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Cross-posted on Education Week

Pasi Sahlberg, in his landmark book Finnish Lessons, 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 expectations.

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.