The irony of Finland’s successful school system is that the Finns never aimed to be better than anyone else — except, it is often humorously claimed, Sweden. Since the announcement of the first results of the Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, in 2001, Finland has been the center of educational attention. Finland’s PISA scores topped the charts, and the Finnish approach to educational policy has stood in direct opposition to the path embraced by the United States, England, and much of the rest of the world.
International student assessments, especially the PISA study, have become a crucial source of evidence in national policy-making around the world. Some claim that lower PISA scores cost nations billions in lost labor skills and productivity. Others go even further by insisting that poor PISA rankings are a threat to national security. High-ranking countries – South Korea, Singapore, Canada, and Finland – have consequently become benchmarks of educational policy-making in many parts of the world.
This begs a question: What happens when global educational models begin to lose their leading places in international student assessments like PISA, as has happened to Finland. What will Finland do?
National student assessments and academic research in Finland have shown that students’ knowledge and skills in mathematics have declined since the mid-2000s. A recent study from the University of Helsinki found a significant drop in 15-year-old students’ learning skills. PISA 2012 accordingly revealed no big surprises in Finland. The score in reading dropped 12 points since the last administration of the exam three years earlier, from 536 to 524; math, 22 points from 541 to 519; and science, 9 points, from 554 to 545. National student assessments show that improvement of student learning stagnated and started to slip about five years ago. PISA 2009 showed signs of this shift. Reading slid 11 points from the 2006 results, from 547 to 536; math, 7 points, from 548 to 541; and science 9 points, from 563 to 554.
Many may ask: ‘What has gone wrong in Finland?’ Why have scores dropped? Is it because something that had driven improvement earlier has now disappeared from Finnish schools? Or is it due to changes in Finnish society or homes? Whatever the reasons behind the changes, Finns must adopt smart responses and avoid hasty, false recoveries; analyze past data again; and learn more from other countries, their success stories and failed reforms.
The unexpected position as a global educational leader and role model may have disturbed Finland’s previous commitment to continuous improvement and renewal. Some argue that complacency and focus on explaining the past to thousands of education tourists have shifted attention away from developing Finland’s own school system. Others contend that the high-profile of PISA have led other nations to alter their curricula. Such observers point to the usage of PISA questions to shape lessons and coaching students to take PISA-like tests. As a norm-referenced test, PISA is graded on a curve. What other nations have learned from Finland and put into practice has necessarily brought down Finland’s results.
So, what will Finland do? Finland should not do what many other countries have done when they have looked for a cure to their ill-performing school systems. Common solutions have included market-based reforms, such as increasing competition between schools, standardization of teaching and learning, tougher test-based accountability and privatization of public schools. Instead, Finns must protect their schools from the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) that has failed to help schools to get better in other countries. The better way for Finland is to ensure that schools are able to cope with increasing inequality, that teachers have tools to help students with individual needs, and that all schools get support to succeed.
PISA results are too often presented as a simple league table of education systems. But there is much more that the data reveal. The Finnish school system continues to be one of the most equitable among the OECD countries. This means that in Finland, students’ learning in school is less affected by their family backgrounds than in most other countries. Schools in Finland remain fairly equal in learning outcomes despite the rapid growth of non-Finnish speaking children in schools.
Finland should also continue to let national education and youth policies — and not PISA — drive what is happening in schools. Reading, science, and mathematics are important in Finnish education system but so are social studies, arts, music, physical education, and various practical skills. Play and joy of learning characterize Finland’s pre-schools and elementary classrooms. Many teachers and parents in Finland believe that the best way to learn mathematics and science is to combine conceptual, abstract learning with singing, drama, and sports. This balance between academic and non-academic learning is critical to children’s well-being and happiness in school. PISA tells only a little about these important aspects of school education.
Published in the Washington Post on Dec 3, 2013