Friday, September 25, 2009

Our Guest Blogger from Helsinki!


The “Teacher Quality” conference wrapped up in Helsinki with a determination by participants to take lessons from Finland’s commitment to quality education back home to their own states and countries. Each attendee spoke about what they will most take away from the four-day conference, sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and how they will put that to practice when they return to their desks next week.

Several people expressed admiration for Finland’s practice of hiring teachers with masters degrees in their area of expertise, and the generally high level of qualifications required of teachers.

“As a lawyer I can’t appear before the bar unless I’m fully qualified,” said David Coltart, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education, adding that he wouldn’t dream of sending his children to a doctor who wasn’t fully qualified. He said that his country’s teacher training colleges are separate from the universities, and he will seek to bring them closer together.

Several delegates also voiced how they were moved by Finland’s great level of trust placed in teachers. Steve Payne, Superintendent of Schools in West Virginia, recalled his visit earlier in the week to a primary school, and a conversation with a teacher who said: “I like this. I have a principal who doesn’t breathe down my neck. He trusts me.” Mr. Payne said he would go back home “with the thought of the joy that this teacher gets through that trust.”

Magdalena Mok, Professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, spoke about how Finland’s commitment to education extends throughout the society. “Education is not just the classroom, but the building up of whole values,” she said. “Education is in the heart of everyone in Finland.”

Roger Sampson, President of the Education Commission of the States, commented how the best-performing countries, such as Finland, continually strive for improvement. “There is no ‘we’ve finally arrived.’ You never arrive. And that’s why they continue to be high-performing,” he said.

Susan Badger, Chief Executive Officer of Pearson’s Teacher Education and Development business, added that what Finland practices in education extends to other areas of society as well. “All the best companies have a culture of continuous improvement,” she said.

Patricia Wright, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Virginia, said the traditional U.S. hierarchy of a superintendent over a principal over a teacher seems to be reversed in Finland, thus empowering teachers. “So we need to reinforce our support system for teachers, and that will reinforce trust,” she said.

John Wilson, Executive Director of the National Education Association, commented how Finland has meticulously planned and implemented its education system, saying that the U.S. could use some of that patience. “In America we like problem solving rather than future planning,” he said. “Finland has a common vision.”

Gene Wilhoit, Executive Director of the CCSSO, ended the conference by saying that the U.S. has “a long way to go” in education, but that these four days will help provide a roadmap. “These are the important conversations in this world,” he said. “We need more of these conversations as we move ahead.”

There will be more. The next annual conference sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and CCSOO will be held in June 2010 in London.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


When people sign up for formal teacher training in Singapore, they’re treated from the start as paid professionals and not unpaid trainees, and “that has been working really well for us,” said Siew Hoong Wong, Director of Schools at Singapore’s Ministry of Education, addressing the third day of the “Teacher Quality” conference in Helsinki, sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

All teacher trainees are given full pay as a “serving officer” while they are in training, and after they begin teaching they get rewarded with performance-based pay. “We tell teachers: ‘When you join us, you can grow with us professionally,’” he said, because the country wants teachers to “look forward to a rewarding profession for 30 or 40 years without getting jaded.” As part of that, teachers for the past two years have received a three-month sabbatical after finishing six years of teaching, a measure he described as costly but important.

In Hong Kong, one of the biggest issues in education is a lack of trust including between teachers and parents, said Magdalena Mok, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. This has been caused in part by the closure of many schools due to the territory’s low birth rate, leading to job insecurity for teachers and administrators. There were 717 schools in 2003, and that number had been reduced to 500 by 2008, she told the conference.                                                                              

One of the themes of the conference’s third day was striking the right balance between accountability and trust, after delegates heard how Finland – which ranks high in international comparisons – has given plenty of leeway to its teachers. “What is the tipping point between freedom and accountability?” asked Patricia Wright, Superintendent of Public Instruction at Virginia’s Department of Education. “I believe in accountability, but if we’ve got highly qualified teachers we need to trust them to do what they were hired to do.” She also discussed how Virginia faces a challenge to teach English to a growing population of non-native English speakers; students needing such instruction were once largely located in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., but are now spread throughout the state.

R.D. Sahay of India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development said his country has close to 1 million teachers, is making efforts to increase funding for education as a percent of gross domestic product, and has set a goal of universal primary education in 2010. Yet he said India faces a big issue of inadequate physical infrastructure for education, including poor roofs on school buildings and inadequate toilet and drinking-water facilities in schools. This helps contribute to a large absentee rate among both teachers and students.

Finland has a long tradition of in-service training for teachers, and invests about 30 million euros a year for it, said Kristina Volmari of the Finnish National Board of Education. Yet the government has drawn up plans to invest another 8 million euros a year in this program, because it has found that only 70% of teachers and principals participate regularly – and an even smaller proportion in northern Finland – partly because they have to travel large distances for such training. If located too far away, such training is too expensive for municipalities because of the cost of transport and lodging for educators who attend.

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, outlined how quality teaching depends on many factors, as shown by the conference discussions so far. He discussed his previous administrative roles at both a top-performing school district in Virginia and a troubled one in New York, and cited the contrast in several areas including parent involvement, quality of facilities and attractiveness to top teachers.

“It’s the totality of all these factors that make the difference, not just one,” he said.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Finland’s success in building a world-beating education system has been a matter of “decades and not centuries,” and the same holds true for South Korea and several other countries that rank high in international comparisons. So said Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, who addressed the second day of the “Teacher Quality” conference in Helsinki, Finland, sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Even more “dramatic” than Finland’s top ranking, he added, is the fact that there’s only 4% variance between Finland’s schools, so parents “know they will get good results regardless of the school.” So while some countries “talk equity” in delivering education, Finland “delivers equity.”

Mr. Schleicher heads the Indicators and Analysis Division of the OECD’s Directorate of Education, which recently produced the organization’s annual “Education at a Glance” report, which is packed with detailed data tables and analysis. Several delegates joked with Mr. Schleicher that at 472 pages, the report requires a very long glance to fully consume. He laughed.

The conference, which brings together educators from the U.S. and around the world, also heard Mr. Schleicher explain how different types of jobs have fared in OECD countries over the past few decades. While there have declines in “routine manual” and “non-routine manual” jobs, the steepest decline since 1990 has been in “routine cognitive” jobs – skills that can be described to a computer or a worker in a lower-cost country, so these sorts of jobs have been most at risk in richer countries. The types of jobs that have seen an increase in numbers are “non-routine analytical” and “non-routine interactive” occupations.

Research by the OECD has also found that teachers do respond positively to feedback and appraisal, a finding that Mr. Schleicher said dispels the image that teachers don’t react well to such feedback. Yet there is very little of such feedback in practice. He concluded by reminding the audience that benchmarks are the key to educational results. “One of the best indicators of success is: ‘Does this country have a good definition of what good performance is?’”

Earlier in the day, conference-goers visited Nokia headquarters in Espoo, just outside downtown Helsinki, where they saw demonstrations of some of Nokia’s latest devices and programs. One such program, Nokia Education Delivery, provides videos and other instructional material through handsets, and from there onto larger viewing devices, to developing areas of the world including Tanzania, Chile and the Philippines. A teacher might set a timer to download the video into a handset the night before, when phone rates are lower, and then show it the next day.

Kirsi Sormunen, Nokia’s vice president for Sustainability Operations, told the group that she remembers trying to convince investors that there would one day be 100 million mobile phones in the world. Today, there are about 4 billion mobile subscriptions globally, and that number is projected to rise to 5 billion by 2015. Nokia has a 36% to 38% global share in mobile devices, she said, and is now shifting its focus into being a “solutions business” and not only a handset manufacturer.

The conference broke into two groups after lunch to visit two schools, the Ressu Comprehensive School for students aged 7 to 15, and the Ressu Upper Secondary School for the 16-18 age range.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


The “Teacher Quality” conference got off to a terrific start on Tuesday with an address to the group by Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s Minister of Education, who explained how her country has made teaching a prestigious, much-sought-after profession. “Teachers are valued by the society and teaching is valued by the society,” she told the conference in Helsinki.

There are many more applicants than places available in Finland’s 11 teacher-training universities, where teachers study five or six years for a masters degree. They are carefully screened for aptitude for teaching, so the dropout rate is very low. Salaries are “fair” though not particularly high, explained one of the minister’s officials, but teachers get job satisfaction through career progression, good working conditions and the fact that they are trusted by education administrators and given plenty of leeway to make decisions.

Finland has consistently done well in international test comparisons, and one reason is because the system emphasizes early intervention if students are struggling. The minister said that 8% of students have full-time special support, and another 25% get part-time support.

The Helsinki conference is the second education summit sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers, following last year’s event in Singapore, another country that ranks high in international test comparisons.

“We have chosen to go to other countries that have shown the way,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the CCSSO, kicking off the conference. “We expect to learn both from our hosts in Finland and from others around the world. One of the reasons we are here in Finland is to get a better sense of what you have done to support your educators.”

The conference includes delegates from countries and territories including India, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico and Uruguay, plus top officials from Pearson based in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere.

“The goal is to learn from what you do in Finland but also learn from each other,” said Mark Nieker, president of the Pearson Foundation. He added that Pearson is dedicated to “personalized learning” through the marriage of content with technology, and that increasingly means a focus on teachers.

On Wednesday, conference-goers visit Nokia’s headquarters outside Helsinki, and then split up to visit one of two schools. Later in the day, the conference will hear from Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The Helsinki conference isn’t the only place in Europe where teacher quality is on the agenda this week. Henna Virkkunen told the group that she was off on Wednesday to a meeting of European Union education ministers in Gothenburg, Sweden, where the main topics include teacher training and school leadership.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Teacher Quality Conference in Helsinki Next Week

We will be blogging the week of Sept. 21 from Helsinki, Finland, where the Pearson Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers are hosting an International Conference on Education.

The conference will focus on Teacher Quality: Identifying, Training and Supporting Great Teachers, and will run from Tuesday Sept. 22 until Friday Sept. 25.

We hope you check this space next week.