The “Finnish Miracle” in Education: We Are the 47%
September 19, 2012 § 6 Comments
Recently, I found this incredibly thoughtful piece in The Atlantic called “What Americans Keep Ignoring About the Finnish Miracle.” Finland has scored at or near the top on the international-standard PISA test since 2000, with the likes of Shanghai, China, and South Korea. Their Westernness has Americans all-aflutter as to what they’re doing so well that we’re not. We’ve been speculating here and here and here. But the real answers, according to the Finns themselves, may surprise you.
According to the Atlantic piece, Pasi Sahlberg, “director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?,” recently came to America to describe Finland’s reform efforts and present success to our education leaders. Sahlberg talked about what we may know by now: teaching is a highly respected career in Finland, and very prestigious (grad students in education get picked from the top 10-13% of applicants; here in the states, the majority of teachers are supplied from the bottom 1/3 of graduates). Finland gives no standardized tests (until you are ready to graduate from high school), or maintains lengthy formal report cards – each teacher designs individual assessments for their class. All of these are well and good, and Americans should take note, but that wasn’t the core of Mr. Sahlberg’s message. As the article’s author, Anu Partanen, put it, “Academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority” to Finland when they reformed their school system; equality was.
There are no private schools in Finland, no magnet schools, no special-entrance lottery charter schools; there are a handful of independent schools, but they receive their money from the government. The first priority of the now-famous “Finnish Miracle” was that all students have the same opportunity to learn in a well-resourced school. They feed them nutritious, free meals at school. Pre-school and college are also free, so parents aren’t stressed out about resume-building to get into a name-brand school that provides a superior opportunity. Parents don’t have to stress because their kids’ school is falling apart, or the teachers don’t care, or the state test is dumbing down their child’s opportunity to learn. Because every kid is offered a superior opportunity to learn. All the schools, regardless of neighborhood, rural/city environment, and income bracket are excellent. This is why they are doing so well.
Critics of the Finnish system say that Finland is very homogenous with little immigration and no language differentiation, making their children easier to educate. But Finland does have immigration, and, according to the PISA score, even neighborhoods that are highly diverse, with lots of immigrants and income disparities, still do extremely well on the test. Why? Because the schools of immigrant children are just as good, just as well-staffed and cared for, as the schools in homogenous neighborhoods.
Critics have also attacked Finland’s social-democracy model that favors an equality where no one stands out, but everyone does well. (One blog commenter said something to the effect: Who is Finland’s Steve Jobs? Famous musicians? Scientific geniuses? We can’t name one.) Finland’s system couldn’t work here, detractors argue, because America’s obsession with outliers and competition is too precious. Competition is what makes us who we are.
Yet we willfully choose to ignore one important fact about our American need for unrelenting competition: in order for there to be winners, there have to be losers. In order to reform American education, we have to talk about the losers, and we need to put ourselves in their shoes. We already know that many who score at the bottom are poor; we know schools in poor neighborhoods don’t get the same resources as the ones in better neighborhoods. Yet, in American reform efforts, we have made competition for great schools the cornerstone anyway. As Sahlberg puts it, in the States, “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.”
Competition is great for business (the Finns have a capitalism-based business economy, too), but terrible for an education system. When we talk about competition, what we enjoy talking about is the winners. The success stories. But what Americans hate talking about is who loses in the competition. Who doesn’t get into the charter-school lottery. Who doesn’t have the opportunity to move out of the neighborhood. And the numbers show that the kids from these environments are more likely to drop out of high school, not finish college, or, at worst, end up in prison. Is this how we see ourselves?
This is a model we explicitly accept when we accept the school choice, competition and accountability model. (Sahlberg tells a group of Columbia Teachers College students that the word “accountability” doesn’t exist in Finnish: “Accountability is what’s left when you remove responsibility,” he is quoted in the piece.)
What do you make of this? From what I can tell, Finnish education looks a lot like Waldorf education. Children learn to play and get along first and read later, and there is as much thought and focus put into recess, nutritious food, creativity and making learning fun as hard work and doing well. But it’s the distinct lack of competition, and making sure that all children have equal access to resources, according to Minister Sahlberg, that has created its success.