Three things happened this year in the world of education reform. The controversial documentary films Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere came out and became widely viewed and discussed, and Finland’s success at achieving the number one spot in educational outcomes (as measured by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development PISA report comparing the academic achievements of 15-year-olds in 57 countries) gained widespread attention. Finland’s educational model provides answers to the problems identified in the films, yet left out of the countless discussions, commentaries, and critiques is a deeper question about education, still unaddressed, and lying at the core of what will comprise meaningful reform: what are we educating our students for?
Waiting for Superman addresses “failing schools” in which students are not acquiring the basic, foundational skills of literacy and numerancy. It pulls on viewers’ heartstrings as it highlights a few good charter schools that don’t have room for all the kids who want to attend. Following the plight of a handful of children desperate for a good education and whose hope lies in winning these charter school lotteries, we watch most of them lose what is depicted as their one and only chance. The premise underlying Waiting for Superman is this: the purpose of school is to successfully fill our children’s brains with knowledge. The way to do this is with good teachers and new school that are not beholden to union rules (i.e. get rid of bad teachers, fill children’s brains efficiently and effectively, and their high stakes assessment tests will improve).
Race to Nowhere identifies a completely different problem: stressed out, overworked kids who are expected to be superman; who are layering extracurricular upon extracurricular, AP course upon AP course, and who are striving to get into colleges for which they are still unprepared because of grade inflation, rampant cheating, and lack of true skills in writing and critical thinking. The underlying premise of this film is: we are stressing our kids to the breaking point and need to let up.
What Does Finland Have That We Don't?
Finland’s education system offers a corrective to both premises, and given Finland’s success at turning around their formerly mediocre school system to become the world’s educational leader, it’s worth looking at Finland’s approach and model carefully to see what we can learn.
Here are some of the salient features of today’s Finnish schooling:
- While all pre-schools (nursery and kindergarten) are fully funded and most children attend, academic education does not begin until children are seven.
- There are no standardized tests in Finland until a single matriculation exam at age 15 (to determine the higher education options available to students).
- There are fewer and shorter school days in Finland than in the U.S., with more outdoor/recess time.
- Education is not competitive. There are no valedictorians, rankings, or tracking. Most schools do not grade students until 6th grade.
- Teachers’ salaries are comparable in the U.S. and Finland, though because Finnish teachers work on average about half as many hours as U.S. teachers they are actually paid twice as much for their time.
- Less money is spent per pupil in Finland than in the U.S.
- Students are required to complete very little homework, averaging 30 minutes/day.
- There are no school sports’ teams. Instead there are community sports, and a couple of sports’ schools for Olympic-bound athletes.
- All teachers receive a master’s degree that is content-based (rather than theory-based) and the acceptance rate into teacher training programs is less than 10%. (In the U.S. only 23% of new teachers scored in the top third of SAT and ACT tests.)
- Finnish teachers have high vocational status and prestige.
- The Finnish curriculum is “thinking-based,” and the guiding principles include equity, creativity, and prosperity.
- Finnish teachers work collaboratively as well as autonomously. They choose their own teaching methods and materials and assess their students accordingly. Schools are not compared to one another for achievement.
- Teachers often stay with their class and teach the same students for several years.
- The variation in Finnish schools’ successes are minimal. Whether rural or urban, in wealthy or poor regions, Finnish children do well no matter what school they attend.
When we consider this list, it’s difficult not to conclude that the solutions to “failing schools” that we’ve been pursuing in the U.S. may be completely off the mark. While Finland has eschewed standardized testing and competition, we’ve ramped them up. The charter schools portrayed in Waiting for Superman have increased school days, school hours, homework, and teacher hours, yet Finland’s successful schools have fewer hours for students and teachers alike and far less homework. We teach children to read earlier and earlier, making formerly play-centered Kindergartens a place where children sit most of the day and learn their letters and numbers. Even though Finland doesn’t begin academic education until age seven, their students are far more proficient at fifteen, and they achieve this without overstressing their kids.
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Some argue that Finland does not face the same challenges as the U.S., noting that it has a less diverse culture, fewer immigrants, and less poverty, but these arguments don’t hold up very well. Why, for example, do Finnish children do so well while students from other Scandinavian countries with similar demographics fall in the middle of the global comparison charts? In some schools in and around Helsinki 30% of the students are immigrants, and in some urban Finnish schools nearly 50% of the students have a different mother tongue that Finnish. That Finland still has such equity among student outcomes indicates that it is still possible to educate a diverse population well.
The Finnish educational model reminds us that the greatest asset for learning outcomes is teachers. Until and unless the U.S. populates its schools with teachers who we can claim are our best and brightest, and who are well trained in content areas; and until and unless we give these valued professionals the responsibility and trust they deserve to carry out their noble profession and assess their students based not on national, standardized bubble tests but rather on the teachers’ own meaningful evaluations of their students’ skills, knowledge, and critical thinking capacities, we should not expect to see our standing among the world’s schools increase very much. Finding such teachers won’t be easy if we continue to demand twice the time Finnish teachers put in for the same pay; if we continue to undermine teachers’ intelligence and professionalism by dumbing down their curricula and forcing them to teach to standardized tests leaving them little autonomy; if we persist in denigrating their profession and reducing the benefits that supplement their modest salaries, and if we fail to educate them well enough so that they, in turn, can educate the next generation.
Beyond Finland – Education for the 21st Century
Despite Finland’s success and despite the ways in which it seems to be a corrective to the problems addressed in Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere, there is still a critical missing piece. Finland has not sufficiently answered what I think is the most important question of our time, which is this: What is the purpose of schooling? Even with its thinking-based curriculum and commitment to develop the humanity of each child, Finland hasn’t articulated a visionary enough goal for the 21st century. If the holy grail for the U.S. is to come out on top of the PISA tests so that our graduates are better prepared to “compete in the global economy,” and if we choose to emulate Finland to achieve this goal, we will miss the real mark.
Our children face unprecedented problems when they graduate from school. It is not simply that jobs are hard to find and debt is piling up. Our planet is warming at a rate faster than the worst predictions from scientists. Species are become extinct so quickly that we may lose half of them by the end of the century. The human population is now about 7 billion, with more than 1 billion with no access to clean water or enough food. We’re approaching an energy crisis for which we are completely unprepared.
To meet these, and many other challenges, we need an educated populace that has been properly prepared in school for such a world; that has been provided with the knowledge of interconnected global issues, the skills and tools to become problem-solvers and changemakers in whatever fields they ultimately pursue, and the motivation to address the problems they will face with resolve and creativity. This, then, should be our educational goal: graduating a generation that has not been striving to be “superman,” but which has been inspired to be everyday solutionaries who can joyfully, resiliently, and enthusiastically meet the challenges they’ll face in the 21st century.