A few weeks ago in the Politics of Reading we discussed the Finnish education system, which keeps coming up in the debate about the U.S. education system and how it can be improved. Finland is widely acclaimed for being regularly at or near the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the scholastic achievement of 15 year old students in math, science and reading, and is administered every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
There are notable differences between the U.S. and Finland: like the rest of the Scandinavian countries, Finland is a welfare state. In British journalist Michael Booth’s 2014 book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Booth quotes historian Henrik Bergen of Sweden:
“For Americans and Brits the state is such a bogeyman, such a horrible menacing thing, and in the States now they can’t even have a health system because they are so scared of the state. But the point here is not that the state is saying this is how you should live your life, but it is providing you with the support structure. Society is unequal and people don’t have the same opportunities, but we are trying to lift everybody to the same level so they can achieve the same kind of freedom and self-realization, which only a small group could do previously” (Booth, p.342).
According to the Finnish National Board of Education, Finland does have a national core curriculum, “which includes the objectives and core contents of different subjects.” This is similar to what we have tried to do with the Common Core in the U.S., and this is important because the Finland is a highly mobile society like the U.S.: “in a recent survey by Gallup of internal migration, the Finns came third, behind New Zealand and the United States, as the most likely people to move from one city to another over a period of five years” (Booth, p.261). However, it is the “education providers, usually the local education authorities and the schools themselves [who] draw up their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum.”
Michael Booth says that not only is Finland’s all-around educational excellence striking, it is also the “the country with the least amount of performance variance between schools: there is just 4 percent difference in performance between the best…and the worst” of its schools. “In Finland…it doesn’t matter if you go to school in a remote part of Lapland or a suburb of Helsinki: chances are, your child’s performance will remain constant” (Booth, p.261). The same cannot be said of schools across the U.S.
All this without standardized testing! The U.S. is going the way of annual standardized testing for all its students from the third grade on, but according to the Finnish National Board of Education, “The focus in education is on learning rather than testing. There are no national tests for pupils in basic education in Finland. Instead, teachers are responsible for assessment in their respective subjects on the basis of the objectives included in the curriculum.” There is only one national exam, the matriculation examination, which takes place at the end of “general upper secondary education” (similar to the end of our high school), and is one part of the basis for admission to higher education.
How do they know they are on track in their educational efforts before then? Finland does have “national evaluations of learning outcomes” every year in either literature or math, but they are “sample based,” not every child, every year. “The main aim of the national evaluations of learning outcomes is to follow at national level how well the objectives have been reached as set in the core curricula and qualification requirements. Consequently, the results are not used for ranking the schools” (Finnish Education in a Nutshell).
How is this possible? Finland holds its teachers in very high esteem: “In Finland, teaching has been seen as a prestigious career since the earliest days of the country’s education system…It remains an attractive career. Over a quarter of Finnish graduates see teaching as their top option. Unlike in the United States or the UK…in Finland teaching attracts the brightest students….In Finland, teacher-training courses can be more difficult to get into than those in law and medicine. They are oversubscribed by a factor of ten, sometimes much more” (Booth, p. 262), even though teachers are “paid roughly in line with other western European teachers and actually earn around 20 percent less than American teachers (p. 259).
Finland’s teachers have been required since 1970 to have a Master’s degree. “The high level of training is seen as necessary as teachers in Finland are very autonomous professionally.” “The teachers have pedagogical autonomy. They can decide themselves the methods of teaching as well as textbooks and materials.” Not only that, “Teachers and the Trade Union of Education as their representative are the key players in the development of education.” (All quotes from the Finnish National Board of Education.)
There’s something else to admire about Finland’s educational system: Finland doesn’t “track” its students into dead-ends, either. “The Finnish education system has no dead-ends. Learners can always continue their studies on an upper level of education, whatever choices they make in between.”
So rather than the punishing rounds of standardized testing, teaching to the tests, school “report cards” and the threat of closing down “underperforming” public schools that the U.S. has embarked upon while ignoring fundamental societal inequities, Finland concentrates on supporting the well-being of its citizens, holds its teachers in high regard, requires high levels of training, and gives its teachers respect and autonomy as highly trained professionals. The U.S. could learn from Finland.