Learning from Finland

Finland’s schools rank very high in international comparisons.  The secret is highly trained, well-paid teachers and few standardized tests, writes Samuel Abrams in The New Republic.

Today, teaching is such a desirable profession that only one in ten applicants to the country’s eight master’s programs in education is accepted. . . . High school teachers with 15 years of experience make 102 percent of what their fellow university graduates do. In the United States, by contrast, they earn just 65 percent.

In first through ninth grade, Finnish students take art, music, cooking, carpentry, metalwork, and textiles.

Instead of standardized testing for all students, the Finns give exams to a small sample of students.

Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classes as their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues. The only point at which all Finnish students take standardized exams is as high school seniors if they wish to go to university.

Ability tracking doesn’t start till 10th grade.

Finland’s schools don’t fit Abrams’ agenda that neatly, responds Quick and the Ed’s Kevin Carey.

For example, Finnish teachers don’t make more than U.S. teachers. Finnish doctors, lawyers and other college graduates make less money.

It’s true that only 10 percent of applicants are accepted by Finnish teacher education programs, he writes. But . . .

I have never, ever heard a serious proposal from the anti-testing / school of education crowd to raise admissions standards into teacher preparation to anything approaching the levels that would result in a 10 percent admission rate — or, heck, a 50 percent admission rate.

The only U.S. program that sets the bar that high is Teach for America, which Abrams “predictably critiques.”

Finland has a national curriculum and administers a high-stakes national test to seniors who wish to go to university, Carey writes. Here, each state sets its own standards, which aren’t enforced.

I’ll add that most U.S. schools do not track students by ability before 10th grade or after, though there’s de facto tracking in high school. For that matter, U.S. students do a lot of art and music in elementary and middle school, though they’re less likely to have access to shop classes, cooking or sewing.

There’s a lot we can learn from Finland’s very successful schools, Carey writes. “But anyone arguing that the evidence from Finland cleanly supports either side of the American education reform debate is being dishonest,” he concludes.

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