Missing the point: Finland’s education success built on no tests, no teacher floggings, no school choice


Our local newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, climbed on the Finland-does-it-right bandwagon a couple of years ago, with several long dispatches from reporter Jim Landers on the education system in Finland, and how well it works (sadly, all those articles are behind paywalls with terrible search engines now).

In meetings and discussions with educators around Dallas, I have found almost no one who remember seeing the series, and none who can remember any lessons from it.

Government officials flock to Finland today.  OECD ratings put Finland near the top of education achievement, on a near-equal footing with Singapore and Shanghai.  That this is done with public schools causes brief flurries of hope.

But I gather the policymakers look at Finland, conclude that the lessons cannot be repeated in the U.S., and then move on to find new and better cats-o-nine tails to flog teachers with.  Nothing ever seems to come from looking at Finland.

In the current Atlantic Monthly, an article looks at this phenomenon, “What Americans keep ignoring about Finland’s school success,” by Anu Partanen:

So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, 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? Earlier this month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit received national media attention and generated much discussion.

We even have the book, now!  How can we miss the lessons?

Sadly, we do.

From his [Sahlberg’s] point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America,” Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, “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.”

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

School reform?  We’re not even asking the right questions, let alone getting the right answers. “How can we learn to flog teachers better from Finland, when they don’t flog teachers at all?”  the policy makers may ask.

Read the story in The Atlantic.

Do you agree?  Why or why not?

Maybe we should change to daily flogging of state legislators and administrators, from the daily flogging of teachers.  Maybe the morale problem is up, not down.

Tip of the old scrub brush to inkbluesky.

More: 

Another clip from “The Finland Phenomenon”:

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6 Responses to Missing the point: Finland’s education success built on no tests, no teacher floggings, no school choice

  1. […] American obsession with standardized testing has no place in the Finnish educational system. In fact, most students are only tested once during […]

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  2. Bill Betzen says:

    Join me in criticizing today’s Dallas Morning News editorial for the avoidance of anything we may learn from Finland. http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/editorials/20120113-editorial-foundation-for-next-disd-chief.ece It may be behind the paywall…..

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  3. KK says:

    I lived in Europe in the early ’70s and all the young people I met there spoke AT LEAST 2 languages, including Latin, which all students there knew better than I knew the French I was trying to learn. It was rare to go anywhere that someone didn’t know at least some English. I’m sure it’s no different now. American students are woefully behind in languages and have been for decades. The more we refuse to communicate in anything but English, the stupider we appear to the rest of the world.

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  4. Most kids in Europe, as far I know, emerge from schooling at least bi-lingual.

    But apparently certain people think America’s kids are too stupid.

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  5. Flakey says:

    You find that many from that area, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland usually have a good understanding of English. Partly due to their schools, partly due to television, and music, and partly they think for some reason England is “cool”.

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  6. flatlander100 says:

    And I noticed that all of them interviewed were speaking at least passable English [most more than just that], which was of course not their native language. If this was a randomly selected group [and I don’t know that it was], it suggest Finnish students routinely emerge from schooling at least bi-lingual.

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