

He listed governmental leaders, an economist, a business person, influential media, parents and community members, and it wasn’t until number seven that he included, “teacher.” I was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to mention a teacher, and honestly, my heart broke every time he did not.

All I could bear to squeak out was, “Only one teacher?”

He held up a “mirror” to me and I was forced to look at my reflection.

“Whom would you put at the table?”

“A primary teacher, a middle school teacher, a high school teacher, and one from an inner city school, a typical school, and an elite school.” My rationale was that if you want to improve education, you involve the people who are doing the work directly with the children.For four months I had been visiting Finnish schools; there were no bureaucrats, no business people, no parents, no doctors, no lobbyists—only the teacher and the students in the classrooms. Of course I thought there should be teachers at the table for these important conversations.

“Six out of ten people would be teachers?”

(I sat there dumbstruck—realizing I put myself in a corner.)

I said, “My concern is that American teachers aren’t typically valued at the decision-making table for education policy and the policies that are put in place oftentimes keep teachers from being able to fully respond to the learning needs of the children. Some districts even dictate that teachers read from a script—and that doesn’t optimize learning for students. By contrast, Finnish teachers are given a learning objective and the freedom to help students achieve their best. I was shocked to learn that in Finland they don’t have pacing guides—the curriculum progresses at the pace of the learner and the teacher is given the time and authority to respond to students’ needs. Learning is not rushed in Finnish schools.”

“There is a saying,” he said, “that ‘war is too important to be decided by the military people’ and it’s the same with education. I think education is too important to be decided by teachers — and this has nothing to do with undervaluing teachers’ expertise — but their view is very different to education. I think teachers should have a say to these issues — exactly what you said — how to decide the teaching, how you set the standards for your own kids, how you organize your school work — this should be left to the teachers. I think too often we intervene in the wrong areas of education — that we try to control what each and every teacher is doing in the classroom. We should leave those things to the professionals. But the broad issues, the big issues, the principles of education should be based on a more balanced view and that’s why I would only have one practitioner in the room and divide this voice more equally to those who are the key stakeholders, (including) parents and the community members — not necessarily just those working or teaching in the school.”

“I think in general, particularly in the United States, you like to standardize and in some ways I appreciate that you set standards. You set expectations for something but I think if you look at the entire education system in the United States that you seem to standardizing things that you should not standardize and you are not standardizing things that you should standardize. And this is a kind of interesting thing.  I think that me or somebody else should not be seen as someone who is against setting standards in education. I think we should be seen be people who probably think that the standardization should focus on different things than it does now and that’s why I say that teaching and learning and teachers work, and leadership – this whole operations of the school should be left more to be decided by the professionals there. And the things you do not standardize at all in the United States is school funding – that you don’t have a national standard of how the money should be allocated to schools because it varies from one community to another and you have 15,000 different ways of doing these things. In Finland and in many other countries we have just one way that we carefully standardize how the resources are allocated to your schools.  The other thing you don’t standardize that many other countries like Finland does is teacher preparation. You allow 1700 different ways of preparing your teachers. We only allow one thing because it’s very carefully standardized.” 

“If you are American and listening to this conversation I always want to say that there are so many powerful things in your country that you can in a way rely on as a way forward. I think too often I see people who say everything is bad and nothing is working and that we have to reinvent the whole thing and I think that’s not a good way to think about  this.  For example, when you think about the math and science education in the United States you have some of the best examples and models to teach science and to teach mathematics not only to one class or one school, but several of them. That people would not go into this business of blaming teachers and blaming schools and say that, ‘Only if you were a better teacher things would be in a different way.’ It takes much more than that.  These things and ideas are somewhere there and I think your challenge is more than rather than …getting stuck in this debate of bad teachers and good teachers should be how you can help the entire system to share what they are doing now. And how you can make sure that schools cooperate rather than compete and that the districts in the United States… would share what they have learned rather than try to hide it because they are competing over resources and funding. And that’s the kind of hope there is and I think there is always hope as long as things are as they are right now.” 
“Would you agree with the phrase that America is trying too hard to be great that they’re forgetting how to be their best?”
“Yeah, probably.  You know, this is another thing. I’m often comparing countries like the United States and Finland is that how do you think about your future of your education and it seems to be the America way to say that if you say anything about setting your goals for your school system in 2030 that it’s almost automatically this phrase comes out in the United States that, ‘We want to be the best in the world.’ And that is something that would never come out in Finland. Finland would keep repeating this same mantra that we want to have a good a great school for all our children, although we are now in the situation where somebody would say that most kids in Finland already have  a great school but we still keep repeating that we want to guarantee that each child has a great school and teacher.  These are very, very different goals –these two things – and people don’t often realize how different the implementation of these two goals look like – if you want to be in the world or if you want to have a good school for your children and you go and see …what the teachers and the districts and the leaders are doing when they are trying to help the government to achieve these goals. They are very different stories. I would encourage the United States also to rethink if they could find a smarter way to set the overall national target for education than being the best or trying to beat the Asian countries or Finland I think that’s the wrong goal.”
“How about making every child their best?”