WTF: Why the Finnish? It is ironic that reformers and the popular discourse (such as films like Waiting for Superman) often cite Finland, the “West’s reigning education superpower,” but actually completely ignore their approach to reform. They often use Finland as an example of success and then overlay their own ideas for reforms that are the anti-thesis of Finnish system. An oldie but a goodie article in The Atlantic entitled What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School success expertly described the ironies. What are the questions that American “reformers” often ask the Finnish?
How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?
What is the Finnish model that has led to a miracle in education over the past few decades? (Of course there is more, but this is just what was in the article)
“There are no private schools in Finland.”
This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.
Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.
Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.
As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”
In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.
Competition versus Cooperation
And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
Equity versus Choice
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.
Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.
That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.
Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.
The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.
Finland is also nearly 100% unionized.
The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.
Considering the Finnish’s tried and true approach to school reform, is it really a mystery why NCLB hasn’t delivered after a decade? Or why localities (i.e. Chicago, Milwaukee, D.C., NOLA etc) that are controlled by “reformers” and implementing educational policy reforms that are exactly the opposite of Finland haven’t delivered on their grandiose promises for education reform?
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