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In Teachers We Trust: An Interview with Finnish Education Expert Reijo Laukkanen

vonzastrowc's picture

LaukannenWEB.jpgImagine 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.


Photo from http://www.uvm.dk/nyheder/oecddelegation.htm?menuid=05  


Thanks for the comment, Nancy. Do you count all the inputs, including both in-school and out-of-school inputs?  I look forward to your posting on Finland!


Like Renee, I am thinking about blogging on Finland, as well. I have been collecting articles and information on the Finnish system for months, and the podcast confirms what I've been reading.  Renee's observation that it all seems to good to be true may be a reflection not only on cultural norms  but on the fact that in the last 25 years, there has been an increasingly vocal media campaign to paint public schools in America--especially public schools full of poor children--as abject failures that cannot be improved or even salvaged.

Usually, articles on the Finnish system are accompanied by comments stating that Finland is a much more homogeneous society than ours, and their problems are thus more "fixable." I believe we can fix our problems, too--but what is lacking is belief and will, not resources or strategies. Our raw materials (students and facilities) are as good as Finland's. It's our systemically embedded belief that equitable inputs won't yield equitable outputs that holds us up. 

Looking forward to your posting

Thanks for you thoughtful comment.  I agree with you that there's a fairlyland element to this description of trust in teachers.  Surely, even in Finland, there's a principal or a parent who is dissatisfied with a teacher.  What do they do?

I look forward to your posting.

Trusting Teachers

This was so refreshing to read. Imagine, a place that assumes the people whom they have hired, trained, and entrusted to educate their children are actually intelligent and responsible enough to do it.  Sounds almost too good to be true, though. I'm curious about how parents there feel about this system of no evalution of teachers, and the quality of instruction their children receive. I'm going to share this over at my blog.

The schools in Finland are

The schools in Finland are impressive. The results of your work in the schools is outstanding.

I am interested in reviewing the "core national curriculum." Am I correct in thinking that the curriculum outlines the topics for instruction but the teachers decide how student knowledge will be built and teacher classroom creativity is very important.

Teacher creativity seems to be the key element in the success of the student population. This seems to be a missing very important element in US schools.

US teachers are held to a guideline and are much less likely to be creative. We seem to teach to the test. This has to be tedious for students and teachers.

Should the US look to reinvent our educational system?

I'm getting very excited

I'm getting very excited reading about the success of education in Finland. I've always been somewhat of a visionary and have noticed when I get burned out in the classroom, it's most likely because I start to lose hope.
Reading the above article and posts have given me energy and focus to keep going. What could possibly be the danger of thinking we can change public education for the better.

It just seem important to me

It just seem important to me to note how Laukkanen always justified the trust set upon the teachers on the fact that the teacher was already very qualified to begin with.

So the formula is not "trust the teacher" simply, but "get excellent teachers on who you can trust, and then trust them".

It just seem important to me

It just seem important to me to note how Laukkanen always justified the trust set upon the teachers on the fact that the teacher was already very qualified to begin with.

So, then Finland must clearly

So, then Finland must clearly be among the world's greatest leaders in math, science, technology, the arts, etc., right? Funny, but I've never heard that about Finland, despite the positive accolades I've read about their schools for years. The results of a quick search of the top countries for engineering, technology, or the number of patents issued didn't include Finland. I'm truly not trying to merely be the devil's advocate. However, I'm just wondering what the criteria is. Is it a student test? I hope not. I seriously admire a great deal of what they do in their schools, and I'd welcome any data that anyone might be able to offer that supports it, because this interview gives me little evidence.

The people of Finland are

The people of Finland are also considered the happiest in the world. So maybe their priorities are not based on the number of patents issued, etc.

Hi, Loved your article.

Loved your article. I'm very interested in a ed trip to Finland. Do you have any links or suggestions about how to meet with teachers and students there?

I so much love the Finnish

I so much love the Finnish educational system. It's a conscious effort of the government to give the best to every Finnish child. I do not care to compare this system with others based majorly on testing. The outstanding perfomance of the average student is enough proof of its effectiveness.