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Myth: You can do more with less

June 1, 2015 Pasi Sahlberg

Fallacies influence education thinking during times of austerity

Governments in Alberta and Finland are under economic pressure to reduce public spending as a result of failed national politics and unpredictable global economics. When government budgets get off track, bad news for education systems follow. The recently defeated Finnish government carried out huge cuts in education infrastructure. As a result, small schools were closed, teaching staff lost their jobs and morale among educators declined. Albertans are now facing similar threats.

When the going gets tough in our wealthy societies, the powers-that-be often choose quick fixes. In search of a silver bullet instead of sustained systemic improvement, politicians turn their eyes on teachers, believing that asking them to do more with less can compensate for inconvenient reductions in school resources. With super teachers, some of them say, the quality of education will improve even with lesser budgets. While some might suggest leadership is doing more with less, I would counter that real political leadership is about getting the appropriate resources in place to create a vibrant society.

“Teacher effectiveness” is a commonly used term that refers to how much student performance on standardized tests is determined by the teacher. It plays a visible role in the education policies of nations where there is a wide range of teacher qualifications and therefore uneven teacher quality. Measuring teacher effectiveness has brought different methods of evaluation to the lives of teachers in many countries. The most controversial of them include what is known as value-added models1 that use data from standardized tests of students as part of the overall measure of the effect that a teacher has on student achievement.

Alberta and Finland are significantly better off than many other countries when it comes to teacher quality and teacher policies. In the United States, for example, there are nearly 2,000 different teacher preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Canada and Finland, only rigorously accredited academic teacher education programs are available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor Finland has fast-track options into teaching (although Teach for Canada is entering the game in Alberta with 40 new recruits in 2015/2016). Teacher quality in successful education systems is a result of careful quality control at the entry stage of teacher education rather than measuring the effectiveness of in-service teachers.

In recent years the “no excuses” argument has been particularly persistent in the education debate. There are those who argue that poverty is only an excuse used to avoid insisting that all schools should reach higher standards. With this argument, the silver bullet is better teachers. In Finland, education policies have concentrated more on school improvement than on teacher effectiveness, indicating that schools are expected to improve by having everyone work together rather than teachers working individually. Lessons from the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) were identical. Effective school development is equally about system-wide social capital and developing strong individual human capital.

THREE Fallacies

When education budgets are questioned or cut, teachers are often asked to do more with less. Some economists have calculated how much students’ achievement could be improved by enhancing the quality of the teaching force. An efficient way to do that, they argue, is to find poorly performing teachers and get rid of them. Then, bringing young, enthusiastic talent into these classrooms will actually lead to the betterment of education at the same time when resources diminish. Within this logic lie three fallacies that, if taken as facts, will be harmful for the teaching profession and thereby for the entire education system.

The first fallacy is to believe that the best way to elevate the teaching profession is to attract the best and the brightest to become teachers. In many countries the teaching profession has suffered from declining social respect, trust and thereby popularity among young people as prospective and admired lifelong career. Education system leaders, such as Arne Duncan in the U.S. and Michael Gove in the U.K., have suggested that recruiting academically smarter people to teach in schools would enhance the quality of teaching and improve academic outcomes in schools.

Those who rely on the idea of “the best and the brightest” often point to Finland and Singapore as examples of education systems that have built their success on that principle. We frequently hear that the best education systems systematically recruit new student teachers from the top 10 per cent of their applicant pool. But a closer look at how students are selected into initial teacher education programs reveals that the truth is not that straightforward.

The University of Helsinki in Finland selects 120 new students from approximately 2,000 applicants each year for its primary school teacher education program. This pool is large enough to actually pick up all 120 students from the best quintile. But that doesn’t happen.

In 2014, as I have shown elsewhere2, only one of four students selected into the teacher education program at the University of Helsinki came from the top quintile. Furthermore, one in four students had an academic record that placed her or him in the bottom half of the pool, as measured by their performance in diploma examinations. Clearly it is important that criteria beyond strictly defined academic qualifications must be considered in selecting teacher candidates.

Singapore follows similar academic admission procedures for students who study at the National Institute of Education.

The second fallacy is that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. This statement became known in education policies through the influential McKinsey & Company report entitled How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out On Top.3 It has since appeared in the 2012 reports of the Programme for International Student Assessment — by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — as well as several policy reports and documents. Although these documents often take a broader view of enhancing the status of teachers through better pay and careful recruitment, this statement implies that the quality of an education system is defined by the quality of its teachers.

Many educators, and certainly experienced teachers and school principals, perceive teaching in school as team play. The role of an individual teacher in a school is like a player on a football team or musician in an orchestra: all teachers are vital, but the culture of the school is even more important for the quality of the school. Team sports and performing arts offer numerous examples of teams that have performed beyond expectations because of leadership, commitment and spirit.

Take the U.S. ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, when a team of college kids beat both the Soviets and Finland in the final round and won the gold medal. The quality of Team U.S.A certainly exceeded the quality of its players. Or take Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse. Without five-star musicians that always hit all the chords perfectly they have performed better than the quality of each player and created music enjoyed by millions for almost half a century. So can an education system.

The third fallacy is that the most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers. This is the driving principle of former New York City public schools’ chancellor Joel Klein in his new book as well as many other education “reformers” today. If a teacher were the most important single factor in improving quality of education, then the power of a school would indeed be stronger than children’s family background or peer influences in explaining student achievement in school. But we have known since the mid-1960s that that isn’t so.

Research on what explains students’ measured performance in school remains mixed. However, researchers generally agree that up to two-thirds of the variation in student achievement is explainable by individual student characteristics like family background and such variables. The American Statistical Association concluded recently that teachers account for about 1 per cent to 14 per cent of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in system-level conditions.4 In other words, most of what explains student achievement is beyond the control of teachers or even schools, and therefore arguing that teachers are the most important factor in improving the quality of education is simply wrong.

This doesn’t mean that teachers would not be important or that individual teachers could not turn the course of children in school. Of course they do. But it is often a combination of powerful factors that makes the most positive impact on students. Most scholars agree that effective leadership is among the most important characteristics of good schools, equally important to powerful teaching. Effective leadership includes leader qualities, such as being firm and purposeful, having a shared vision and goals, promoting teamwork and collegiality and frequent personal monitoring and feedback. Several other characteristics of more effective schools include features that are also linked to the culture of the school and leadership: maintaining focus on learning, producing a positive school climate, setting high expectations for all, developing staff skills and involving parents. In other words, school leadership matters as much as teacher quality.


At a time of austerity, education policymakers have to be very careful in changing and also protecting current conditions that influence the teaching profession. It is tempting to suggest that, by enhancing teacher effectiveness, we can maintain current levels of teaching quality in schools. It is also far too convenient to suggest that, on top of all other duties, teachers should contribute more to struggling national economies by creating innovators, active citizens and a skilled labour force to emerging new occupations. In this respect, Alberta and Finland stand before a similar challenge. Searching for super teachers is not the right solution.

Instead, leaders in Alberta and Finland need to be reminded that schools must have appropriate, well-researched policies supported by adequate resources to be part of the campaign to bring our economies back on track. Finnish schools are now redesigning their curricula to match the National Curriculum Framework 2016. All schools must have at least one extended study period for all students, and all the school subjects are merged into integrated, phenomenon-based teaching and learning. Municipalities and schools may choose to have more than one such study period per year, and they may also decide the duration of these periods. This renewal has the potential to become a revolutionary step forward in building the ideal future school in Finland.

Educational reform won’t happen without sustained investments in schools, appropriate support to teachers, and changing some of the current regulations that stand in the way of planned change. Bilateral research partnerships like that between Finland and Alberta (FINAL) can play a pivotal role in making necessary changes possible. As we have learned from FINAL, it is through the internationalization of education research and evidence gathering that we can create the kinds of schools our students deserve.

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg is visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?


1        The entire March 2015 issue of Educational Researcher, the journal of the American Educational Research Association, was dedicated to teacher evaluations and value-added models.

2        Sahlberg, P. 2015. “Q: What makes Finland’s teachers so special? A: It’s not brains.” The Guardian, March 31. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/31/finnish-teachers-special-train-teach (accessed on April 24, 2015).

3        McKinsey & Company. 2010. How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top. London: McKinsey & Company.

4        American Statistical Association (ASA). 2014. ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment. Alexandra, Va: ASA.


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