What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success

From The Atlantic, Dec 29th 2011. As The comprehensive system in the UK is dismantled in favour of private and semi-privatized provision and competition, we might ask - what's the actual evidence on which such policies are based? Is it genuinely evidence based? Or is the policy driven by other factors? When it comes to any major Tory policy, the first question to ask: Cui Bono? Who benefits? The article is below...

The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.

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...

Continues here...


Dan P said…
In the current political environment in the United States, any talk of decreasing inequality is met with an accusation of promoting "class warfare".

This accusation is aimed at those opposing regressive taxation policies and will be aimed at those promoting equality in education over competitiveness.
Paul P. Mealing said…
I find this most intriguing. It goes against current thinking and policies in Oz as well.

In a recent issue of Scientific American Mind (Nov/Dec.2011, pp.37-41), journalist Paul Tullis challenges the current paradigm of turning pre-school into a scholastically competitive environment in the belief that this will give children the edge for a 'college' education.

Development psychologists at the Massachuetts Institute of Technology (so even in the US) claim that children learn more at pre-school age when they are allowed to discover things for themselves rather than being told what to learn.

The brain, at that age, is equipped to learn from playing and interacting not prescribed knowledge.

The Finnish example is an interesting one, yet I imagine the rest of the world will be reluctant to follow as it contradicts current ideological thinking on education.

Parents all want their children to be 'leaders' (from what I've heard from primary school teachers) and the government plays up to this competitiveness by having schools graded on 'performance'. In Oz there is a 'class' divide between private and public education that didn't really exist when I was a kid, or was much less pronounced. Education should be the same for all and not just the wealthy. It's a stupid system that undermines bright kids just because their parents don't earn enough money, and a backward one.

Regards, Paul.