The Finn who literally wrote the book on that nation’s stellar education system was in Minnesota again this week.
Pasi Sahlberg didn’t argue outright that the high-stakes testing and accountability push that’s in vogue in this state and nation won’t work. But he demonstrated that by taking the opposite approach, Finland has developed over the last 40 years an educational system that leads industrialized countries on many measures, including achievement.
Sahlberg is an official in the Finnish education ministry, but his ideas run counter to those coming out of both the Obama and Bush education departments. His new book is called "Finnish Lessons."
Put simply, Finland emphasizes cooperation over competition, individualization of curriculum over standardization, and trust-based professionalism over test-based accountability.
The outcome, as measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development , is an educational system that’s near the top of industrialized countries for achievement. But perhaps even more important to a school district like Minneapolis is that academic performance is less tied to a student’s economic and social background than in almost any OECD member, and especially the United States.
That combination of educational style and outcomes drew an enthusiastic response from teachers attending a Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools event this week in St. Paul during teacher association workshops. (The Guild itself is a rather unusual amalgam of a union-backed charter school authorizing push.)
The features that distinguish the Finnish system from ours begin at birth, with a year of paid time off from work for parents. Child-care afterwards is widely available, as is child health care. School doesn’t start until age seven, and students spend nine years in an elementary education in which tracking of students into ability groups isn’t practiced, withheld until secondary school, which through age 19. Children also spend fewer hours in school, counter to the current push for long school days and years here. There’s less homework in Finland and some elementary schools ban it outright. “We firmly believe in the importance of play,” Sahlberg said, describing it as a time for children to develop their imaginations.
Finns emphasize cooperation over competition in their schools, and Sahlberg credited Americans such as John Dewey for many of the progressive ideas that undergird the Finnish schools.
A major difference is in how teachers are trained and treated. Teacher colleges are far more selective in who they accept. Teachers train longer, earning a masters degree before starting work. Schools don’t hire former business or military executives as leaders, and there’s nothing like the quickie-teacher approach of Teach For America. Teachers are paid for working cooperatively, not competing against each other on a pay-for-performance basis. They make careers of teaching, avoiding the high turnover that marks the ranks of beginning American teachers.
There are some cautions in consider in making comparisons between Finland and the U.S. on schools. One freely admitted by Sahlberg is that Finland is a much more homogeneous society racially and ethnically. He noted that immigration is growing rapidly enough to become a political issue, but admittedly from a low base, especially compared to the U.S. This country does better than Finns in educating first-generation students, according to OECD data.
Another difference is the effective tax rates of the two nations, with Finland collecting far more than the U.S. That’s not likely to change in the current climate in this country.
But Sahlberg also left the group with some encouragement: “You are the only nation in the world that has everything it takes to build a great school system.”
Except perhaps the political will.