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‘Take equity more seriously,’ Finnish educator says

Noted Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, one of the world’s experts on education reform, told an audience in Baker Hall that both excellence and equity are needed to achieve academic success.

Sahlberg, delivering the first John Stoops lecture hosted by Lehigh’s College of Education, drew on international test score rankings, which consistently put countries such as Finland, Canada, Japan and Korea among the top scorers in math, science and reading.  He said the rankings showed an apparent correlation between student achievement in those subject areas and the equity of educational opportunities.

Using a slide presentation that put the top-scoring countries in a type of heavenly cloud, Sahlberg said that if America wants to go to educational heaven, “it’s more important to take equity more seriously and put it as a priority.”

Sahlberg’s lecture on Oct. 8 kicked off the College of Education’s yearlong celebration of three key anniversaries—50 years as a College, 100 years of education at Lehigh and 50 years of the highly regarded Centennial School for children with educational disabilities.  It also marked the inaugural Stoops lecture, established in tribute to John A. Stoops, the College’s first dean and founder of the Centennial School. 

In a ceremony preceding Sahlberg’s talk, Dean Gary Sasso and Robert Leight, professor emeriti, recognized Stoops’ significant contributions to education—he also played a key role in the formation of Channel 39 (WLVT-TV public television) and Northampton Community College—and presented Stoops’ widow, Muriel, with a gift of art glass in commemoration.  The inscription read: “In honor of Dr. John A. Stoops for his leadership, wisdom, dedication and commitment to the Lehigh University School of Education. The impact you made here will be felt throughout time.”

Sahlberg, a visiting professor of practice at Harvard University, delivered a talk entitled “Education Around the World.”  A Finnish citizen, he has been active in promoting education changes in Finland and beyond, and he has a long professional history in education and development.  At Harvard, he works with graduate and doctoral students, teaching courses about international educational change and how education policies and reforms can improve but also harm school systems, teachers and students.

In his talk at Lehigh, Sahlberg addressed what he said are the forces behind successful educational systems—collaboration, creativity, trust-based responsibility, professionalism and equity. And he addressed the factors that he said hinder the improvement of educational systems—competition, standardization, test-based accountability, de-professionalization and privatization.

Sahlberg called on audience members to do some mental math, presenting them with a multi-step addition problem that they collectively solved out loud. In the group dynamic, the total came out wrong.

“If we make a mistake with a simple thing like this,” Sahlberg said, “then we’re going to make mistakes many times, and in a much more serious way, with complex things like reforming education.”

What’s happening now has happened before, Sahlberg said. Around the world, in areas of education policy and reform, people are doing things because it seems as if everyone else is doing those things, and they are taking missteps. “What we need to do with this one is to stop and think,” he said. “And always ask, does it make any sense? Is this the right way to go?”

Sahlberg acknowledged Finland’s education success story, noting the country’s ascent from a mediocre educational system to one of the best in the world.  It consistently ranks high in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OEDC) rankings of school performance across 76 countries.  People are curious about Finland because of that turnaround, he said, not because of the high test scores. They want to know, he said, what reform looks like and how Finland was able to change.

“Forty years ago, we decided to redesign the school system, where there was a lot of inequality or inequity, and we had an issue with excellence,” he said. “We decided to turn everything around and make a system that is good for everybody.”

Sahlberg said that many countries focus their resources and politics on educational excellence, with equity being a secondary concern. For those who want to build reforms on international evidence, he said, they should note that the highest performing countries invest their resources in both areas.

In a question-and-answer segment that followed the lecture, Sahlberg took issue with the ways that schools are funded in America. In many cases, he said, districts’ funding formulas are funding inequality.

Looking ahead, Sahlberg identified three issues that are likely to be part of future conversations about education: whether there’s a need for less technology and more human interaction in schools, how to help young people realize their talents, and the importance of children’s play in education.

As the College of Education continues its anniversary celebration, it is planning an awards ceremony next spring that will honor distinguished educators from each discipline of the College. There also will be a book published that chronicles the history of education at Lehigh.
 

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Dean Gary Sasso and Robert Leight, professor emeriti, recognized John A. Stoops’ significant contributions to education in presentation to his widow, Muriel.

Sahlberg's talk was entitled “Education Around the World.”