Finnish Students are Running Circles Around U.S. Students. . . Without Trying

Policy makers in the U.S. desperately want to know why Finnish students are consistently among the top ranked students in the world. Anu Partanen, in a provocative essay in the Atlantic, points to a few things—less homework, more creative play, and equalized public funding for all schools.

A leading Finnish educator explains another critical factor, “In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. . . . 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.

Another significant difference—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.

Damn socialists.

Partanen provides historical context. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

And no, they’re not teaching to the tests or changing students’ score sheets. Partanen explains that since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity. 

Despite many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. Partanen explains that when Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be economically competitive, they couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy. With America’s manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game a country has to prepare all of its population well for the new economy.

Since “No Child Left Behind”, we’ve talked similarly, but dramatic school funding differences and a litany of related educational inequalities prove we’re not committed to equity. We want the Finns’ results without their progressive tax system. We want to lose weight without eating less or exercising more.

Take a sample of ten representative high schoolers from the U.S. The top three can easily hang with average Finn, Singaporean, South Korean, and Chinese students. The middle four, not so much. They’re graduating high school and continuing their education even though they’re unprepared for college level work. They’re taking remedial classes and are a large part of the 45% of students who enter college seeking a bachelor’s degree and fail to graduate. The bottom three, someone tell W, have been left behind, and are apart of the 1.3 million students that leave high school every year without graduating. That’s 7,000 students a day. That’s a tragedy for them, their families, and our economic prospects.

There’s not just an achievement gap between the top three and bottom four students, there’s a dramatic family political influence gap. “Top three” parents focus mostly on making sure their sons and daughters have a competitive advantage in getting into the best colleges by agitating for tracked college prep classes. They may care about the educational or life prospectives of the other seven students, but not to the point of de-tracking classes or equalizing funding through higher property taxes.

Spare me the talk of replicating the Finnish educational model. We’re not cut out for it. Our worldview rests upon the exact opposite values—intense individualism, competitiveness, and selective excellence; not collectivism, cooperation, or equity. With rare exceptions, we haven’t been a “greater good” people for a long time. And the more other students from around the world lap us in the classroom, and the better their economies perform relative to us, the more “Top Three-ers” we’ll look out for themselves, the greater good be damned.

2 thoughts on “Finnish Students are Running Circles Around U.S. Students. . . Without Trying

  1. Reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder if the US’s size is a factor in our lack of equality. Are we just too big for one government to be able to give every school good funding, etc.? Or is that what the state governments are for – should they be the ones watching out for our schools? Either way, I’d unfortunately agree that it seems unlikely for Finnish-style educational reform to sweep across our nation, and, at least in my head, the prospect of this seems even less likely due to the scale that it would have to happen on.

    • I don’t think size and equality are connected. Degrees of equality/inequality flow largely from tax systems which are distinct based upon each country’s history and political values. If there was sufficient political will, we could have a much more progressive tax system. And despite our size, we could give the federal government more responsibility for public school funding. We could also make property taxes more progressive. If there was the political will, which I don’t think there is. The tax system benefits the well-to-do because they have more lobbyists that contribute massive amounts of money to members of Congress who choose not to make the changes in order to keep the campaign contributions flowing.

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