What Finland is Doing Right… (Maybe)

Finland is a country known for its excellent schools.  It has been at or very near the top of global lists of the best performing students for over a decade.  The question is, “why?”  There have been many suggestions offered over the years and a friend recently shared this article with me which takes a good look at both sides of many of the most common reasons.  Below, I will address each point in the article, one by one, with my own thoughts.

  1. Finland’s teachers have high status, professional support, and good pay.  This outlines significant cultural differences in the way teachers are viewed by society.  It’s difficult disagree that more rigorous training, along with the time, incentive, and rewards to obtain that training, will produce improved teaching capabilities.  Furthermore, if, as the article posits, Finnish society regards teachers with the same level of professionalism as doctors, then that would likely reduce the amount of effort teachers must spend to manage the parents of the students.  (If you don’t know how hard this can be, just ask a teacher!)  If we want to demand more from our teachers, then we should offer them more in terms of training, respect, and pay and have the expectations that student outcomes will improve.
  2. Finland has more selective and rigorous schools of education (for teachers).  The article opines about the rigors that it takes to become a teacher in Finland.  Going back to the argument that rigorous training + incentives to obtain that training should produce improved capabilities, one would conclude that all else being equal, this should result in improved student outcomes.
  3. Finland doesn’t give standardized tests.  Finland has no national tests until graduation.  Schools aren’t graded based on test results.  Could we even practically do that in our society?  Culturally, we want someone accountable for everything, particularly important things like student achievement.  Regardless of the viability of mimicking this, most people I have spoken with would agree that we have too many days of standardized testing.  Right now, in Colorado, we have multiple weeks of altered schedules to take a standardized test.  And it’s not the only test.  Reducing the days a student can learn each year, for the sake of testing, certainly hits diminishing returns at some point – and many would argue “very quickly”.
  4. Finland emphasizes subjects other than reading and math.  How much of your life is spent reading materials much above grade school level?  Think about it.  How much of your life is spent doing math much beyond basic algebra?  I’m not arguing we should stop teaching either, but there is much more to life than just these subjects we view as core subjects.  What about arts?  What about social skills?  What about critical thinking?  What about learning about the world and cultural diversity?  Finance… history… basic life skills and on and on.  They all matter, and some of them, like the arts, have proven to help build cognitive abilities; hence, improving performance in other subjects… like reading and math!
  5. Finland has a history of tight oversight for schools.  Here in Colorado, local control is the law of the land.  We are doing exactly the opposite of Finland.  Finland is small and much more homogeneous than the US.  Tight control may work very well there.  Here, we likely need more autonomy due to the diversity, particularly economic, of children being taught.
  6. It’s easier to learn to spell in Finland.  Because of their language, it’s supposedly easier to learn to read and write.  While that may be true, 73% of the Finnish speak English as a second language – or a third or even a fourth.  Swedish and Russian are also very popular.  I don’t tend to view the reason of the native language being easier as a major reason for improved student performance.
  7. Finland has low child poverty and state support for parents.  I wouldn’t being to argue for or against state support for parents, but we know that poverty impacts education.  Think about it.  If a student has to work to help feed their family, when do they study?  Who gets them a tutor when they are struggling?  Lest you not believe this, about ten years ago, I correlated the Jefferson County Colorado CSAP high school standardized test performance results against free and reduced lunch subsidies.  There was a perfect correlation of the top and bottom 5 performing high schools, in order, between performance and economic status.
  8. Finland’s schools aren’t better – they’re just homogeneous.  One would think that with a much lower child poverty rate, and a lower gap between the rich and the poor, it might offer the ability to not have to address as much diversity.  In the US, we spend a lot of school funding addressing the tails of the bell curve because we must.  If we didn’t have to, there would be more resources available for the middle of the bell curve.  Makes sense.  Easy to agree with the article writer’s premise on this one.
  9. Finland is culturally different.  The article goes into several reasons and I find no argument with any of them.  Most importantly, we in the US need to value a good education, good teachers, and the desire to learn.

What is to be gleaned from all of this?  It’s a very complex system!  Alter one input and several outcomes may change, and not all as intended.  One size will not fit all.  Take just the last item above.  School districts simply have to function within the culture of the US and work with that.  Finnish schools might flat out fail if they ran the same way here.  The same can be said for many of the above.

The bottom line is that both parents and students need to take responsibility for education – just as much as school administrators and teachers do.  Working together, they can find solutions which work best for their own students.