The popularity of international student assessments, especially the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), allows us to compare national education systems in ways that were not possible before. These comparisons are made by looking at the national averages of 15-year-old students’ standardized test scores in reading, mathematics and science. Many countries are increasingly obsessed by such rankings.
These league tables let policy makers benchmark their school system not only across countries but also within them. Administrators and principals in the UK, for instance, can assess the strengths of their schools by comparing England to Wales, or Scotland to Northern Ireland. As the stakes – both political and economic – get higher, the temptation to create policies and employ practices that help to boost the test scores is growing. As a consequence, teachers teach to tests and schools turn away children who are not effective learners to guarantee greater success in forthcoming student assessments.
The comparative analysis of education policies in participating countries has received less attention. For example, one may ask whether the evidence from PISA supports the assumption that educational reforms based on competition, choice and testing have improved student learning in education systems that adopted these policies in the 1990s. If it doesn’t, this should lead us to question the validity of these principles as a basis for reform strategies.
English education policies rely on more choice, tougher competition, intensified standardised testing and stronger school accountability. These are the key elements of the policies that were dominant in the United States, New Zealand, Japan and parts of Canada and Australia a decade or so ago. Available PISA data reveals the impact of these education policies on students’ learning between 2000 and 2009. The overall learning trend in all these countries is consistently declining.
Many governments are taking note of the 2009 PISA results, but they are rather selective in reporting of the education systems that are doing well in PISA. Finland has been one of the few consistently high performing systems in PISA’s 10-year history. Significantly, Finland has not employed any of the market-based educational reform ideas in the ways that they have been incorporated into the education policies of many other nations, including the United States and England.
A typical feature of teaching and learning in Finland is high confidence in teachers and principals as respected professionals. Another involves encouraging teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches rather than teaching them to master fixed attainment targets. This makes school a creative and inspiring place for students and teachers. These policies are a result of three decades of systematic, mostly intentional development that has created a culture of diversity, trust and respect within Finnish society in general, and within its education system in particular. The result is a cocktail of good ideas from other countries and smart practices from the tradition of teaching and learning in Finland.
The Finnish education system has evolved from being barely mediocre in international standards in the 1980s to a celebrated model two decades later. Although Finland is not included in the latest McKinsey report in the sample of “sustained improvers”, it is noted as the only one to have “excellent” education system. What distinguishes Finland from other nations is that this high level of educational performance has occurred alongside a system-wide equity in education.
The secret of education in Finland is that it brings together government policy, professional involvement and public engagement around an inspiring social and educational vision of equity, prosperity and creativity in a world of greater inclusiveness, security and humanity. This is also known as the Fourth Way of change as Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley have eloquently described in their recent book with that same name.
Although Finland is different from other countries, there is a lot they can learn from each other. Prime Minister David Cameron hinted recently that Europe should learn from its Northern Alliance referring to the Nordic countries. Experience from Finland shows that through high quality teachers committed to and capable of creating deep and broad teaching and learning it is possible to have powerful, responsible and inspiring schools in an increasingly self-regulating profession. In Finland teachers design and pursue high quality learning and shared goals. They improve their schools continuously through professional teamwork and networks without being disturbed by standardized teaching, frequent testing or competition over resources and higher rankings.