We hear so much talk of Finland’s education system these days, and as always, I am curious as to if what is being said is truth or fiction. I found an article in Educational Researcher, Vol. 41, No. 7., by Gaea Leinhart from the University of Pittsburgh in which she discusses Pasi Sahlberg’s, 2011, book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? I now understand Finland’s education system and what makes it so different from the U.S. educational system.
Finland is small, about the size of Massachusetts or Puerto Rico and has a more homogeneous population than the United States, but it is more ethnically diverse than Minnesota. It should also be mentioned that Finland is very similar to Norway in both size and ethnic diversity, and even history – with one exception. After War World II, Norway decided to adopt a system of education similar to the United States (with respect to dividing curriculum into small, measurable units, instructional competition between schools and teachers, frequent high stakes testing, public accountability, and longer school days and years); Finland did not. The achievement results of Norwegian students are similar to those of students in the U.S., while the Finnish students score at the top of the heap. It is also important to note that Norway has a higher standard of living than Finland and Finland has a rapidly growing immigrant population that does not speak their native language.
Finland has a national curriculum, so perhaps the United States is on the right track in that area, but besides that, how did they create such brilliant system of education? They started by developing a 25 year plan and they stuck to it. In fact, they stuck with it for 35 years before they saw the results they wanted. It has been my experience that in the U.S., educational decisions are made quickly and then abandoned quickly…phonics, whole language, saxon math, Singapore math, balanced literacy, total quality schools, head start…you get my point. Therefore, first and foremost, the U.S. needs to made a long-term plan and STICK WITH IT!
In addition to the long-term plan, standardized testing is used infrequently in Finland and students are not ranked. Students go to school for 9 years and then are given the choice of their track – either vocational/trade or academics. Per pupil expenditures in Finland are lower in than in the United States and the school year and week is shorter in Finland. One of the most important differences between Finnish education and U.S. education is in regards to teachers. Teachers in Finland have a tremendously high status and are selected from the top 10 percent of all applicants. They all have research-based master’s degrees (Let us be real here – some of the teachers you work with today would not be teachers under this kind of system. It hurts to say that, but the Finns clearly take only the best and brightest into the field). Finnish teachers are trusted by their administrators and the parents of their students, and this is a guess, I have not researched it, students are probably better behaved in school.
We all know there needs to be changes in the U.S. Educational System, and I think we need to start by making a long-term plan. The plan needs to be made by educational experts, not politicians. Maybe we do need to have better teachers, but accountability and Charlotte Danielson is not the way – we need to move the teacher up the food chain and place the career on level with doctors and attorneys. It will probably take 10 years to see the results of this effort, but it is a price we should be willing to pay for our children. We need to stop the continuous testing and ranking of our students and let them enjoy their educational experience – maybe by giving them back recess and some funding for the extra-curricular classes they enjoy.
We can have a world class education system in the U.S., but we need to put the system back in the hands of educators who have the experience and the background to make the kind of decisions that need to be made.