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.

Raising the Status of Teachers

Excerpts from Sam Dillon’s March 16, NYT article, “US is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status”.

To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better, and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems.

• Top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession.

• Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation. . . . Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.

• On the most recent international tests (Pisa), the top-scoring countries were Finland and Singapore in science, Korea and Finland in reading and Singapore and Korea in math. On average, American teenagers came in 15th in reading and 19th in science. American students placed 27th in math. Only 2 percent of American students scored at the highest proficiency level, compared with 8 percent in Korea and 5 percent in Finland.

• U.S. education reformers need to adopt common academic standards, develop better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs, and train more effective school leaders.

• The top recommendation from the report—make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession.

• Teaching education programs in the U.S. must become more selective and more rigorous.

• Raising teachers’ status is not mainly about raising salaries, the report says, but pay is a factor. According to O.E.C.D. data, the average salary of a veteran elementary teacher here was $44,172 in 2008, higher than the average of $39,426 across all O.E.C.D countries (the figures were converted to compare the purchasing power of each currency). But that salary level was 40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates. In Finland, by comparison, the veteran teacher’s salary was 13 percent less than that of the average college graduate’s.

• Only Luxembourg among the O.E.C.D. countries spends more per elementary student — but American schools spend disproportionately on other areas, like bus transportation and sports facilities.

So maybe we do have the best school system in the world if, like Fifteen a couple of weeks ago, you want to skip a day of classes, and take a school provided bus to the state basketball tournament.