Solutions for education reform in the United States were the topic of Dr. Pasi Sahlberg’s presentation “Race to the Finnish Line! A Transformational Approach to Public Education” on Wednesday.
In a presentation before an audience of 300, including Chancellor Victor Boschini and representatives from the offices of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, Sahlberg challenged the traditional American approach to education reform.
Sahlberg’s presentation was part of the Cecil H. and Ida Green Honors Chair program. According to the Green Honors Chair guidelines, the program is designed to bring distinguished speakers to campus to “provide new ideas and stimulation for faculty and students alike while at the same time, nurturing ‘town and gown’ relations with the community.”
Sahlberg is the director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki, Finland. He also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the International Association for Studies of Cooperation in Education, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki, according to the lecture program.
Sahlberg gained experience in education by studying the school systems around the world. He said the education system in Finland could be a strong example for many countries, including the United States.
“I am not here to compare or compete in education, I am here to share some of the experiences we have had,” Sahlberg said. “I wouldn’t be here and Finland wouldn’t be there unless we had been so carefully learning from what had been happening during the last one hundred years in this country.”
Debbie Rhea, associate dean of Health Sciences and Research and professor of kinesiology, set up Dr. Sahlberg’s lecture while in Helsinki. She went there because of the notoriety of the Finnish education system.
“I never met Pasi while I was there, but we had a phone call,” she said. “And then when I was back and going again in January, we decided to have him as a Green Chair, because I knew what he was about.”
Finland has not always been a high performer in education, and the country has never aimed to be the best, Sahlberg said. But the avoidance of what he calls the “GERM infection” has pushed them to the top.
Sahlberg sees many countries trying to use GERM, the Global Educational Reform Movement, to improve their public schools. The four components of GERM are competition, standardization, test-based accountability and choice, which he says end up hurting the education systems in the long run.
“If the elements of GERM were a good idea, I think there would be at least one country in the world that would show by doing this, things would improve,” Sahlberg said. “But there is nothing. Not a single successful example of a country that has relied on GERM.”
Sahlberg showed slides about numerous countries that used GERM, including the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia and how their average mathematics scores all decreased between 2000 and 2006.
His response to the GERM infection is the “Finnish Way,” which is how Finland has been implementing educational changes over the past 40 years.
“Everybody in high school, 100 percent of our kids, have a personalized learning plan,” he said. “And we have been trying to enhance equity in the education system, which means everybody should be successful in the school system regardless of where they come from.”
Sahlberg provides his three steps for better education: taking equity more seriously, spending less time in the classroom and improving the professionalism of the teachers.
Sahlberg concluded his presentation with what he calls the “Finnish Lessons,” or things he has seen that have improved the quality of education reform. The Finnish Lessons include more collaboration, trust, well-being, equity, and evidence-based policies in the education systems.
Stahlberg’s book titled, “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award in Education.
Sahlberg also presented at various workshops on campus Tuesday and Wednesday. The workshops on Tuesday were to help university faculty, staff and students understand the new approach to helping children with rising obesity and technological changes. Wednesday was focused on faculty and staff of kindergarten through twelfth grade education.
Paulette Burns, dean of the Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences, said that Sahlberg brought a new perspective that could be useful for any educator in the United States.
“I think we can learn from seeing a different way to do things,” she said. “We don’t have to do things the same old way, or the way that we think we have to do them now. The proof is in the outcomes.”