Education the Finnish way

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.)

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7 Responses to Education the Finnish way

  1. Pingback: Finnish schools guest post | Parenthetical

  2. Sam says:

    @pur — Thank you so much for your thoughtful and informative comment! I gather you live in Finland since your daughter goes to school there. May I ask if you’re professionally involved with education?

    I won’t pelt you with a million questions if you don’t want me to, but I’d love to know if you see any problems with the Finnish system. What are the drawbacks? (Maybe for kids who don’t get into the top high schools?)

    Thanks again for stopping by! I really appreciate it.

  3. pur says:

    I’m not planning to answer a million questions, but a few shortly: there is a national curriculum in Finland which you can read in English if you google The Finnish National Board of Education. The curriculum is short and the rest is up to the teacher. The teachers belong to the union OAJ if not 100% then maybe 98% and the union is strong. To urban schools you walk or take the bus, to rural schools you will be picked up by taxi and the rural schools are often old and small compared to urban. There are no big differences in education, maybe more classes to choose from in urban schools, like rare languages. Poverty? In Finland? There are poor families but not real poverty to speak of. Absentee fathers; yes, teen pregnancy, no, drugs, not a large problem like alcohol. Special education I have no idea about. Jobs for young people are hard to find, especially if you only have basic education. Educational equality comes out as economical equality, but that is more because college is free. So if you come from a poor family but have the mind to study nothing can nor will stop you from becoming a doctor or a lawyer, even a teacher, there is no tuition and you get a loan for living expenses if you are qualified as a student.

    Greg, there are special schools for star performers in music or sports or science, but before 16 the differences between schools or classes are small. After that, high schools are highly competitive; my daughter attends a high school where the lowest GPA to get in is 9.3 / 10. A low A (9) average is not enough, therefore even the weakest student is better than that. So, we also have elite schools – but they are public schools with no tuition, and as long as you can show the 9.3 school report they don’t ask if you happen to come from a single parent family with no income. Without the 9.3 there is no way in even if your mother is the President of Finland. That is equality, but at the same time you can imagine that this kind of a school is a special learning environment. What I find good is that before 16 the school is practicly the same for everyone. There are definitely no honors classes for anyone, but there are a lot of indvidual or group projects, and of course some take them further than others. It does not seem to hold back those who are fast learners, but it gives a common experience to every Finn. Everybody knows what you have experienced in peruskoulu, the “basic school”.

  4. Sam says:

    I don’t know how Finland handles this either, Greg. But I also wonder to what extent “better” students are innately smarter, and to what extent they are the product of years of encouragement and opportunities and resources? (That’s not a rhetorical question, it’s a real one.) Maybe Finland has created more students who are capable of/interested in challenging themselves, and gives them a structure within which to do so. Maybe that’s enough.

  5. Greg says:

    I have a quibble that I’m not sure how to phrase. I’m concerned about the statements ” that Finland ‘focuses on “equality more than excellence”’ and about Sam’s boldface ‘Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” I completely agree that everyone deserves the same starting opportunities (and, for that matter, ongoing opportunities), but I also believe that excellence needs to be nurtured and that the star performers shouldn’t be held back by weaker classmates. I don’t know enough about Finnish education to know quite what’s under those statements, but I’d object if, say, notions of educational equality meant not having honors classes for better students.

  6. Maja says:

    interesting…I have many thoughts about this, of course. The one that rings loudest, a day before I head off to work tomorrow:

    * while I agree with your logic that we shouldn’t tie funding to local taxes, as a teacher in a state that did away with this particular “problem” in the early 1980s and has tanked in national standing to 47th place since then, I say what do we replace it with and who holds the purse strings, because the CA solution evidently doesn’t work. At all. And it’s not reversible.

    Also, the extent of US income- and other- inequalities simply is unmatched in other developed countries. Health care anyone? So evening that out will take the most work here. And solutions to things like school systems are long term projects, and in this country we don’t operate in the long term any more. We look 2 years ahead, max.

    • Sam says:

      That’s really interesting, Maja. I don’t know enough about the CA system to know what happened — do you (or anyone) have a reasonably concise link to send me? My initial reaction, without knowing much, is that even breaking this down by state won’t work. Some states are so much wealthier than others. …Though I haven’t looked at those numbers either, and it might balance by population.

      But yes, you are absolutely right that we don’t think long-term as a country and haven’t for a long while. That is probably my biggest frustration with Americans, as it means we’re never going to get beyond damage control (at best) on these large issues.

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