What is it about Finland?

American education is suffering from Finn envy.  While the U.S. has been steadily but slowly climbing its way out of the mid-rankings on PISA — the international assessment of 15-year-olds — little Finland has been knocking the academic socks off of its OECD peers in math, reading and science.  So what do the Finns have that we don’t?

A lot has been made about the differences in culture. As many observers point out Finland is smallish, fairly homogenous and has a low poverty rate, slightly over three percent compared to our approximately 20 percent, and so they question how much of the Finnish way would transfer to our massive and massively complex system.

Even so, American educators and policymakers are so eager to uncover the Finn’s secret, they have created a new tourist industry for this off-the-beaten-track Scandinavian country. Interestingly, what they find both validates and contradicts reform policies advocated here in the U.S.

For one, Finland does not administer standardized tests  which has been a dominant feature of education improvement policies in the U.S. for over a decade. Homework is put off until high school in favor of play for younger students. Another surprise is that children aren’t required to start school until age seven, although voluntary preschool is available to all six-year-olds. Observers like me who believe data-driven policies and making Pre-k available to four-year-olds will help raise achievement won’t find much support here.

Finland also dishes up a potential moment of truth for so-called “reform” advocates, for the idea of merit pay, competition and other market solutions are alien concepts to their view of schooling. As one Finnish education official put it: “Real winners do not compete.”

There is one lesson that nearly all the edu-tourists take away, however. Teachers enjoy a high position of respect in Finnish society.  Finland actively recruits the top 10 percent of its college graduates to pursue master’s degrees in education, a credential most teachers possess. Teachers are trusted to develop lessons, design and administer assessments and grade students on their own. They also enjoy smaller classes and less time in front of students than their American counterparts. Those voices in the U.S. who call for bolstering the teaching profession as essential to improving achievement — a group in which I include myself — will find a great deal of support in the Finnish model.

An article in the Atlantic raises another characteristic of Finnish education that we have tended to overlook but that the Finns credit with their success.  The article’s author, Anu Partanen, explains:

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.

Equity in Finland is established through equal funding, free school meals, health care and access to guidance and counseling.  There are very few private schools. All schooling, Pre-k through college, is free. Apparently, investments in schools and children do make a difference.

To the skeptics, however, demography still explains everything about the gap between Finland and the U.S.  To this, Partanen cites research by Samuel Abrams of Columbia University who compared Finland to neighboring Norway, similarly homogenous but whose approach to education more closely resembles the U.S. Norway, like the U.S. and unlike Finland, is not far from the OECD average on PISA. But there are some takeaways that could be instructive for the U.S.

First, our efforts at equitable funding have not closed the wide financial gap between high- and low-poverty districts. Second, the investments we make in child services are pitiful compared to our international peers. Finally, greater attention to recruiting strong candidates into teaching and preparing them well, as well as developing effective school principals can go a long toward assuring all students get a good public education. Who knows? We might even be able to at least reduce our reliance on standardized tests.

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