Teaching Profession Opinion

Sahlberg’s Vision: Balancing Teacher Capacity and National Education Goals

By Marc Tucker — May 29, 2012 7 min read
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Pasi Sahlberg, in his landmark book
, makes the point that Finland’s development of
extensive student achievement standards proved to be a very important
landmark on the trajectory of Finland’s rise to world class status
in the education arena. Later on, he makes the point that, in recent
years, Finland has been cutting back on the specificity of its
standards, so that the volume of the standards has been reduced from
its former size.

One might think that this means that it
was a mistake to make the standards as voluminous as they formerly
were, that the Finns should have gone straight to their current shape
and size. But Sahlberg does not say that, nor do I think he would
agree with the inference if asked the question directly. The way I
read the evidence, in Finland and in the other high-performing
countries we have studied, is that a country should be reducing the
specificity of its academic standards only when it has made
significant progress in improving teacher quality.

Indeed, my reading is that few if any
countries have managed to get into the top ranks globally without at
some point creating what amounts to a fairly detailed set of
standards and what amounts to a national (or, in a federal system
like our own, a state) curriculum early on in the process. It is
only by doing that that the state or nation can convey to students,
teachers and parents the kind and level of expectations that
officials think should drive the system and, at the same time, give
teachers the resources they need to help students live up to those

Both halves of this idea are important.
Countries launching into a sharp upward trajectory of student
performance are typically working to leave behind decades, if not a
century or more, of deeply ingrained differences in expectations for
different status groups in their society. Going beyond the rhetoric
of high expectations for everyone to the reality makes it imperative
that the state or nation put meat on the bones, that is, convey a
vivid image of the content and quality of the work that students of
all sorts are expected to produce.

But that is not enough. Teachers may
believe that the state really means to hold them accountable for
helping all students to reach the new standards, but that will avail
nothing if the teachers don’t have the capacity to do it. At the
outset, that requires an enormous amount of support, mainly in the
form of detailed standards, illustrations of the kind of student work
that would merit good grades, textbooks and a wide range of other
materials that teachers can use to support instruction, and a lot of
training for the teachers in the instructional techniques needed to
enable them to use those materials well. The capstone, of course, is
having assessments--both formative and summative--that are well
matched to the curriculum, the materials and training.

As long as the state’s teachers meet
a certain threshold of capacity, the strategy I have just
described--essentially putting in place a fairly detailed
world-class curriculum across the entire state, making sure the
teachers are well-trained to teach it and insisting that all students
from all backgrounds have access to that curriculum--that strategy
can be implemented in a few years and is virtually guaranteed to have
a very strong payoff, in the sense of producing a significant
improvement in student performance across the board.

But not all of the countries that have
managed to implement such a strategy were satisfied with their
accomplishments for very long. As Sahlberg reports in the case of
Finland, the Finnish strategy included some fine work on a national
curriculum, as good as I have seen anywhere, but the Finns did not
stop there. At the heart of the Finnish strategy is their concern
for teacher quality. Finnish Lessons describes the steps the
Finns took to raise teacher quality and I will not repeat them here.
The point I want to make has to do with the impact of raising teacher
quality on the national curriculum. As the Finns raised teacher
quality, they cut back on the specificity of the curriculum. This is
no accident. As they gained confidence in the quality of their
teachers, they became more confident that their teachers would
deliver a high quality, demanding curriculum to their students. They
would not need the structure provided by the detailed curriculum, nor
would they want to be teachers if they were to be constrained by such
a highly specified curriculum. They did not need it--and they would
not put up with it.

At the end of his book Salhberg shares
his personal vision for Finnish education, a dream, he says, that he
hopes will animate a new and even more productive round of
fundamental reform of Finnish education. He wants an education
system that constitutes students as a “community of learners that
provides the conditions that allow all young people to discover their
talents.” He wants schools that teach the necessary knowledge and
skills, as they do now, but which provide an environment in which
students can engage and explore, follow their own paths, come up with
new ideas, learn that it is alright to make mistakes. There would
still be classrooms and even classes, but they would be much less
important features of the school than they are now. Hand-held
digital devices would provide access to first-rate lectures and many
other resources for learning. There would be a new balance between
standardized curriculum and testing and individualized, customized
learning. That learning would follow a path reflected in a learning
plan devised with and for that student. As students progress through
the grades, the balance between the standardized curriculum and
regular classroom instruction would shift to a much more customized,
free-form instructional program. As is true now, students would be
expected to master the knowledge and skills demanded by a
leading-edge economy, but, to a degree not now present, they would
also be expected to develop the social, moral and personal skills
needed to work closely together in ever-changing networked work
groups, and the skills required to successfully navigate uncharted
territory in one realm after another.

This is, at least for me, a compelling
vision, very similar to my own. Apart from the technology, it
strikes me as being very like the vision driving the very best of our
private independent schools like Phillips Academy Andover,
Harvard-Westlake School and Sidwell Friends School as well as our
very best public high schools, where many classes are small intense
seminars and much of the work is in the form of student-defined
projects and independent learning.

But the astute observer will quickly
see that this vision will sink into instant mediocrity unless the
teachers are superbly capable. If it is true that the less capable
the teachers are, the more supporting structures they need,
especially in the form of detailed standards, curriculum, external
testing and outside inspection, then the converse is also true: The
more capable they are, the less of all those things they need.
Indeed the less of all those things they will tolerate, too.

The more students and teachers define
the purposes and choose the means of instruction, (which is to say,
the more the whole experience is customized to the goals and talents
of the individual student), the more the student needs teachers who
are deeply knowledgeable, not just about their subject, narrowly
defined, but about the world; teachers who can see around
intellectual corners, who have a very wide repertoire of conceptual
frameworks, research techniques, and intellectual disciplines upon
which they can call; and who are supple, who can follow where their
students lead.

Conceptions of teacher quality and
conceptions of intellectual challenge and even of educational vision
are inseparable companions. There is no point in having a vision
that your teaching force cannot implement, and implementation is not
just a matter of short-term training. The amount of training a
person can successfully absorb is in turn a function of the broad
underlying level of skill and knowledge they bring to the training.
If you are stuck with a relatively less knowledgeable and capable
teaching force, you are therefore stuck with an educational vision
that assumes clearly spelled out detailed standards, a highly
specified curriculum, materials designed to support that curriculum
in detail and a big investment in teaching your teachers to teach
that curriculum, using those materials. A country or state only gets
to reach for more goals and standards to the extent that that country
or state has made or is willing to make the necessary investment in
teacher quality.

Finland, an entire nation (albeit a
small one) stands a chance of being able to realize a vision thus far
realized only by a handful of schools anywhere because it has made
the same kind of investment in its teachers that those schools have
made over the years. Woe be to a nation that relaxes its hold on
curriculum specification and on school accountability before it has
made the necessary investment in its teachers. I can predict with
great confidence that the result will be falling test scores and loss
of confidence by the public in the officials running the education
system. It is a neat trick, keeping the rate of improvement in
teacher quality roughly in tune with a nation’s changing goals for
its students.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.