By Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle
Two decades ago, Finland made big news in international education circles. Against all odds it became a top-performer in OECD’s first PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study that compared 15-year-olds’ knowledge and skills in reading, mathematical and scientific literacies. Since about 2010 education experts and pundits in the United States have debated whether there is anything at all that American school systems could learn from that small Nordic nation’s school system. Ten years on and these debates still go on.
In their March 15, 2021 essay “Finland Meets Civil Rights”, Professor Jal Mehta and co-author Krista Galleberg make good points, including “we can draw on Finnish lessons while making them more relevant to our complex, multi-racial, and systemically inequitable context”, and “build shared responsibility instead of finger pointing, policies based in trust instead of distrust, and schools where Black and Brown students thrive instead of merely survive.”
But in framing their argument, Mehta and Galleberg make the curious claim that “Since the beginning of the No Child Left Behind era, there has been a schism between what you might think of as the ‘Finland folks’ and much of the civil rights community, particularly its policy and legal advocates.”
We are aware of no such schism. We are curious to know which civil rights advocates would oppose the key foundations of the Finnish education system that are adaptable to the American context – such as comprehensive health services for every child and mother from birth, teachers trained and respected as professionals, free healthy school lunches for all, regular play and physical activity as part of every schools’ workplan, smaller class sizes, early indidualized special education support throughout schooling, equitable funding of schools, universal early childhood education and care as a basic right of every child, and highly collaborative schools that strive to integrate students of different capabilities and backgrounds.
According to Mehta and Galleberg, “accountability in the U.S. has historically been promoted by civil rights advocates and bemoaned by the Finland folks.” In fact, the opposite is true in Finland, which places the highest national emphasis on accountability– based on trust and constant productive dialogue between highly professional teachers, children, parents and policymakers. Moreover, Mehta and Galleberg also fail to explain to their readers that in Finland all schools and teachers operate under professional responsibility that expands far beyond the typical punitive, vertical accountability mechanisms that are typical in U.S. education administration.
What Finland does not is waste time or money on so-called “test-based accountability,” or basing its school system on the low-quality, expensive and ineffective governing metric of the universal standardized testing of children, as the United States has done under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, and seems to be continuing under President Biden, despite his clear campaign promise to stop it. Instead, the performance of Finland’s education system is monitored by multiple measures that include state-led sample-based standardized student assessments and locally managed school self-evaluations and peer reviews.
The verdict is in on test-based accountability – it doesn’t work. Twenty years of it has achieved little to no sustained improvement in reading and math outcomes or in reducing achievement gaps in the United States, which were its main objectives. Today, the main driving forces behind “doubling down” on this failure are not civil rights organizations but under-informed philanthropists, politicians and business leaders.
We also find claims by Mehta and Galleberg that “even today, educational reforms in Finland are framed as part of the country’s national defence plan” and “excellent education for all is part of the nation’s response to Russian aggression” strange and without factual basis. It is a mistake to believe that Finland’s education policies are designed primarily to serve economic or national security interests. Furthermore, arguing that “educational equity is therefore not treated as a national security imperative in the United States as it is in Finland” is simply not true. Promoting equity and social justice through education in all Nordic countries is based on human rights imperatives before anything else, certainly something that any civil rights advocate in the United States would wholeheartedly support.
The main lesson of Finland for any nation is that it is possible – and indeed necessary – to strive for both excellence and equity for all students. According to recent data from the OECD, Finland achieves both the highest efficiency of all the developed world’s education systems as measured by hours of study and learning outcomes, and the least performance variation between schools. “The neighborhood school is the best school” is a mantra often heard in Finland, and it is a reality that is widely achieved. Finland has deliberately designed its education system, from primary school to higher education, on the values and principles of equal rights to education. Finland upgraded the teaching profession in the 1980s to serve that purpose, so that each and every child would have a great public school in their neighborhood.
In the context of civil rights, Finland is the ultimate American school system.
The landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case of 1954 declared racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, but it also stipulated in its order that public education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” That simple, beautiful phrase is settled national policy in the United States, but it has never been fully honored.
Those words should be symbolically carved onto the entranceways of every school, legislature and education ministry on Earth.
In Finland, they already are.
Originally published in The Diane Ravitch Blog on 22 March 2021