What can the U.S. learn from Finland’s educational success?

Finland became a global education superstar by doing exactly the opposite of what the United States is trying to do, Finnish education official Pasi Sahlberg told an Indiana University audience last week.

No school choice and competition, no high-stakes tests, no top-down accountability and no union-bashing. Instead, Finland pursued egalitarianism for students and high-level professionalism for teachers – and became a world leader on international measures of student performance.

Is Finland’s experience relevant to the U.S.? Certainly there are differences between the countries. Finland is a small; its population, 5.4 million, is less than Indiana’s. It is culturally homogeneous, although its immigrant population is growing.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the child poverty rate is about 5 percent in Finland, compared to over 20 percent in the U.S.; and we know that poverty is strongly correlated with student achievement. But other European countries – e.g., Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany – also have low child poverty rates but trail Finland on measures such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.

Advocates of American-style reform tend to dismiss Finland. For example, Rick Hess, education policy director for the American Enterprise Institute, calls it a “tiny island of homogeneity” and argues the U.S. should pursue its own path based on “uniquely American strengths like federalism, entrepreneurial dynamism, and size and heterogeneity.”

But if we listen to what Sahlberg and others are saying, what lessons might we learn from Finland? Here are a couple:

Maybe it’s not all about me. Americans, with our habit of making everything a competition, tend to think of “good schools” as a finite commodity. There are only so many seats, and if you get your kid gets one, there’s less for mine. Sahlberg says Finns don’t understand the concept of good schools and bad schools, because schools are largely the same. And there are almost no private schools, so there are no opportunities to opt out of the program. Finnish parents are all in this public education thing together. For them, apparently, “your kid” kid gets the same opportunity as “my kid,” and that’s OK.

Teaching is complicated. Teachers in Finland are required to have master’s degrees, and they’re accorded autonomy and expected to act as highly trained professionals. They also spend considerably less time in the classroom than American teachers and more time meeting with each other, collaborating and planning. Sahlberg calls this “less is more,” but in fact it reflects a difference in how we see teaching. Here, people complain that teachers work only six hours a day and get summers off. We think they’re working only when they’re in class, a perception that is sometimes reinforced by contracts that restrict what teachers are supposed to do after school hours. Finnish lesson: Change our mental picture of teaching from “stand in front of classroom 180 days a year” to “do what it takes for every child to learn what he or she needs to learn.”

Sahlberg doesn’t set Finland up as a model. But he argues that we can learn from each other – and that the U.S. and states such as Indiana should think twice before heading further down the path of high-stakes testing, accountability and competition.

“I would say you have very little chance to be successful with these policies,” he said.

For more on Finland, see Indianapolis Star reporter Scott Elliott’s recent blog post on Sahlberg’s IU talk and Sahlberg’s recent essay in Education Week, as well as an upcoming Q&A with NPR State Impact Indiana. There’s also a lot of information, including links to presentations, on Sahlberg’s website.

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