Finnish education expert gives the lie to the “Great Teachers” myth


by David Safier

Recent international tests of students have put Finland's schools at or near the top of the rankings. Finnish education has a few traits that should make conservative "education reformers" sit up and take notice. It doesn't give standardized tests to students until high school, and very few even then. Instead of punishing or closing "low performing schools," it puts money and resources into improving student achievement (The usual result is, student achievement improves). And its teachers are drawn from the top 10% of the country's college students unlike the U.S., where teachers tend to come from the middle of the college pack.

A Finnish expert on education, Pasi Sahlberg, has an article debunking the idea that "Great Teachers" are the answer to improving U.S. education. He acknowledges the importance of strong teachers, of course, but the promoters of the "Great Teachers" solution are ignoring more important aspects of our country's education problems.

Sahlberg puts poverty at the top of the list of the concerns the U.S. needs to address to improve its children's education. He cites studies concluding that at most a third of the variation in student achievement is the result of teacher quality, school climate and leadership. The other two-thirds is attributable to factors outside the school. And it's almost universally acknowledged, poverty is the number one factor in low student achievement. Sahlberg compares the U.S. and Finland.

In the United States today, 23 percent of children live in poor homes. In Finland, the same way to calculate child poverty would show that figure to be almost five times smaller. The United States ranked in the bottom four in the recent United Nations review on child well-being.  Among 29 wealthy countries, the United States landed second from the last in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in “child life satisfaction.” Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.

There's more to the article, but for me, that's the most important takeaway. Bill Gates can push the "Great Teacher" solution to our education problems and his new high tech teacher evaluation methodology all he wants. But if he and other corporate "education reformers" would look at their own bank accounts compared to the bottom 50% of the country and put their energies towards lowering our shameful poverty rate, that effort would go a lot further toward improving our students' achievement than all their bashing of teachers and traditional public schools.


  1. Mark, the success of Rose K-8 is remarkable, but one example is anecdotal and doesn’t contradict the overwhelming evidence that the influence of socioeconomic issues on educational achievement is far stronger than what happens in the school. Numerous studies have arrived at that conclusion. In Arizona, when you look at the state’s school grades, they correlate strongly with the number of students in the schools on free/reduced lunch.

    To say we have to address economic and social issues does not contradict the progressive tenet about the importance of schooling. It simply puts it back in its proper balance. Absolutely, good schooling and good/great teachers are essential. It’s just not enough to address problems of poverty and extreme economic inequality, both of which are harmful to the people in poverty and to society as a whole. The notion pushed by the conservative “education reform” movement that we should leave socioeconomic issues to the invisible hand of the marketplace and get more “great teachers” solve education’s problem is a destructive idea. This isn’t a dichotomy, it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.

    You seem to want to put me in a box, implying that if I think there are factors other than education needed to “alleviate poverty,” that means I’m saying education is not a part of the picture. It’s clear I’m not saying that. I was very careful to include this sentence in my post: “He acknowledges the importance of strong teachers, of course, but the promoters of the “Great Teachers” solution are ignoring more important aspects of our country’s education problems.”

    Education is a very political issue in this country. I will continue to criticize the conservative/corporate “education reformers” for proposing “solutions” to our educational problems that will harm, not help our system of education. One of those ways is by pretending that poverty can be significantly reduced or alleviated if we have “Great Teachers,” more charters and vouchers. Their “solutions” are driven by their political agenda, not by a genuine concern for the education of all our children.

  2. TUSD’s Rose K-8 school excels by almost any measure that one can think of, teaching mostly poor children who include many English language learners as defined by the state. Last week it received an Arizona “A+” award. Education is supposed to alleviate poverty. To suggest that alleviating poverty is essential to education is to abandon the principle that education can and should drive social mobility, a progressive tenet for more than 100 years.

  3. Blaming poverty is silly. That’s like blaming body temperature for sickness. It is just a symptom, not a cause. Many people from poverty perform better not worse because of poverty. They are more motivated, more driven to do better for themselves. The non-literate home, where children have hundreds of thousands of fewer positive interactions with their parents and tens of millions of fewer verbal interactions, is the cause of both poverty and education failure. Giving them welfare to lift them out of poverty just makes the situation worse, children of welfare families have horrifying statistics. These parents need to be in the workforce interacting and being lifted up if they are to gain the vocabulary and positive interaction skills necessary to lift their child. Great teachers can change not only students but homes too. That’s what we can do with policy, create jobs and create environments that allow teachers to grow to greatness.

    We are not going down that path right now. Our economy has not created a single hour of work in the last five years. Hours worked is still below its peak despite an adult population that has grown at least ten percent in the last five years. We’ve also grown to over 50 million people on welfare – a nightmare combination. As a result, SAT scores have fallen every year for five years.

  4. Physical exercise, Steve? What in the world does that have to do with drilling students on test questions until they learn how to maximize their scores? What a waste of time! (he said, tongue firmly in cheek)

  5. And of course daily physical exercise! The Finns have 10 minutes of every hour of academics devoted to recess and movement!

  6. Yup, education starts in the home. Unfortunately, like the recent Reinhart-Rogoff thing, you can debunk their neo-liberal B.S. all you want and it won’t stop them. Market totalitarianism is what it is and what the plutocrats want the plutocrats get. In this case, the goal is for-profit corporate education.