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Annals of Educational Excellence: To Finland's Exalted Station

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We've heard it all, and it's all compelling. Finland does it right in every area of education, from school-based management to teacher preparation to the length of the school year to assigning homework (little to none) and developing a comprehensive national policy on early childhood education (again, none). Finnish students clean up on international tests.

Everyone has an explanation. It's the teacher training, it's the continual in-house professional conversation, it's Finland's cultural homogeneity and its relative lack of socioeconomic stratification. Whatever it is, it works. No argument here, unless of course you want to venture a critique of entire national education systems being measured and ranked by a test, as great as the PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment, the current gold standard in international comparative data-gathering) seems to be.

It's been advanced that one of the keys to Finland's educational dazzle is the nation's absolute lack of private schools. All the schools in Finland are overseen nationally by a ministry with an apparently generous central hand, and equally funded. I have to say, it sounds pretty good: a system with fine schools for every child, regardless of where they live.

Off in the gadfly corner of the American independent school community, where I like to hang out sometimes even if I'm not likely to be offered membership, there's been talk about Finland's private school issue, or rather our private school issue. One idea is that if American private schools, specifically independent schools, were to dry up and blow away, then somehow income equality would be restored and American education would soon achieve a Scandinavian standard.

You can make what arguments you wish against the existence of independent schools, and there is some sense in many of them. But in reality independent schools are, and sector self-dissolution is unlikely.

My thoughts on the Finland question are a little different, but they're based on an observation that commentators seem to toss off and quickly move past.

In Finland, we are told, teachers and the educational process are the objects of great veneration. Entering the teaching profession involves meeting standards akin to attending law or medical school here. Teachers are paid a bundle and universally respected as professionals doing noble and important work. Oh, by the way.

It strikes me that of all the differences between Finland and the United States, this is the big one. We don't think much of teachers hereabouts, and lately this only seems to have gotten worse, although, quite cruelly, disasters and mass shootings seem to effect a bit of reputational rehabilitation.

Back in 1990 I had the chance to visit Japan and tour a number of schools. At that point the Japanese economy and Japanese business practices were objects of awe in the U. S. Except for a murmur by James Fallows in The Atlantic about Japanese cram schools, the education system there was regarded as equally awesome: a national curriculum, a school year of astounding length, incredible levels of student engagement (and homogeneity), a wonderful culture of professional development via lesson study, and, oh, by the way, a culture in which teachers were revered.

There's a theme here. As Americans we get serially excited about some other nation's education system. Think the Soviet Union post Sputnik, then Japan, then Singapore--math!--and currently Finland. A common factor in these has generally been the high level of respect afforded to teachers in these places, a level far exceeding our own.

In Japan in 1990 it was pointed out to us over and over how respected teachers were. Now I read this again and again about Finland. It's tiresome and of course disheartening, but it's very, very telling.

If you have an entire nation that regards education--and learning--as respectable, as an end in itself and whose practitioners are doing something not just noble and worthy but truly valued (and compensated to reflect that), it's not a big surprise when students in that society perform well in school; they're doing what their whole society--from parents to peers to adults in all stations and walks of life--believes is important, something that really matters. No wonder so many other nations out-score the great mass of American students, living as ours do in a society where anti-intellectualism is a long understood cultural trend.

I don't have a solution, a way to instill in all Americans a sense that education is worthy and not just a series of hoops to be jumped through to obtain a credential for employment or just because we have to. But it seems to me that a root cause of Finland's success and our relative feeling of mediocrity and shame is the difference between our societies' consideration of teachers, something that has little to do in the moment with the existence of private schools or, to be honest, a whole lot else. (In fact, there's a pretty compelling explanation of American "underperformance"--or maybe not--on national benchmark assessments in a recent presentation by Uri Treisman at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual conference--everyone should watch it.)

We may not be able to accomplish this little miracle in public attitude, but I admire Finnish schools and believe we can learn from many of their policies and practices. I have read commentaries from those familiar with both worlds that many American independent school practices are actually quite like some of those in Finland. Rather than scrapping our independent schools, perhaps we could be thinking about how to bring more of their best, most Finnish practices--of which we have experienced users right here among us--into more American schools. It'd at least be a start.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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