Finnish Education

Really interesting piece in the Atlantic about what lessons we can take from the much-touted educational system of Finland.  The big point seems to be that we’re not taking the obvious lessons.  Interestingly, in striving for equity, rather than achievement, Finland has created great achievement almost as an unintended consequence:

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

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 Sahlberg 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.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

Maybe we are learning the wrong lessons from Finland, but I think the piece elides a bit that Finnish culture is apparently different enough from American that many of the “real” lessons from Finland seem entirely untenable in the American context.  To wit:

And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea…

Indeed.  Insofar as sentiments such as the above drive Finnish education policy, they’re just not compatible with the socio-political reality of America.  Not that there surely aren’t important lessons that we are over-looking.  The one I like best is really valuing teachers:

For Sahlberg what matters is that in 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.

As I’ve mentioned, I suspect that the Master’s degree doesn’t really matter, but making teaching a prestigious occupation that attracts the country’s best and brightest surely does.

And there’s actually lots more good stuff in there, too.  If you’ve any interest in education policy, definitely read the whole thing.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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