by Cheryl Jackson Tuesday November 8, 2011

Perhaps the most astounding thing I heard at this past weekend's People for Education conference came from Pasi Sahlberg, the Director General of CIMO in Helsinki, Finland. When asked by a member of the audience about accountability in the famous Finnish education system, Sahlberg said there is no word for "accountability" in Finnish. When asked to explain the concept to a group of colleagues in Finland, Sahlberg said, "Accountability is what's left when you take out responsibility."

Think about that for a minute. If you do not trust someone to be responsible, you ask him to at least be accountable. To show you the numbers. To prove he's done what he said he would. To put it down on paper, or a spreadsheet. Responsibility is a much deeper, almost moral, concept of doing the right thing not just for yourself, but for many. This explains much about the success of the education system in Finland.

You know about Finland, right? It has the highest achievement scores in the OECD Programme for International Assessment (PISA). Ironically, being number one was not the goal when Finland overhauled its system 25 years ago. The goal was equity, that all students be offered an equal education no matter where they lived or how much money their families had. Today, equity has resulted in achievement.

Teachers are highly trained, have time in their day to plan, prepare, study, meet, and are respected as professionals by parents and the public. In fact, parent involvement is one of the things Finland needs to work on, says Sahlberg. Parents trust the teachers and schools so much, they feel they don't need to be involved. Imagine. There is only one standardized test, when kids leave high school. Instead, officials take random tests to study the effectiveness of education delivery, but those tests are not made public. They are responsible, but not accountable.

I wish we could stop using the word "accountable" and instead talk about "responsible". It would make all the difference.

Here's Pasi Salhberg.