Talking About But Not Learning From Finland
Finland’s education system has become an international celebrity. Their remarkable results are being trumpeted, usually in the “What can we learn from them?" context. Yet a lot of the recent discussion about what we can learn – as far as concrete policies – has been rather shallow.
Right now, the factoid that is getting the most play is that Finnish teachers come from the “top ten percent” of those entering the labor force, whereas U.S. teachers don’t. But without knowing the reasons behind this difference, this fact is not particularly useful.
Although there has been some interesting research on these issues (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), I still haven’t really seen a simple comparison of Finnish vs. American policies that can help us understand what they’re doing right (and perhaps what we’re doing wrong). I am not an expert in comparative education, but I have assembled a few quick lists of features and policies. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that we do everything Finland does, and cease doing everything they don’t. It's very difficult to isolate the unique effects of each of these policies. Also, more broadly, Finland is small (less than six million residents), homogeneous, and their welfare state keeps poverty and inequality at one of the lowest levels among all developed nations (the U.S. is among the highest).
But if we are going to learn anything from the Finnish system, it is important to lay out the concrete differences (I inevitably missed things, so please leave a comment if you have additions).
Let’s start with policies that Finland uses that are either absent or somewhat rare in the U.S. If the Finnish system is a model, these are policies that we might at least consider adopting:
- A streamlined, national core curriculum, elaborated by locally-developed curricula
- Small class sizes of 16 – 30 (with a mean of 18 in 2003 and 20 in 2006)
- State-funded Master’s degrees required for all teachers
- Relatively high teacher salaries
- At least one afternoon each week devoted to joint planning and curriculum development among teachers
- Uniform, highly selective program for entry into the profession
- Clear and rigorous career and technical education pathways
- Widely-available, publicly-funded kindergarten and preschools guided by a national early childhood curriculum, with comparatively late entry into mandatory schooling (age 7)
- Free (publicly funded) access to higher education (including medical/law school)
- School-based healthcare and free meals
- Formal, early interventions for struggling students
- Combined primary/secondary schools
- Heavy emphasis on standardized test-based accountability (like NAEP, Finnish national tests are administered to random samples of students, and results are only published for the whole nation, not individual schools)
- Charter schools
- Alternative teacher certification programs
- Teacher evaluations (Finland does not formally evaluate teachers after they are placed in schools)
- A large private school sector (there are private schools in Finland, but they are scarce and difficult to start)
- Teacher unions (though not universal bargaining rights)
- National standards (in the adoption phase in the U.S.)
- Relatively short school days/years
In contrast, not a single feature of Finland’s education system that we don’t use is currently under serious, widespread consideration in the U.S.
Now, again - we obviously shouldn’t adopt policies just because Finland uses them, nor should we reject policies just because Finland doesn’t. But it seems clear, at least from our national discourse, that we’re not really learning much from Finland (at least not yet). Maybe they’re just bad teachers?