This month's Smithsonian magazine includes an interesting article exploring the (relatively recent) success of Finland's school system. The author highlights a certain Zen-like quality in the way Finnish schools operate:
Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. "We have no hurry," said Louhivuori [a school principal]. "Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?"
Among the other points of emphasis:
• There is very little emphasis in Finland on standardized tests or data-based comparisons of any sort. ("Americans like all these bars and colored graphs," one Finnish educator says bemusedly.)
• Finnish teachers, who are selected from the top 10 percent of the nation's college graduates, command a level of professional respect comparable to that of doctors and lawyers. (And the required master's degree in theory and practice is fully subsidized by the government.)
• All public schools in Finland follow a national curriculum that has been boiled down to "broad guidelines." ("The national math goals for grades one through nine," the author notes, have been "reduced to a neat ten pages.")
• Mixed-ability student groupings are the norm (indeed, apparently required), with special educators playing a large and valued role in helping struggling students stay on pace.
• There is a major emphasis, including among differing political parties, on equality of resources and access across schools.