with John Graham – Published in Professional Voice, 10(1), pp. 46-53, summer 2014
JG Finland is seen to have one of the best schooling systems in the world. What elements of the Finnish system do you think make the difference and elevate the performance of its students above those in many other countries?
PS Finland may be seen as having the best school system in the world by foreign media and some others but certainly not by many Finns. When the OECD released its first PISA results in 2001, it struck many by surprise. Finns were among those, because Finland had never intended to be high in the PISA league tables. The way education is seen in Finland — among educators and citizens alike — is very different to how it is seen in many other places where nations compete against each other to see who will be the best. For the Finns, what matters in education is that all children have opportunities to succeed and that each of them feels happy and well in school.
Having said that, there are some visible elements of the Finnish system that do make a difference. I would just mention three here. First, we are strong believers in public schooling and therefore carefully manage licences to operate any other types of schools. There are about 75 independent but publicly funded schools in Finland (such as Steiner schools, religious schools and university teacher training schools) but they are part of the public school network. We do everything we can to encourage parents to choose their own neighbourhood school for their children within the free choice they have regarding where their children will learn.
Second, we have embedded a comprehensive, early intervention system to identify and support those children who have any kind of special need in school. Every school must have what we call a “pupil welfare team” that is responsible for making sure that all students are properly supported and helped in every school. Special education services currently include about one third of all basic school (grades 1 to 9) pupils. As a result, grade repetition is very low and graduation rates from basic school are therefore close to 100 per cent.
Third, in order to be successful with the earlier two elements, Finland has a particular system of selecting and educating its teachers. In the late 1970s the Finnish Government decided to elevate the teaching profession to the same level as that of other highly-valued professions, such as medicine and law, by making an academic masters degree the basic teaching qualification. Teacher education in Finland is based on research and this has enabled us to enhance the public trust in teachers and their professional responsibilities. Teachers in Finland enjoy social prestige, and teaching is seen as a competitive career choice by many young Finns. Finnish schools are truly professional learning communities with a considerable amount of autonomy and freedom to find the best ways to support pupils’ learning.
JG One of the newsworthy items from the PISA 2012 testing program was the slight decline in Finland’s performance compared to previous years. How did the media and politicians in Finland react to this decline? Do you have any explanation for Finland’s dip in performance in 2012?
PS There is a systematic way of monitoring educational performance in Finland through national evaluations and research. PISA is, in a way, a tool to add value or confirm national findings concerning system performance. Therefore our own domestic data had already indicated that there has been a slight overall decline since the mid-2000s in reading and mathematics learning and, to a lesser degree, in science. Our authorities indicated far before PISA 2012 became public, in December 2013, that Finland was not likely to perform as favourably in PISA this time. The media reported PISA 2012 results as it always does by publishing the international league tables concluding that Finland is no longer the world leader. The reaction of politicians was that Finland is still #2 in the OECD family and therefore doing well.
But the question of why learning outcomes in reading and mathematics in Finland are declining is an important one. One part of the explanation is that there are so many other education systems in the OECD that have adjusted their education policies and funding to enhance their PISA scores. It has almost become a norm to set your national targets so that your country is among the top five PISA performers in the future. This is not what the Finns have done. The focus in Finnish schools has actually shifted towards arts, social sciences and creativity rather than increasing attention to reading, mathematics and science.
One persuasive argument used to explain declines in student learning in Finland holds that much of that negative trend is associated with the performance of Finnish boys in school. My own data suggests that if Finnish boys were performing at a similar level to Finnish girls (as they do in other OECD countries), there would be no change in Finland’s performance in PISA. Furthermore, if Finnish boys did as well as girls in reading, mathematics and science Finland would perform close to Singapore’s level. So, it looks like we have a specific challenge to make learning more inspiring for our teenage boys.
JG More generally on PISA, the effect of PISA rankings has a profound and increasing impact on the education landscape in Australia and many other countries. The decline in performance of Australian 15-year-olds in PISA 2012 has been used by governments around the country to justify their favourite education “reform” packages. I also note the recent letter sent by a worldwide list of education academics and others to the OECD deploring the negative consequences of PISA on schooling. What is your view about PISA, its growing influence and its use by governments to justify reforms?
PS Australia should be careful not to make too many quick conclusions about its PISA performance. A number of new “competitors” have joined PISA since its inauguration in 2000 so the nature of game has changed. Some of these newcomers — Singapore, Macao, Hong Kong and Shanghai — have taken the top positions in PISA league tables. This obviously affects where Australia or Finland will appear in these global rankings. We should also know that all of the above mentioned top-ranking education systems have extensive and very expensive after-school tutoring systems that most pupils must attend in order to fulfil their parents’ expectations.
Your question about the value of PISA is like asking what do you think about fire! They are both useful and can benefit our lives significantly if we know how to deal with them. Unfortunately PISA is often like a box of matches in the hands of a child. PISA certainly has had negative consequences in some places where it has taken the driver’s seat in determining priorities in national education policies. There are a number of countries now (including Australia) that have formulated their goals in education to be on the top of the global league tables. An over-reliance on reaching such targets, by insisting that schools and teachers focus on a narrow area of academic achievement at the expense of broader learning and personal development goals, may have worrying effects later on. On the other hand, one could claim that without PISA the global geography of education would look very different. I am afraid that we would see even more market-based solutions and privatisation of public education than is currently happening. Certainly we would not be speaking about the key role that equity has in building successful education systems as we do today. And, most concretely, I wouldn’t be giving this interview for Australian teachers to read if there was no PISA.
JG One of the outcomes of PISA has been the elevation of certain education systems — Finland, Shanghai-China, Korea etc — to be exemplars for other countries to try to emulate. What is your view about this? Can education systems be transported from one country to another?
PS It is actually very unfortunate that despite the words of warning by the OECD itself and many educators, including me, there are so many who desire to imitate the most successful education systems in PISA in the hope of finding solutions to their own system’s challenges. I have been very disappointed by how poorly people in general understand what PISA is actually able to reveal. Most people, educators included, seem to perceive PISA as a global league table that is like a thermometer showing how good or poor the health of your school system is.
But the OECD is very clear about what a successful education system is. It must have high student achievement in all measured domains, it must have a high level of equity that suggests students’ socio-economic background is not a strong indicator of their achievement, it must have high overall levels of participation in education (including high graduation rates), and it must ensure both human and financial resources are used efficiently to accomplish these results.
There is a lot we can all learn about these aspects of “high performance”, but you should not think that, by redesigning your own education system according to the three elements that have driven Finland’s success, things would get any better. My own theory at the moment is that in all successful education systems there are cultural, economic and social factors external to schools which act as powerful drivers of high educational performance equal to those found within school systems. My next book, Invisible Lessons (or Invisible Learning), is about these hidden elements behind successful educational performance.
JG You have been responsible for conceptualising and naming a set of education reforms, which have become central to school systems in Anglo-Saxon countries such as the US, the UK and Australia, as the Global Education Reform Movement or GERM. What is GERM? Does it work? Why do you think governments and education authorities in these countries are so determined to implement GERM policies?
PS Well, GERM is an unofficial education policy orthodoxy that many formal institutions, corporations and governments have adopted as their official program in educational development. This global movement includes some welcome elements that have strengthened the focus on learning, encouraged access to education for all, and emphasised the acquisition of knowledge and skills that are relevant in the real world. But GERM also has symptoms that indicate it may be harmful to its host; driving education reforms by competition, standardisation, test-based accountability, fast-track pathways into teaching and privatisation of public education. My own view is that GERM is a real phenomenon and it has been successful in finding hosts all over the world.
The reasons for the global prevalence of GERM include its common sense logic, examples set by some Anglo-Saxon countries, and the increasing presence of private corporations in school improvement. What has been the effect of GERM so far? PISA, dating from the year 2000, clearly shows that none of the GERM-infected school systems — England, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands or Sweden — has been able to improve educational performance, contrary to the policy promises made when these GERM solutions were chosen to be centrepieces in national education reform programs.
JG Australia has one of the most privatised school systems in the world. There is now a push to break up the state public systems of schooling by introducing the equivalent of charter schools or the English academies. What is your view about the role of public education systems? Do you think the charter school idea (presently being called Independent Public Schools by our Federal Government) is a good one?
PS Privatisation of public education is one of the central goals of GERM. Research shows how efforts to privatise education by vouchers or alternative governance models have not brought promised improvements of learning or efficiency gains. This is true for charter schools in the US, Swedish “free schools” and the Chilean experiment. The OECD has a clear message to all those who hope to enhance their education systems by market-based solutions. In its 2012 report, Equity and Quality in Education, the OECD concludes: “School choice advocates often argue that the introduction of market mechanisms allows equal access to high quality schooling for all. However, evidence does not support these perceptions, as choice and associated market mechanisms can enhance segregation. The highest-performing education systems across the OECD countries are those that combine quality with equity.”
I think school choice as a way of improving entire education systems is more myth than fact. The question is not, however, choice or no choice. It is about whether we have a good school for all children or just for some. In the end we need to work out how we manage parental choice so that it doesn’t harm equity.
JG There is a current obsession with the need to improve “teacher quality”. There are a series of initiatives to set more stringent standards for entry into the profession and have more rigorous teacher performance evaluation processes. What is your perspective on these teacher quality arguments?
PS As I see it, another myth is that teaching is easy. In other words, anyone can teach if you are smart and interested in spending time with people. What Finland and Singapore have done, for example, is recognise that teaching is a difficult profession. It requires complex knowledge and skills similar to those that medical doctors and lawyers use in their work. I am all for raising the standards of entry into the teaching profession so that it is on a par with other highly valued professions. The introduction of strict quality controls at the entry point into teaching make more rigorous teacher evaluation processes redundant, as is the situation in Finland and Singapore.
Another common myth of teacher quality is that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”. Those who believe this tend to see teaching as an individual craft where the individual teacher is disconnected from other teachers and the professional community they share. But to me at least, school teaching is a team play where leadership, a shared dream and common professional qualifications help the team to be more than its individual players. That is one reason why leadership in schools has become such a valuable currency.
JG Can you explain the nature and level of professionalism that teachers have in Finnish schools?
PS Teacher professionalism has four manifestations in Finnish schools. First, teachers have the main role in planning and designing their curricula. This autonomy and responsibility for planning is considered a cornerstone of teacher leadership and professionalism.
Second, teachers are free to choose the best possible teaching methods to accomplish the learning goals described in the school curriculum. Third, teachers are responsible for assessing and grading their students according to the guidelines stipulated in their school curriculum. Finally, professionalism in Finnish schools requires that teachers are active members in their professional communities. Academic research-based teacher education in Finland focuses on these four aspects of professionalism. School leadership is then the glue that brings these elements of teacher professionalism together for the good of the school.
JG What does Finland do to develop effective school leadership? How do you become a principal in a Finnish school? Are school principals generally satisfied with their role?
PS There is a strict rule in Finland that school principals must be qualified to teach in the same schools that they lead. This means that a high school mathematics teacher may not be appointed as a primary school principal without a primary school teacher’s qualification. Effective school leadership starts there. In Finland we expect that school principals must always be experienced teachers who have the personal characteristics to lead other teachers and a school. Before appointment to school leadership posts, successful candidates must have a set amount of leadership training typically offered by Finnish universities, a positive track record as a teacher and a suitable personality.
School principals are now often appointed for a fixed term (five to seven years). Increasing bureaucracy and a tightening economic situation has affected principals’ working conditions as well. There are more experienced teachers who would have earlier looked for leadership posts in schools who are now deciding to remain in their teaching jobs — often due to the reasons mentioned above.
JG Is a commitment to equity highly valued in the Finnish education system? What sort of policies (eg funding) and procedures are used to ensure equitable outcomes for Finnish students?
PS Equity is the foundation of Finland’s education system. Since the early 1970s Finland’s education policies have aimed at building a system that provides all students with equal educational opportunities to succeed in school regardless of their family background or domicile. Today Finland is one of those successful education systems that has high learning outcomes and system-wide equity.
There are certain principles that Finland has followed in creating its equitable school system. First of all there is equitable school funding that disburses resources to schools based on their real needs. This is pretty close to what the Gonski Report suggested for Australia. Secondly, there is a universal and well-resourced special education system that is able to provide support to all those in need early on and without being labelled in school. Thirdly, there is a systematic way of embedding pupil health and wellbeing support on a daily basis as part of the work of every school. This includes healthy school meals, health checks, dental checks and counselling for all children. Finally, Finland has a balanced curriculum that is based on a realisation that multiple intelligences exist in every classroom. Equity is enhanced when all students have access to high quality arts, music, physical education and other non-academic subjects in the same way that they study reading, mathematics, science and other academic subjects.
Most Finns believe that a strong public education system is the best way to maintain and enhance both quality and equity in education. The international evidence is also clear: the most successful education systems are those that combine quality and equity in their education priorities, and that cultivate education as a basic human right through public service for all children.