ONTD Political

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success

5:10 pm - 12/31/2011
Everyone agrees the United States needs to improve its education system dramatically, but how? One of the hottest trends in education reform lately is looking at the stunning success of the West's reigning education superpower, Finland. Trouble is, when it comes to the lessons that Finnish schools have to offer, most of the discussion seems to be missing the point.

The small Nordic country of Finland used to be known -- if it was known for anything at all -- as the home of Nokia, the mobile phone giant. But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life -- Newsweek ranked it number one last year -- and Finland's national education system has been receiving particular praise, because in recent years Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world.

Finland's schools owe their newfound fame primarily to one study: the PISA survey, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are still near the very top. Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States has been middling, at best.

Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model -- long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization -- Finland's success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland to visit schools and talk with the nation's education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media marveling at the Finnish miracle.

So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Earlier this month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit received national media attention and generated much discussion.

And yet it wasn't clear that Sahlberg's message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.

* * *

During the afternoon that Sahlberg spent at the Dwight School, a photographer from the New York Times jockeyed for position with Dan Rather's TV crew as Sahlberg participated in a roundtable chat with students. The subsequent article in the Times about the event would focus on Finland as an "intriguing school-reform model."

Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. "Oh," he mentioned at one point, "and 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.

The irony of Sahlberg's making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of America's best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to attend -- not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the room commented on Sahlberg's statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.

Sahlberg knows what Americans like to talk about when it comes to education, because he's become their go-to guy in Finland. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a Finnish school. He taught mathematics and physics in a junior high school in Helsinki, worked his way through a variety of positions in the Finnish Ministry of Education, and spent years as an education expert at the OECD, the World Bank, and other international organizations.

Now, in addition to his other duties, Sahlberg hosts about a hundred visits a year by foreign educators, including many Americans, who want to know the secret of Finland's success. Sahlberg's new book is partly an attempt to help answer the questions he always gets asked.

From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: 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?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to do.

For starters, 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."

For Sahlberg what matters is that 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.

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 Puronen: "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.

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg's comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don't exist in Finland.

"Here in America," Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, "parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It's the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same."

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.

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.

* * *

Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out, Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States.

Yet Sahlberg doesn't think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country -- as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn't lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation's education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country's school system than the nation's size or ethnic makeup.

Indeed, Finland's population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state -- after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.

What's more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country's education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn't rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.

With America's manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. -- as articulated by most everyone from President Obama on down -- is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland's experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn't meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a "pamphlet of hope."

"When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's, many said it couldn't be done," Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. "But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland's dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn't be done."

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.

nothingmuch 1st-Jan-2012 11:58 pm (UTC)
"Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

I love this quote.
hinoema 2nd-Jan-2012 07:06 am (UTC)
I agree. I'm glad I read this just for that quote.
angelus7988 2nd-Jan-2012 12:03 am (UTC)
The importance of equity to the Finnish model, as well as its lack of emphasis on evaluation and testing, makes me suspect that it has no chance of being implemented in the US. There's too much pointless antagonism to the American identity; too much of an emphasis at beating others. It's like Americans are more concerned with their relative place in society than their quality of life. It's unfortunate, since I would love to see education in American become more like it is in Finland (particularly the societal value of teachers), but I honestly don't think it can happen.
romp 2nd-Jan-2012 12:29 am (UTC)
I agree that it calls into question some basic cultural myths like the meritocracy and being chosen by God to succeed. If you admit that inequality might be a problem and then treat people equally, you're bring up all kinds of issues. If the quality of education shouldn't hinge on a parent's wealth, perhaps the quality of health care also shouldn't hinge on what you can afford.

Then there are all the people (read: men, anglos, and fundamentalist Christians) who are still protesting every move toward equality because it has reduced their power. It feels like they're louder than ever right now.
magicbulletgirl 2nd-Jan-2012 12:09 am (UTC)
They always agree "education is the greatest equalizer" but they never want to do the things that'll make a good education available to all. That schooling can go to the highest bidder in the US is backwards.

Edited at 2012-01-02 12:09 am (UTC)
amyura 2nd-Jan-2012 12:11 am (UTC)
The big problem with American schools is that the Republicans want to completely dismantle public education, and the Democrats want to listen to people like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, who collectively have no more than two years' (both Rhee's) experience as teachers yet think they know how to solve all the problems. A second problem is that American policy-makers define educational success by high test scores.
romp 2nd-Jan-2012 12:22 am (UTC)
I would give anything for people in the US and Canada to experience enlightenment of the pattern of starving public serves and then, when they're broken, turning to privatization for the cure. It's a con that's been being run for decades and I'm sick of it.
lyssna 2nd-Jan-2012 12:12 am (UTC)
If there is one thing that I have found particularly striking about American politics, it is the tendency to ignore any other country's success in any field, on any issue. It's routinely dismissed as "well that may work there, but this is America". The fact that it has worked in other places is not enough -- it has to be "American" as well, whatever that means.
romp 2nd-Jan-2012 12:20 am (UTC)
I've noticed it's used less or at least the argument doesn't work as fewer places remain homogenous.
nemi_chan 2nd-Jan-2012 12:31 am (UTC)
I attended Dumb White Idiots Getting High Together.

To be fair, they had some helpful things and classes when I had flopped, failed, and bawwed in every other school. But they are far from perfect.
ultra_obscene84 3rd-Jan-2012 03:02 am (UTC)
LOL, The Dwight School. I've heard lots of things about that place.
umi_mikazuki 2nd-Jan-2012 12:49 am (UTC)
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.

Oh my god. Stars in my eyes.
romp 2nd-Jan-2012 12:58 am (UTC)
Right? I'm braced for the ONTD_P Finn to come and set us straight but it sure sounds dreamy.
nesmith 2nd-Jan-2012 01:05 am (UTC)
Finland Finland Finland, the country where I want to be . . .

Sounds like an ideal place to be a teacher. I wonder how hard it would be to learn Finnish . . .
wrestlingdog 2nd-Jan-2012 01:11 am (UTC)
A+ comment!
kyra_neko_rei 2nd-Jan-2012 01:15 am (UTC)
Finland's experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

THIS. An economy is interconnected, so its individual actors are not so much a pyramid as a raft. If you've got a raft of millions of hollow containers in the water, and some are buoyant but most are not, that thing ain't gonna float, even if the most buoyant of the containers are filled with helium instead of air. The competitive mentality's pyramid metaphor might get its one percent to a lofty perch looking down at all the lesser people they achieved over, but pyramids sink.

romp 2nd-Jan-2012 02:06 am (UTC)
Cool image. I'm reminded of universal health care giving gov't a reason to improve everyone's health: it's just practical and thrifty to practice preventative medicine. I didn't understand that until I experienced it.

It's so against fundamental parts of the US mindset tho'. It was interesting to see that journalists couldn't even seem to take hold of the concept when it was told to them.
8hrs 2nd-Jan-2012 01:23 am (UTC)
(It's late. This comment isn't much more than random rambling.)

Well, as a Finn I naturally found this article interesting. I've known of our PISA success and this book, but I, too, have assumed it's mostly the homogeneous population that does it, especially since in the past few years I've seen quite a few articles about white flight taking place in some areas of Helsinki, specifically due to kids' education. (I'm sure it's partially just plain old racism and prejudice, but afaik with lots of pupils that aren't nearly fluent in Finnish in a class the pace of teaching might become a lot more slower or something like that, which then might also decrease the amount of stuff the kids end up learning.)

Unfortunately I feel like Finland is slowly turning into a society with larger gaps between income (and quality of life) but I do hope schools will remain reasonably equal (we do have some "elite" upper-secondary level schools right now; you need a good GPA to get in and they tend to produce the best national matriculation exam scores) in the future as well.

But... I don't know. Go us? IDK my Finnish mentality is preventing me from believing we might actually be superior in something. :D When Newsweek had that "quality of life" thing and Finland came first, we collectively kind of decided the survey must be somehow wrong. I think that's one of the ways we might differ from Americans? I mean, my knowledge of USA comes from Hollywood and this community but am I totally wrong if I believe that the collective reaction in USA for "winning" in the "quality of life" survey would be more like AMERICA, FUCK YEAH and less CAN'T BE TRUE?

I've also seen a lot of criticism on the whole "Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers" thing. Not because people would think equality isn't good, but I don't think we really have a way to properly help said star performers use the full potential of their skills. There's no Smart Kid Academies you could send your ten year old prodigy to, you just need to find another way to provide them with extra learning material, assuming you realise she or he is way too advanced for a fourth grader. Basically this has been seen as something that's negative for the society in coming up with new innovations etc etc.
romp 2nd-Jan-2012 02:01 am (UTC)
Yay, I was hoping you'd show up!

my Finnish mentality is preventing me from believing we might actually be superior in something
It's because you don't know how to compete. ;)

There's no Smart Kid Academies you could send your ten year old prodigy to, you just need to find another way to provide them with extra learning material, assuming you realise she or he is way too advanced for a fourth grader.
That's an interesting point. My child doesn't go to school--he just pursues his own interests--and I've seen that work. It's not for everyone but I would think any needed enrichment could be done like that. Either instead of school or in addition. That's what involved parents have always done if able, yeah?
its_anya 2nd-Jan-2012 01:30 am (UTC)
I hope the UK government starts paying more attention to this too.
scolaro 2nd-Jan-2012 08:28 am (UTC)
And the German one...well, hope dies last...
evilgmbethy 2nd-Jan-2012 01:36 am (UTC)
The thought of schools being for profit is repulsive.
beuk 2nd-Jan-2012 05:08 am (UTC)
I absolutely agree with this.
temperance_k 2nd-Jan-2012 02:53 am (UTC)
This article is FASCINATING. Thank you so much for finding it and posting it. I must go get this book. *-*

I have to echo some of the other thoughts here and wonder how a system like this could be implemented in the United States, where the idea of competition is so ingrained in the culture. Which is odd, because competition doesn't feel good. Maybe it does if you win, but most of the time, it's such a stressful way to live your life versus cooperation.
vaegue 2nd-Jan-2012 04:12 am (UTC)
This sounds all fine and dandy - but what people really need to remember is a lot of structural reform pushed by countries in the 70s and 80s came at a time when these countries weren't in a debt crisis and could actually afford to foot the bills for universally accessible education, healthcare, non-monetary employment benefits.

The US, and the UK (since someone mentioned it) right now are broke. They can't afford this scale of reforms, and blaming either/any political party for this state is a moot point. People need to stop fingerpointing and start pressuring politicians to find real solutions.
romp 2nd-Jan-2012 05:55 am (UTC)
People need to stop fingerpointing and start pressuring politicians to find real solutions.

I didn't see blame put on a party, just on the culture overall. And you seem to be saying that the US and UK can't afford to change (some would say they can't afford NOT to) but then say politicians need to find real solutions. A solution that isn't change? Or just something other than what Finland did?
fynoda 2nd-Jan-2012 09:40 am (UTC)
Here's an FAQ done by an American who did a foreign exchange to Finland.
valkeakuulas 2nd-Jan-2012 11:03 am (UTC)
I like Finnish school system because everyone has the same possibilities. Doesn't matter if one is rich or poor. However, some of my teachers were awful.. one year history teacher just decided to randomly skip over the whole Second World War when it was supposed to be taught, and I never really learned to pronounce English or German well because so much emphasis was put on grammar. I'm a bit bitter because I've needed to learn the pronunciation all by myself. Our geography teaching was shit when the basics were supposed to be taught and I honestly learned only after school that Antarctica is actually a continent, because what was first taught was stuck in my head. So, hate to be a spoilsport, but yeah. Not all flowers and sunshine. Since so much depends on the individual teacher, with shitty teachers and no standardized tests students can get good numbers but not really learn anything. However, I still think it's good that teachers get a lot of individual responsibility - principals just should make sure they do their jobs, because there are also many awesome teachers in schools. But if I ever have a child, I'm not fully trusting the school system to properly teach them all they need to know.
romp 2nd-Jan-2012 07:59 pm (UTC)
FWIW, this could be said of any school anywhere. I appreciate your point but I'm balancing it with how many people in the US couldn't tell you what a continent IS. I graduated high school without learning that the Russians were allies of the US in WW2. Not to dismiss what you're saying--thank you for sharing your reaction to the article--but they seem like minor points compared to a have/have not system.

Point being, I think a parent shouldn't expect a school to funnel all needed info into a child's head--the child should have learning and thinking encouraged and should know how to find and judge information, in school or out.
leprofessional 2nd-Jan-2012 08:44 pm (UTC)
It's funny, for all the hate the standardized test get, I always loved external standardized exams and really excelled in them. I went to a shitty school (fabulous teachers, extremely poor services, no money), right next to a expensive private one, and always felt bad about how they were probably getting a better education-- but then I would do so much better on the standardized exams than friends I had over there and just wanted to rub it in. There is a place for standardized tests, I think tests like SATs, state/provincial tests at certain grade levels etc. can be potentially valuable-- but having teachers focus their 'curriculum' on them is counter-productive, they should be a tool for schools to ensure their own teachers are on track.
romp 2nd-Jan-2012 08:51 pm (UTC)
I think you point out how limited they are in your own post: to a large extent, they test how well you take that sort of test.
apostle_of_eris 2nd-Jan-2012 09:33 pm (UTC)
“What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success ”
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