By Kristen Miller
Recently selected to serve on the state’s Education Innovation Policy Committee, Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Acton Twp.) hopes to introduce some of the methods that have helped Finland become one of the most successful educational systems in the world.
This past August, during FinnFest 2014 in Minneapolis, Urdahl was able to spend some time talking education with Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a highly regarded Finnish educator and scholar.
Sahlberg has worked as schoolteacher, teacher educator, and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems and reforms around the world. He is currently a visiting professor of practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
Having previously read Sahlberg’s best-seller book “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland,” Urdahl was aware of his contribution to education for many years. In 2008, Urdahl even visited several schools in Oulu, Finland, a population of roughly 120,000.
Urdahl told Sahlberg that if there was ever another opportunity, he would like to further discuss the subject of education reform with him.
That time came in October, following a speech Sahlberg gave to teachers at the Minnesota Education conference.
“I felt very privileged to have someone as esteemed in the education profession give me an hour of his time to talk about [education reform],” Urdahl said.
Having taught history for 35 years, “I have a long and abiding interest in education and exploring new models of education if there are elements that can be applied to Minnesota,” Urdahl commented.
Minnesota is fortunate, he said, to have a good education system. “I want to see that continue into the future,” Urdahl added.
From his talks with Sahlberg, Urdahl was able to identify some challenges that lie ahead for the state’s education system, specifically focusing on the area of teaching.
Urdahl reported that teachers once came from the top 10 percent of their graduating class.
The statistics now show teachers are coming from the bottom two-thirds of their graduating class.
“We can’t sustain excellence into the future, if we are producing mediocre teachers,” Urdahl said.
The Finnish education only accepts teachers in the top 10 percent of their class, and they all are required to have a master’s degree in their content area, Urdahl noted. In the Minnesota, three in five who have a master’s degree.
Urdahl would like to see there be incentives for teachers to earn their master’s degrees.
He would also like the student teaching experience expanded from a 10-week program to a full year.
Expanding the student teaching experience is going to better prepare teachers for the classroom, Urdahl commented.
This was something he not only learned from his own teaching experience, but it was confirmed in Finland.
“A lot of teaching is on-the-job training,” Urdahl said.
Urdahl emphasized he doesn’t want to see another year added to the program, just that the teacher college preparation plan would have to be adapted.
With two out of five teachers leaving the profession within the first five years, Urdahl suggests introducing a mentorship program for new teachers. This would provide guidance for new teachers from their veteran peers, and help them through some of the problems they may encounter in those first years, Urdahl explained.
Though there are other ways Minnesota could take a lesson from the Finnish education book, Urdahl wants to focus on sustaining high-caliber teachers in the state.