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Greenville Business Magazine

Public Education Partners’ Ansel Sanders journeys to Finland to study possible school fixes

By Chris Haire

Travel is good for the body, mind, and soul. It gives us an opportunity to relax and reflect, to detach from the grind of our lives and to dream about the life we might have. By stepping away from our day-to-day experiences and immersing ourselves in another place, we can see our hometowns with new eyes. 

For Ansel Sanders, president and CEO of Public Education Partners, a recent trip to Finland allowed him to bear witness to the positive steps Finland had taken to improve its schools. Overseas, Sanders and the nearly two-dozen other local leaders who traveled with him learned lessons they could then apply at home. 

We recently spoke with Sanders about the Finnish school system, how their approach differs from ours, and the unlikely source of their educational overhaul.

Sanders, by the way, will be taking another significant trip this fall. He’ll be leaving his PEP post to take a dream job at the Woodberry Forest School, a school that helped mold him into the man he is today. While he looks forward to his new job, Sanders says the entire experience is bittersweet, but he knows that PEP will continue its mission and move forward in a clear direction.

The following is a distillation of what was discussed; it has been edited for clarity and length.

A Time to Learn
We talked to policymakers. We talked to community folks. We traveled to different parts of the country. We saw elementary schools. We saw high schools. We saw what we would consider technical schools or vocational schools. And we really got a sense of what made the Finnish system tick and how they worked to really transform their system over the past three-plus decades.

The Teacher Shortage
The impetus behind this was actually the teacher shortage...This trend of fewer teachers coming into the profession through teacher preparation programs, more leaving at the backend, so a retention challenge, and then more students coming into our public schools every year—that trend of the past seven to eight years has continued, and I think that also allowed for a real introspective look at how we do things in a real penchant for innovation, to look for new ideas for how we could really shore up the recruitment and retention challenge that we’re seeing in teaching. 

One of the ways to do that is to explore other environments that have truly elevated the teaching profession and have placed teaching as one of the one of the top professions in the country, and Finland’s one of those.

A Sought-After Profession
Finland, 30 years ago, didn’t have nearly the outcomes of today. And that’s an important point because that points to a level of intentionality on a systems level that Finland really took to elevate the profession.

It’s a competitive profession to get into. Only 10 percent of those who apply to go to teacher preparation programs are added. So, 1,000 apply and only 100 get it. 

Every teacher has a master’s degree…so there’s a kind of a level of professionalism that’s automatically baked into the requirement of everybody having to have a master’s. 

There is a very high degree of trust and autonomy for educators once they get into the classroom.

There are very few, if any, standardized tests, and the tests they do take don’t have high stakes. Without them, in other words, it’s not the same type of testing environment that we have here. There’s a whole lot of room for creativity because the system trusts teachers and the job that they are trying to do. 

With the environment and the way standards are used, oftentimes in the States and here in South Carolina, it makes teachers feel less trusted because they are required to do so much. It’s really out of our control.

And that’s not an anti-testing statement. I think there is there’s certainly a place, but I do think it’s really putting a lot of pressure on teachers.

People say, I bet they get paid so much more in Finland more than they do here. Yes, they do get paid more. It’s not exorbitant.
In Finland, they don’t get paid $1 million, but the thing they really enjoy is that level of social respect, that level of trust, and that level of freedom they have in the classroom to really teach the content, as well as support kids. That was a huge takeaway from me for that particular trip. 

The Secret Sauce
I had an assumption that I was going to go there and find the secret sauce. I’ll go and there is going to be some crazy instructional practice or technology or something like that that I was going to say, I’ve got to bring that home. That wasn’t the case. 

In a lot of ways, it’s a very similarly structured system. One-hundred-eighty-day school years—same thing. 

What the difference is and what we were exposed to is that they chose to focus and resource the things that we know ultimately works at the end of the day for all kids.

Guaranteeing there is a fantastic teacher in every classroom and elevating the teaching profession. The notion of a teacher shortage there is preposterous. They couldn’t fathom such an idea.

Second, they think about early childhood education in a different way that really emphasizes play. It really emphasizes fostering curiosity. It doesn’t mean pushing standards down further and further to younger and younger grade levels. They de-emphasize the frequency and use of standardized tests. 

And they ensure that there’s there’s equity across the system, equity in access. There is a great honor in, for example, kids who go to a vocational track after high school, as well as those who go to a four-year university or go directly into the workforce.

There’s no stigma between those choices, and there’s fluidity between them for kids.

The Unlikely Source of the Finnish Model
The other thing I’d say that kind of took me aback was, as they were showing us and explaining the system, they also said, guys, all of the research on which our policies and practices are based comes from the U.S. They didn’t come up with anything unique. They actually are pulling a lot of what we know works.

While that was a little embarrassing, at the same time I think that really allowed us to reflect on our own practices and in our own kind of scope of work how we could better align, how we could better ground our practice in what works and what immediately we could take home.