When Finland's 15-year-olds recently placed No.1 in math and science on the recent Program for International Student Assessment, the news of the coup was received in Helsinki with characteristic reserve. For the Finns, whose schools are considered the best in the world, the scores stood as a redundant confirmation of the success of their policies.
But in the U.S., the frustration was palpable. Despite persistent attempts to bring equity to the wildly uneven quality of our schools, reformers have not been able to produce the intended results. That's why they've begun to look even more closely in this presidential election year at Finland for lessons that can be applied here. What they will find in the end serves as a cautionary tale for strategies that we proudly consider cutting edge.
At the heart of Finland's stellar reputation is a philosophy completely alien to America. The country of 5.3 million in an area twice the size of Missouri considers education an end in itself - not a means to an end. It's a deeply rooted value that is reflected in the Ministry of Education and in all 432 municipalities. In sharp contrast, Americans view education as a stepping stone to better-paying jobs or to impress others. The distinction explains why we are obsessed with marquee names, and how we structure, operate and fund schools.
The headlines notwithstanding, misconceptions about Finland's renown as an educational icon abound. The Finns spend a meager (compared to the U.S.) $5,000 a year per student, operate no gifted programs, have average class sizes close to 30, and don't begin schooling children until they are 7. Moreover, Finland is not the homogeneous nation of lore. While still not as diverse as the U.S., the number of immigrant students in Helsinki's comprehensive schools is exploding, with their numbers expected to constitute 23.3 percent of the city's schools by 2025. At present, about 11 percent are immigrants, compared with just 6 percent in 2002. According to the City of Helsinki Urban Facts, by 2015 there will be schools with more than half of the student body from abroad.
Not surprisingly, in a land where literacy and numeracy are considered virtues, teachers are revered. Teenagers ranked teaching at the top of their list of favorite professions in a recent survey. Far more graduates of upper schools in Finland apply for admission to teacher-training institutes than are accepted. The overwhelming majority of those who eventually enter the classroom as a teacher make it a lifelong career, even though they are paid no more than their counterparts in other European countries.
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One of the major reasons for the job satisfaction that Finnish teachers report is the great freedom they enjoy in their instructional practices. As long as they adhere to the core national curriculum, teachers are granted latitude unheard of in the U.S. The scripted lesson plans that teachers here are increasingly being expected to follow would be rejected out of hand as an insult by teachers in Finland and by their powerful union, which has a growing membership of some 117,500 members.
If none of these facts are enough to raise doubts about the policies the U.S. has in place or on the drawing board, Finland's testing practices should raise a final red flag. The Finns do not administer national standardized tests during the nine years of basic education. Instead, the National Board of Education assesses learning on the basis of a sample representing about 10 percent of a stipulated age group. Individual school results are strictly confidential, and schools are neither ranked nor compared. The data collected are available only to the schools in question and to the National Board of Education, which use them to help improve instruction. The naming and shaming that No Child Left Behind relies on in its obsession with quantification would be unthinkable.
What ultimately emerges from studying Finland is the realization that the reform movement in America is based on a business model fundamentally at odds with the education model used by a country with the world's finest schools. While it's always risky to attempt to apply findings from one country to another, particularly when the two are so different, it's a mistake to turn our backs on Finland's approach.
Walter Gardner taught English for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education.
© 2008 The Providence Journal Co.