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What is Finland Really Doing Right?

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What is Finland Really Doing Right?

This post was co-written by our Excutive Director Jodi Grant and STEM Policy Director Anita Krishnamurthi.

Last month we were delighted to be invited to attend a breakfast at the Finnish Embassy featuring Dr. Pali Sahlberg, the director of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; and Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president on education.  Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss moderated the panel.

Finland has been receiving a flurry of attention from education stakeholders and reformers for consistently standing out as one of the strongest school systems in the world.   We were eager to hear what the Finns thought was the key to their success. 

Dr. Sahlberg began by saying that Finland never set out to be the best, they just wanted to improve and do better by their children.  This benchmark comes from a philosophically different place than the international competition that drives most of our debate on this issue.  He proceeded to describe the other social issues Finland has worked on to ensure children and youth have a fair shot: their child poverty rate is 4 percent, compared to 22 percent in the United States; they are ranked first in child health and well-being while the United States is ranked 29th; and, their income inequality is also much lower.  He also stressed that equity played a major role in their re-think—they determined that the notion of private schools where people can opt out of the system and private funding of education is not compatible with an equitable system.  Consequently, there are no privately funded schools in Finland.  Finland also boasts an incredibly selective teacher recruitment and training process.  Only 5 percent of applicants are selected for a master’s program in education, which is required to become a teacher.

As the U.S. debates how long our school days should be, Finland offers a sobering example of why that cannot be the only solution.  Children in Finland do not start school until they are 7 because the Finns believe that learning to play is extremely important—it teaches children how to get along with each other, to pay attention and focus, and to be imaginative—all qualities they think are essential to child and youth development.  The country has one of the shortest school days around, teachers give minimal homework and testing is rare. They strongly believe that you test a small sample of schools to see how well a model is working and you ask the teachers to assess how the students are doing.  One of the points Dr. Sahlberg made that really resonated was “Accountability is what is left when responsibility is taken away.”

The Finns strongly believe that children need to have opportunities outside of school and academics to develop into healthy, well-adjusted adults.  Seventy percent of their students participate in activities run by NGOs that offer sports, music, art and other enrichment activities (and he expressed grave concern that this number was not higher!).  They fully believe that these activities have merit on their own and should be separate from the school day—he actually mentioned the words “youth development” several times!  Sadly, in the United States less than 20 percent of our children are in afterschool programs, and youth development is not valued as highly as it is in Finland.  Afterschool programs are under constant pressure to demonstrate how they impact academic success of students.

Dr. Sahlberg spoke at length about the difference between Finland’s approach and that of the Global Education Reform Movement, which he abbreviates to “GERM.”  

Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) FINLAND
Competition Collaboration
Standardization Individualization
School Choice Equity—all schools receive public funding and legislation forces them to collaborate. They don’t compete against one another
Test-Based Accountability    Trust-Based Professionalism
 
Dr. Sahlberg stressed that the U.S. and many other countries are “infected” by the GERM model while Finland has moved to eradicate the GERMs.  He gave us five lessons that he thought the United States could learn from Finland:
  1. More collaboration, less competition
  2. More trust-based responsibility—less test-based accountability
  3. More pedagogy, less technology
  4. More equity, less privatization
  5. More professionalism, less social experimentation
The description of the Department of Education’s signature reform, Race to the Top, that followed Dr. Sahlberg’s presentation strikingly illustrated how GERM-ridden we are, with a focus on high-stakes testing and steep penalties for schools and teachers whose students do not perform well on these tests.  Afterschool programs are not immune, as they are often only considered valid if they can improve test scorers rather than being evaluated on a host of measures that show growth of the whole child.  Sadly there was no real dialogue about the presentations and how we might incorporate the best practices of the holistic Finnish model into our education reform efforts.

We left the breakfast feeling both elated and depressed.  Finland shows what is possible—they set out to improve a failing system and have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  There are clearly lessons from Finland that support all the great things our afterschool programs are providing to American students in the hours after school.  There are clearly lessons learned from Finland that can help us demonstrate the value of the informal nature of the afterschool space.  There are clearly multiple ways to measure our students’ success that do not rely on test scores.  But there are also clearly some big barriers and challenges ahead and for now none of the real lessons from Finland are in policy maker’s textbooks.

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