This article from The Atlantic has been making the rounds lately: What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. Basically, Finland’s children are “accidentally” scoring at the top of the world’s standardized test charts, despite (because of) a system that focuses on “equality more than excellence.”
For me, the crux is in this passage:
[I]n 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 this one (emphasis mine):
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 [Pasi] Sahlberg [director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility] 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.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Treat teachers and principals like professionals. Give them training and autonomy. And then do the best you can to give students a level playing field in the school, despite the mess they may come from at home. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.
As a private school teacher, I feel I need to address the “Finland has no private schools” issue, which the article really emphasizes. Private schools are a symptom of the fact that the American public school system is appalling. Eventually I think we need to do away with them, yes — if everyone’s part of the same system, there’s far more political will to keep that system functioning well. (…See that disclaimer up there about how my opinions are not necessarily my employer’s?)
But I do not think that outlawing private schools tomorrow would make a damn bit of difference. Everyone is not part of the same system, even in the public school world. It’s no longer an option to send your kid to an expensive private school? Fine, buy an expensive house in a good school district instead! There are districts that might as well be private schools, for the educational resources they have and what it costs to attend, and there are districts that might as well be in the developing world. Until educational expenditure is no longer tied to local taxes, we are screwed.
(I have a million questions about the rest of the Finnish system. Is there a national curriculum, or are teachers entirely autonomous? Are there teachers’ unions? How do urban schools differ from rural schools? The article briefly addresses heterogeneity in Finland vs. the U.S. as measured by immigrant populations, but what about poverty? What about absentee fathers, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and all the rest of the crap that puts “at-risk” kids here at an almost insurmountable disadvantage before they get anywhere near a classroom? How does Finland handle special education? Kids are doing well by educational measurements; how about jobs? Has educational equality improved economic equality? I really want to read Sahlberg’s book now.)