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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Comments

  1. My impression is that Finnish kids come from stable, two-parent homes. Even if the parents are not married, I’ve read that there are many common-law situations that are as stable and long-term as marriages. If their kids are being well-socialized and educated before they start school, they are not a valid comparison group to the struggling students in this country, who are likely to come from dysfunctional households. The need for “high-quality preschool” for those kids is a pipe dream because the adults from that community will be the staff and they are the ones who have created the problem because they also lack appropriate social capital.

  2. Definitely a “culture” thing going on here.

  3. “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.”

    Often times when school schedules are “adjusted” in the US to reduce instructional time, the justification is to provide more time for “professional development” – which is designed by administrators, not content experts.

  4. “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 huge difference between “doing” art and music and actually “learning” it. “Art” in a lot of elementary school contexts isn’t much more than giving the kids crayons and telling them to color a picture, taught by their regular teacher who probably knows no more about art than about quantum mechanics. Or it’s randomly gluing stuff together. It’s not learning art unless it’s part of a consciously-designed curriculum taught by a teacher who understands that curriculum, either because they’re a specialist or because they’ve had specific training in that area.

    Similarly, in music, if the kids are just singing along to a recording, or banging along on tambourines, they aren’t really learning much about music. Are they coming out of elementary school knowing the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes, between Bach and Bartok, between French horns and English horns? Just “doing” music doesn’t count as learning it.

    I have no knowledge of what Finnish schools are doing in these areas, and for that matter American practice varies widely, but you can’t really just compare the list of topics to see if they’re comparable.

    P.S. “Cooking” is subject to a similar critique. It would be very easy to have kids “do” a lot of cooking without really coming away with any permanent knowledge.

  5. Finland has a 4% poverty rate for its children, vs. a 20 – 25% rate for US depending on what numbers you use.

    Finland’s teaching force is nearly 100% unionized.

    The Finnish answer to standardized tests has been to give exams to small but statistically significant samples of students and to trust teachers

    Obviously won’t work in the US, where the majority of money grabbers, er “reformers”, think they know more about teaching than teachers.

  6. As for Kevin Carey, he is a political science professor.

    Find an “expert” in education policy who bashes teachers and public schools and chances are he/she is a political science professor or an economics professor, neither of which produce anything useful.

  7. Give teachers here more time to plan, as they do in Finland.

    We have short days Wednesday for “collaboration”. Usually this consists of meetings with administration-dictated agendas. A waste of time. Today the meetings were canceled and I was able to actually write down the lesson plan that I executed today (usually these remain in my head) along with reflections. The result? A killer lesson plan that I will re-use for years to come. Note: it took me almost an hour to write down exactly what we did –there are so many little details! Alas so many of my best plans get forgotten because I don’t have time to write them down. Do any other teachers out there experience this?

  8. 28% of elementary and 35% of secondary teachers in Finland are male versus 9 and 14 percent respectively in the US.

  9. Edgar, 19% of US elementary and middle school teachers are male; 45% of US secondary teachers are male: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.pdf

    If you have a better source, I’d be pleased to see it.

  10. I took the US numbers from this article:
    http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Parenting/story?id=6070282&page=1

  11. Finnish parents have as high a divorce rate as any western nation, so it’s not divorce that’s the problem. If you read the article, there are several factors that contribute to higher test scores:
    1. Teachers have more time to plan. From my (teaching) vantage point, that fact is a critical difference.
    2. Most teachers have master’s degrees or higher.
    3. There’s less emphasis on test scores, and more emphasis on effective lesson design.
    4. There’s more local control.
    5. It’s a heavily unionized profession, but also an in-demand one.
    6. The culture overwhelmingly supports public schools.

  12. BenF: oh, heavens, yes. I don’t think I have any of my lesson plans written down — or very few. It’s all in my head.

    I did have a professional development experience that gave me several days a year to plan and tweak and collaborate — my teaching improved enormously. But that’s over now.

  13. Edgar, the numbers I cited are based on substantial surveys; the article you cite has a claim with no substantiation.