In Teachers We Trust: An Interview with Finnish Education Expert Reijo Laukkanen
Imagine a country where no one evaluates teachers, no one evaluates schools, and individual schools' test results remain confidential. You've just imagined Finland, which regularly bests all other developed nations in international assessments of student performance.
How can Finland pull this off without undermining quality? According to Dr. Reijo Laukkanen, a 34-year veteran of Finland's National Board of Education, "We trust our teachers."
In a recent interview with Public School Insights, Laukkanen assured us that this trust is well deserved. Finland draws its teachers from the top 10 percent of college graduates, and teaching regularly beats out law or medicine as a top career choice among high performers. "We can trust that [teachers] are competent," Laukkanen told us; "They know what to do."
It doesn't hurt that Finland's teachers study education at government expense, receive strong professional support throughout their careers, and count on ample time for collaboration with colleagues. This ongoing support creates what Laukkanen calls high "working morale" in schools.
Laukkanen also cited other reasons for Finland's success: Ambitious national content standards guide teachers' work without stifling their professional judgment or creativity. Aggressive, early and frequent interventions keep struggling students from falling behind. And schools coordinate with social service providers to prevent disadvantaged students from slipping through the cracks.
Does Finland offer us lessons to live by? Listen to the interview, and let us know what you think.
Download the entire interview.
You can find a transcript of interview highlights below or download a full transcript transcript.
Transcript of interview highlights
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What do you think are some of the major reasons for [Finland's] success?
LAUKKANEN: Teachers. They are the most important [aspect of] Finnish success. But there's also other issues. The second one is that we take care of all our children. And the third big issue is that we have set our objectives or the standards of education high.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I've read that the Finnish education system began as a fairly centralized system, became a very decentralized system, and that in the 1990s you became a bit more centralized again. I was wondering if you could explain this transformation.
LAUKKANEN: If you take [the] 1970s up to the mid-1980s.... We were implementing a new education system. The parallel education system divided children quite early to different lines. We've reformed it to be the same education for all for nine years.
But we were not happy in the beginning, in the 1970s, because, during the last three years of basic education, we had streaming [or tracking] in mathematics and foreign languages. And as we were ready to raise the standards...we got rid of the streaming system and, at the same time, we decentralized decision-making.
That move continued [throughout the] 1990s. We decentralized more. We realized the concept of school-based curricula, and in 2000-it was 2004-we took a little bit [of control] back. And the reason was that we began to find that the loose national steering was not clear enough for teachers to calibrate the standard-setting to the same level. So we gave new goals for basic education that are more detailed, and we have centralized in that way.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: The concern here [in the United States] is often that national standards might limit the work of schools and teachers.
LAUKKANEN: I can understand the hesitation of some people in the USA [to support national standards] if they hesitate for that reason, because we have sometimes [asked] would it be better to set minimum objectives. And we have found out that it's not clever, because if you set minimum objectives for the schools you'll always reach low objectives.
And that's why we set objectives high, and we never set objectives in the way that they would prevent teachers [from using] their own capacity to broaden education. We only talk about the objectives, not the methods of education. Because teachers, if they have high-level education, should be given leeway enough to use their own innovation capacity.
[And in Finland] only a small [number] of those who apply to teacher education can really get there. For those in upper secondary education, teacher education was the most popular choice [for a career].
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: How do you evaluate teachers in Finland? Is there a strong system for doing this?
LAUKKANEN: No. We don't have any evaluation of teachers. The working morale and the working ethics of the teachers are very high, and we can also trust that they are competent; they know what to do.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you evaluate school performance in Finland?
LAUKKANEN: No, we don't do that. We just evaluate student performance in the whole country, not in the school. When we are making assessment[s], they are random sample based. And we never publish [results] school by school. We are not making ranking lists.
Of course, we make national reports. They are important for policymakers. They are eager to know what's the state of the art in the country.
We also give [an] individual feedback report to each school in the sample, for the faculty, so they can see how their school has performed compared to the whole sample. But this report, it's confidential because we don't send that report to any other school. So it's some kind of public service for those schools.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Could you describe some of the mechanisms you have in place to help struggling students?
LAUKKANEN: We have two different kind[s] of mechanisms, and they are very near each other. We understand that the concept of early intervention is very important, and that's why we start to correct certain problems already [in] the first grade.
We have teachers who have specialized in the correction of the problems in reading, writing, and speech. They go around [to] the schools. They ask the teachers, "Do you have students who have problems like that," and if they have students like that... they have special methods to correct that kind of problem.
And then another issue is that those students who have problems can get remedial education, and that's also given by the school and paid for by the school.