The Finnish Model: Part II

In my previous post, I reviewed a Times article about Finland’s successful and highly lauded education system. The next relevant article I’ll be discussing, which comes from The Atlantic, explores the deeper sociocultural roots of Finland’s success, in which Finnish attitudes about the purpose of education are as much a factor as any policy.

The piece begins with the same Dr. Sahlberg the previous article did, only with an emphasis on something he said that the Times didn’t get around to covering:

Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. “Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in Finland.”

This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.

The irony of Sahlberg’s making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of America’s best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to attend — not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the room commented on Sahlberg’s statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.

There’s a growing perception among Americans that the public school system is failing precisely because it’s public: too much government involvement and not enough private sector efficiency. While that may be true to a certain extent, the Finnish example seems to suggest that it’s not impossible to have a world-class education system that is entirely public in both funding and administration.

In fact, the problem may be that we’re trying too hard to be efficient and competitive.

From [Sahlberg’s] point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

So the Finns manage to both promote and measure success in way that is tailored for each individual classroom, and in turn each individual student. Part of the problem with setting standards and quantifying results is that these approaches don’t take into account the uniqueness of each individual school, classroom, and learner. Finland manages to find a balance that empowers teachers and gives children

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. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

Despite all appearances, the Finnish model is hardly as hierarchical as it could be. Teachers and administrators must be accountable, and because the government – and by extension, the taxpayer – is investing so much in improving the quality of educators, there’s a greater chance that they’ll make good use of their responsibility.

Given how much our society emphasizes personal liability, this particular method shouldn’t be controversial. But here is where things may start to be unsettling for most Americans:

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 Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America,” Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.

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.

Competition has long been seen as the major driver of success in America. In fact, the competitive spirit is what is largely credited for this nation’s superpower status. But what if this approach has no place in education?  What if we’ve overstated the value of applying free-market principles to each individual and collective endeavor?

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.

We’ve long considered an egalitarian mentality to be stifling to success and excellence. Yet for Finland, it’s helped to promote both. The country is not only highly educated but prosperous, with high rates of business competitiveness, economic growth, and employment. The Finns’ achievements belie the widespread view that a concern about the collective must invariably lead to a sacrifice of the individual.

Not only are the two concerns compatible, but they can be self-reinforcing, at least when undertaken the right way. A well-managed society can help to produce thriving individuals. Environmental, societal, and structural support all play a role in one’s personal growth and development.

At least in Finland. Once again, the question is raised: is the Finnish model really worth looking at? The Atlantic addresses this skepticism with a bit more heft (the bolding is mine).

Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out, Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States.

Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation’s education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

Indeed, Finland’s population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state — after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there was 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.

Basically, there’s no reason to rule out trying at least some of the concepts of Finland’s education system – especially because both countries are on a similar path.

What’s more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.

With America’s manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. — as articulated by most everyone from President Obama on down — is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn’t meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a “pamphlet of hope.”

“When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s, many said it couldn’t be done,” Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. “But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

All I’ll add is that given the intractable problems we’re facing both in education and the economy (to say nothing of the political system), it couldn’t hurt to at least consider looking abroad to find what works.

The Finns took a lot of risks and tried a lot of new things, and 20 to 30 years later, it paid off considerably. We need to be creative, experimental, and most of all bold. Isn’t that what’s contribute to our success in so many other endeavors?

Post Script:
You can also check out Business Week’s slideshow on what makes Finland successful, or look for Dr. Sahlberg’s books, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Both are worth at least a skim.

5 comments on “The Finnish Model: Part II

  1. Public school advocates continue to push for ‘one size fits all’ approach with no room for competition. School choice is the way to go.

    • Indeed, we need to recognize the nuances of education. The schools have public schools and they still allow for variability from student to student, class to class.

  2. Sooooo many things to say about this, Romney…
    Perhaps if I just go with some bullet points and you can ask for clarification on any you want to:
    – I’ve met Sahlberg personally and been unimpressed: a bit of an ignorant cheerleader for the system rather than an original thinker or an analytical scholar of any sort.
    – Competition is VERY MUCH part of Finnish life on all levels, but in a more insidious and jealousy based form. The greatest predictor of what sort of car a Finn will buy is to see what his neighbors are driving.
    – The great innovation of 40 years ago in Finland was to make a high school education available to all. As of the 60s less than 20% of Finns had the chance to even attend high school. Part of the success of the education system there then is parents pushing their children to take advantage of this new opportunity that they never had! This also causes many parents to look on teachers as gate-keepers to the glorious careers their children have ahead of them in ways that don’t happen in too many other countries.
    – Another great and unrecognized secret to the success of Finnish education is SUBTITLED FOREIGN PROGRAMMING on television and at the cinema. The average Finn reads at least twice as much text in this form as he/she does in library books, making many young people very avid readers indeed.
    – One aspect of Finnish education that is exportable, but rarely talked about: religious education classes that are focused primarily on building cultural self-awareness and broad religious tolerance and ethics, starting in primary school, and then Philosophy and Psychology as required subjects at the high school level: Thinking about deeper values and thinking about thinking are strongly part of the system.
    – The literal meaning of the Finnish term for “general education” has a strong implication of “mental hygiene”: teaching young people to think in a “cleaner” and “more civilized” fashion. This is a leftover from the days when a small minority was given the privilege, and it creates a very problematic mentality IMO, sort of like the elitism of the “cultural literacy” movement in the US.
    – Finland is the promised land of both technophilia and extreme bureaucracy. Both of these have a surprisingly neutral effect on the quality of education overall. They are merely unpleasant facts of life for teachers to live with.
    – Teaching in Finland is still stereotypically “women’s work”: as a teacher in one of the better public schools in the country, a surprisingly high percentage of my colleagues were the wives of electronic engineers.
    – Merit pay for teachers is a hot button issue in Finland as well: there too we have emotionally unbalanced and reactionary individuals who do as much harm as good to those they teach, but which have too much job security for anyone to do anything about it; and then there are energetic, empathetic, motivating and supportive teachers who get little credit for their role in improving young people’s lives. Making the system there more just on both ends of the scale for the good of the children involved is far easier said than done.

    But other than that, yes, I would agree with most of the conclusions drawn in your source materials… 😉

    David H.

  3. Pingback: Finnish Students Don’t Do Homework Or Take Tests | Sarvodaya

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