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.

The Finnish Model: Part 1

Like most Scandinavian nations,* Finland is seen as a model of efficiency and good governance. It tops most indexes measuring quality of life, freedom of the press, government transparency, and economic competitiveness.

But its biggest claim to fame is in the area of education, where it has been among the top achievers for the last decade.  While many other countries are similarly successful, if not more so, Finland gets the most attention for two important reasons

One, its education system was once quite dysfunctional – in fact, it resembled our own in a lot of ways. How the Finns managed to turn it around in just thirty years can provide a crucial case study to follow.

Second, and perhaps most important, its pedagogy is very unique, which could underline the importance of being creative and experimental in our approach to education. Consider the following articles:

The New York Times offers a brief but insightful look into the way Finland approaches teaching.

Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, had a simple question for the high school seniors he was speaking to one morning last week in Manhattan: “Who here wants to be a teacher?”

Out of a class of 15, two hands went up — one a little reluctantly.

“In my country, that would be 25 percent of people,” Dr. Sahlberg said. “And,” he added, thrusting his hand in the air with enthusiasm, “it would be more like this.”

In his country, Dr. Sahlberg said later in an interview, teachers typically spend about four hours a day in the classroom, and are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development. At the University of Helsinki, where he teaches, 2,400 people competed last year for 120 slots in the (fully subsidized) master’s program for schoolteachers. “It’s more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine,” he said.

Dr. Sahlberg puts high-quality teachers at the heart of Finland’s education success story — which, as it happens, has become a personal success story of sorts, part of an American obsession with all things Finnish when it comes to schools.

It’s sad that the teaching profession receives so little respect in our society. I can recall numerous anecdotes in which aspiring teachers faced opposition from parents who wanted them to be successful – educating the next generation, of all careers, is seen as a dead-end.

In fact, this lack of prestige is largely why so many otherwise talented and excellent potential educators eschew the job. Good luck attracting the best and the brightest when they’re made to feel like failures.

But there’s more to Finland’s success than just the quality of teachers. As Americans have been learning through their own reforming efforts, education is a complex system that encompasses many dynamics.

“Thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.”

Both Dr. Darling-Hammond and Dr. Sahlberg said a turning point was a government decision in the 1970s to require all teachers to have master’s degrees — and to pay for their acquisition. The starting salary for school teachers in Finland, 96 percent of whom are unionized, was about $29,000 in 2008, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared with about $36,000 in the United States.

More bear than tiger, Finland scorns almost all standardized testing before age 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children’s right to be children for them to start school any sooner than 7, Dr. Sahlberg said during his day at Dwight. He spoke to seniors taking a “Theory of Knowledge” class, then met with administrators and faculty members.

“The first six years of education are not about academic success,” he said. “We don’t measure children at all. It’s about being ready to learn and finding your passion.”

Finnish teachers start off with relatively mediocre pay, and are overwhelmingly unionized – two factors that are frequently cited as detriments to our own public school system. Yet they also receive a subsidized education, are made to follow the same professional and academic standards, and are well-regarded by their society.

Even more surprising is Finland’s seemingly relaxed attitude towards students. How many parents could imagine their kids succeeding when they don’t start formal learning until seven? How many Americans can take education seriously without many tests or homework assignments?

Note that most of the other countries that score high on international rankings in education are in East Asia, which emphasizes rote memorization, regular cramming, and long-hours of homework. It’s an efficient but exhausting model, and it may contribute to those countries’ high incidence of stress, suicide, and depression. Yet as the article notes, “Finland is going against the tide of the ‘global education reform movement,’ which is based on core subjects, competition, standardization, test-based accountability, control.” The Finns essentially do the opposite of most countries and yet manage to be just as successful if not more.

But can we really compare our country to Finland? Is their seemingly flawless model really applicable here? Even Dr. Sahlberg, who’s been an emissary of his country’s education system, warns that it may not be replicable everywhere.

Critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for the United States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogenous population — 5 percent are foreign-born — and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income).

Its school system has roughly the same number of teachers as New York City’s but far fewer students, 600,000 compared with New York’s 1.1 million. Finnish students speak Finnish and Swedish and usually English. (Patrick F. Bassett, head of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, a fan of what Finland has been doing, said one of the things he learned on his own pilgrimage to Finland was that the average resident checks out 17 books a year from the library.)

“There are things they do right,” said Mark S. Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, “but I’m not sure how many lessons we get are portable.” Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Finlandophilia was “totally deified” and “blown out of proportion.”

That’s usually the argument made during most international comparisons: each country has its unique demographics, culture, society, and politics, among other factors. What works in one place doesn’t necessarily work in the other, even within nations – could Wyoming’s approach to education apply to California?

But Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, said Finland could be an excellent model for individual states, noting that it is about the size of Kentucky.

“The fact that we have more race, ethnicity and economic heterogeneity, and we have this huge problem of poverty, should not mean we don’t want qualified teachers — the strategies become even more important,” Dr. Darling-Hammond said.

Indeed, many US states and school districts are as homogenous as Finland yet still suffer academic dysfunction. Finland’s approach to teachers isn’t altered by the diversity of the students. At the very least it should be considered.

*Note that although Finland is Scandinavian as far as geography, some history, and culture, it’s ethnically and linguistic distinct – it is not necessarily a Nordic country like the others, although that distinction varies on semantics.