What we can learn about education from Finland

For all of the money spent by the corporate education reformers we'd expect to see massive improvements in student learning, school facilities, and education policy. 

While the reformers claim to be all about using "data-driven-decision-making" and basing their policies on the results of research findings, there is virtually no data or reputable research to suggest that any of their policy strategies have any validation in the research literature.

So where can we look for examples of successful policies and practices that offer the promise of actually addressing the problems caused by the education reform agenda?

What about Finland?

The success of educational systems in Scandinavia has been a familiar trope in educational circles lately, and perhaps the most promising example is Finland, whose educational approach was featured in a recent Business Insider article.


While there are certainly differences between the demographics and geopolitical landscape between the US and Finland that make comparisons problematic, we can still make some interesting observations about what Finland has been doing that may prove useful for our consideration. 

So, what exactly does Finland do that might be of interest to those committed to improving schools in the US?

Finnish schools delay formal education until age 7.


There seems to be a race in the US to accelerate education at every level--we now expect children to read in kindergarten, take the PSAT in 7th grade, and complete a full slate of AP classes and earn double-digit college credits while still in high school. What's the hurry? There's little evidence that forcing kids to read at an early age has any positive impact on student learning, and in fact may be detrimental to some children. And AP classes, which have been promoted for many years as the requisite preparation for college by the College Board, are not nearly as good a predictor of collegiate success than unweighted high school GPAs.

Instead of accelerating learning in ways that don't really pay off in any meaningful way--and may actually be harmful for students--why not recognize the decades of research in child development that suggest that children develop in unique ways, and should be allowed to blossom naturally and individually? 

Instead of cramming school schedules with dozens of "singleton" AP offerings that crowd out other curricular choices, such as art and music, why not make sure that students have access to a broader diversity of course offerings, at a variety of academic levels and interests?

Again, what's the hurry?


Finland has no private schools.


In a nation as diverse as the US there will always be a place for a variety of private and religious schools for families that choose these options. But the proliferation of "public charter schools" has perverted the initial mission of charter schools as "incubators of innovation." With all due respect to Eva Moskowitz, there is nothing "innovative" about screaming at children until they cry, and ripping up their papers in front of the class. That's not innovation; that's abuse.

And just to head off cries that "charter schools are public schools"--even charter advocates don't believe this lie any longer.


So, while there is little possibility that the US would ever totally eliminate all private schools, it would be eminently reasonable to suggest a moratorium on all "for-profit" charters, and a drastic reduction in the number of new charter schools authorized.

Public education has been, arguably, the primary driving force behind the economic, social, and political development of the United States. We need to return to our moral and ethical responsibility to fully fund and support public education--and this means coming to terms with the damage that has been created by the failed charter school experiment.


Finland administers no standardized tests to children until age 16, and no measurements of any kind for the first 6 years of formal schooling.

If education reformers were chefs, they would believe that a steak could be cooked better by poking it with multiple thermometers. Teachers know that the primary purpose of assessment is the improvement of instruction, not to punish children, teachers or schools. And yet "accountability" seems to be the only purpose of testing that matters to the reform crowd.

Instead of standardized tests, let's return to the notion of locally-designed, teacher-constructed assessments? Quizzes, tests, projects, exhibitions, concerts, art shows, poster fairs--all of these forms of assessment can provide useful information for teachers and students--but only when designed by those closest to the classroom, not by teams of "test experts" in laboratories and policy think tanks who have never taught.


Finnish schools allow no homework until students are teenagers.

The amount and difficulty of homework for American children has exploded in the last 20 years; and there is no evidence that this move has resulted in any positive changes in student learning or behaviors. As explored in the documentary, "Race to Nowhere," the effects of this increase in homework has proven damaging to countless children, creating immense pressure and stress for many students.

Again, the research on the benefits of homework on children suggests that it is particularly ineffective for young children, and dubious for any students. The reformers' obsession with rigor leads to more homework, more testing, and no discernible benefits to children, parents or learning.



Finnish schools have small class sizes.


While schools in the US are "experimenting" with kindergarten class sizes as large as 100, Finnish schools understand that learning is not about the exchange of information--it's about building relationships; between teachers and learners, and among the learners themselves. This can't happen with 100 children crammed into a classroom like sardines, treated like numbers, and taught en masse.


Is it more expensive to ensure reasonable student to teacher ratios? Of course. But nations that care about their children make decisions based on what is right, not what is cost-effective: "Finland has the same number of teachers as New York City, but only 600,000 students compared to 1.1m in the Big Apple."


In Finland, teachers are required to have graduate degrees, which are subsidized by the state.


While some states in the US are eliminating requirements for advanced degrees, and others are even considering removing the requirement for a bachelors degree for teachers, Finland acknowledges that teachers must be highly educated, competent in their discipline, and well prepared in terms of knowledge about pedagogy, child development, and learning theories. The country also puts its money where its mouth is, subsidizing the attainment of these advanced degrees.

Makes sense, right?


In a country the size of New Mexico there is no mandated national curriculum or standards.


The dominant theme of most modern education reform has been around the mantra of "higher expectations," "core curriculum," and "national standards." And yet, again, there is no real evidence that establishing a standardized set of expectations and curricular goals in a nation as diverse as the United States is a good, or even reasonable, goal. Why should education in Alaska follow the same guidelines and procedures as schooling in Hawaii? Why should a school in Omaha look like a school in Miami?

The real proof is in the pudding--since the release 30 years ago of "A Nation at Risk," the only clear results have been a massive narrowing of the curriculum to the "tested subjects" of math and reading, disastrous cuts to school art and music programs, an explosion in "for-profit" charter schools and the attendant scandals, financial and otherwise, and a national distrust of anything related to the Common Core State Standards.


I still have not heard a convincing argument for why a national curriculum would be good for our nation's schools or students--other than to provide the impetus for textbook publishers and testing companies to make more profits from new texts and tests.


As I have written previously, I have no interest in national standards for my children or for our schools. Here's what I do want for my children's education, and for education in general:


I want my children to read for enjoyment, play an instrument and sing, draw, dance, play, think, feel and be kind.


I want schools to be richly diverse, noisy, messy places full of discovery, where instead of worrying about a stifling regimen of tests, children are encouraged to explore, ponder, experiment and create.


I want rich arts programs, nurses, psychologists, counselors and librarians in every school, to make sure that no child comes to or leaves school hungry, and for schools to be places where every child and adult is treated with dignity and respect.


I want my children's teachers to be free to create their own lessons, and work collaboratively with their colleagues in a climate of trust and mutual respect with their administrators, school board members and parents.


I want those teachers to be evaluated based on the work they do in the classroom with their students, not on standardized test scores in subjects they don't teach, from students they've never met.


I want those teachers to be well prepared, and fully certified in their subject area with a semester or more of internship experience before being entrusted with their own classroom.


I want all children to be taught by persons who care about their growth and development as full human beings, not about their test scores.



It looks like that's what Finland wants for its children, too. Its time for those of us in the US who care about our kids and our schools to tell the corporate reformers to stay out of public education and stop obfuscating parents and community members with distracting propaganda like "global competition" and "college and career readiness", which is only designed to further the false rhetoric of "failing schools".

As in Finland, the vast majority of US public schools are wonderful, and our children's teachers are doing what can only be described as heroic work under very difficult conditions. 




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