Finnishing School

Forget Santa Claus and saunas, the biggest export from Finland these days is its educational system. During a two-day conference this week at Stanford University, Finnish educators discussed how they improved so dramatically and what the United States can learn from the Nordic country.

Facts on Finnish education.  (Source:  Pasi Sahlberg). Click to enlarge.
Facts on Finnish education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg). Click to enlarge.

Finnish education reform can be summed up in ten points, according to Pasi Sahlberg, a director at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and author of Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? The first nine are instructive, but it’s number ten that sums it up neatly and harshly.

“All of these factors that are behind the Finnish success seem to be the opposite of what is taking place in the United States and the rest of world where competitive, test-based accountability, standardization, and privatization seem to dominate,” Sahlberg told participants at the Empowerment Through Learning in a Global World conference. “There is hope, but you have to be smart in the way you do things…and in many of the things that you are trying to do here I see very little hope.”

Yep, that smarts, especially since Sahlberg acknowledged that Finland borrowed a lot of its reform ideas from the United States, as did many other countries, when American education was the envy of the world. Since then, the U.S. hasn’t progressed so much, at least where PISA, a triennial international exam of 15-year-olds, is concerned. In addition to Finland, PISA shows that Canada, Korea, Singapore, and Shanghai, China have all surpassed the United States.

About those other nine lessons, well, they’re a mix of common sense, shifting priorities, and paradoxes. Here are some of the key elements:

  • Pursuing excellence and equity: Achievement differences among schools in Finland is small, about 5 percent.
  • Standardized-free test zone: There’s no standardized testing until students are in their last year of school, and the scores aren’t used to evaluate teachers.
  • Wrapping education with health and welfare: There’s a nurse in every school and every child gets a free comprehensive check-up every year. Dental and mental health services are also provided, as is universal free lunch. Play is a priority and children must, by law, have recess.
  • Less is more: The school day is relatively short – about four hours in elementary school – and younger students get little homework. But teachers get a lot of time for collaboration to develop curriculum and independent learning plans tailored to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Finland also spends less money per student than the United States.

    More money and more time in school don't always equal better education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg) Click to enlarge.
    More money and more time in school don't always equal better education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg) Click to enlarge.
  • Professionalizing teaching:  The Finns focused on teaching as a key driver of reform and of the education system, and made it a noble and attractive profession by making salaries commensurate with other professionals such as doctors and lawyers, by requiring teachers to earn a research-based master’s degree and making it tuition free, by providing high-quality professional development, by giving teachers a lot of autonomy and time to work collaboratively with their colleagues, by offering career development paths that don’t just include administration, and by not evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores.  As a result, they created one of the most, if not the most, competitive teacher education systems in the world.  The acceptance rate into colleges of education is about one-in-ten, and only ten to fifteen percent of teachers leave the profession before retirement, compared to about 50 percent for teachers in urban schools and a third for other areas in the United States.

Leaning power of PISA

Finland’s educational reputation is largely a result of its students’ scores on PISA, and critics say that’s not enough. Lee Shulman, Professor emeritus of education at Stanford, noted the irony of the very people who decry the use of high-stakes testing being willing to rely on a single exam to rank the world’s school systems.

“PISA is another standardized test. It’s not a proof test. It’s credible because it fits our belief system,” argued Shulman during his presentation at the conference. “We should commit ourselves to multiple measures, not just one test.”

Other skeptics have raised questions about making comparisons between countries that differ so widely in size and demographics. Finland has 3,500 schools and 60,000 teachers. Its entire population of 5.5 million is smaller than California’s entire student population.

“You could argue that the main reason [for lower U.S. scores] is that we have a 24 percent child poverty rate and you have a four percent child poverty rate,” said one audience member during a question-and-answer session. “You could argue that we have a segregation problem where we bunch our poor children into bad schools.”

What’s more, Finland’s reading scores on PISA fell slightly from 2006 to 2009, dropping from an overall score of 547 to 536.  This is the sort of variable that American teachers say is natural and illustrates why rankings based on single exams are inadequate measures.  Despite that setback, however, Finnish students remained in the top three for reading, math and science, while scores for U.S. students placed them smack in the middle.

States show it could happen here

America’s diversity is an issue, but shouldn’t be an excuse said Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, co-director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and author of numerous books including The Flat World and Education:  How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future.

Linda Darling-Hammond and Pasi Sahlberg at Finland-U.S. education conference at Stanford. (photo courtesy of Barbara McKenna).  Click to enlarge.
Linda Darling-Hammond and Pasi Sahlberg at Finland-U.S. education conference at Stanford. (photo courtesy of Barbara McKenna). Click to enlarge.

“PISA rankings in the United States are driven by inequality. If you looked only at schools where less than 10 percent of the students are low poverty, we’re number one in the world,” said Darling-Hammond during her talk at the conference.  In Finland, the focus on the dual goals of excellence and equity have significantly closed the achievement gap. In California, where there’s a three-to-one difference in spending between high- and low-wealth districts, the gap has barely budged.

Some states have implemented reforms similar to Finland’s with noticeable results.  Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, and Connecticut have raised and equalized teacher salaries, made it

Equitable resources for all students makes a difference in achievement.  (Source:  Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford).  Click to enlarge.
Equitable resources for all students makes a difference in achievement. (Source: Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford). Click to enlarge.

more difficult to become a teacher, and invested in high-quality professional development.  It wasn’t always altruistic; a judge ordered New Jersey to invest more money in low-wealth schools after decades of litigation.  But once that happened, it became one of the top-performing states.  Darling-Hammond says Hispanic and Black students in New Jersey now outperform California students, on average.

Gov. Brown is also taking a page from the Finnish model with his proposals to reduce the number of standardized tests that students take, and to switch to a weighted-student formula for funding, through which schools would receive a flat amount of money for each student and additional funds for children who need more resources to help them succeed, such as English learners and low-income students (read more about this proposal here).

“The house of education is divided by powerful forces and strong emotions,” said Brown in his State of State address earlier this week.  “My role as governor is not to choose sides but to listen, to engage and to lead.  I will do that.  I embrace both reform and tradition – not complacency.  My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most, but I’ll take good ideas from wherever they come.”

Seems like some of them are coming from Helsinki.

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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