Pasi Sahlberg Blog

Finnish education reform

PISA 2012 reinforces the key elements of the Finnish Way

When the OECD published its fifth PISA results this week, they became the main news in England, Sweden, the U.S. and Finland, among other places. What the public was told in all of these countries was the position of their school systems in the global PISA league tables. Although PISA is first and foremost a yardstick for the wealthy OECD countries, these league tables include rapidly developing cities from Far East and less-developed countries from Central Asia and Northern Africa that are not part of the OECD at all. Therefore there are huge differences between the best and the worst education systems in these rankings.

 In the U.S. and the UK politicians were disappointed because their earlier promises and education reforms were not fulfilled. It is easy for the sitting government to blame previous governments for inappropriate policies and wrong reforms. This was the reaction in Sweden where earlier decline of students’ achievement in mathematics, reading literacy and science continued reaching the all time low in the history of PISA. Finland’s media reported that “Finnish pride takes a hit in new PISA rankings: Finland has slipped in the OECD’s latest PISA ranking” and “Finland’s schools system: The new Nokia?”. Finnish politicians were not happy to read these headlines, either.

 Part of the stagnation and decline of educational performance measured in PISA can be explained by the nature of the metric of this assessment. A quick look at the new PISA results immediately reveals the notion that Asian countries – they now hold all top positions in mathematics, reading and science – have improved their performance from the previous study. Shanghai’s 613 points in mathematics is higher than any ‘country’ has ever scored in PISA. It is almost 100 points higher than Finland’s result that leaves Finnish students two school years behind their Chinese peers. In other words, when others do better it makes you look worse. We should keep in mind that many, if not all, of the Asian education systems get their stellar results in PISA with high social and financial cost for young people and their parents. American, Swedish and English schools are actually more efficient than Korean or Chinese schools because students there get higher PISA scores per time studying than do the Asian students.

Part of Finland’s educational fame comes from steadily improving performance in the first three PISA studies in 2000, 2003 and 2006. No other OECD member country has been able to show similar consistent improvement of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy rates than Finland between 2000 and 2006. The opposite direction has been more common in many countries. In England, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the U.S. student learning has been in decline. Moreover, Finland’s school system has been the most equitable in terms of how much student learning in school can be associated to out-of-school factors, such as family background. That is how it was in the past.

 But what are the take-a-ways of Finland’s performance in PISA 2012? First one is that Finland’s scores in all three measured subjects dropped from 2009. The biggest declined was in mathematics. This was not surprising because recent national assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education had shown that learning of mathematics, and also of science and reading at the end of lower secondary school have not improved since 2005. Second notion is that Finnish boys seem to be lagging behind the girls in mathematics, science and especially reading. Boys’ attitudes are often more negative to schooling than girls’. Third, there are more schools and individual students in Finland than before who are at risk of failing and they therefore perform below acceptable proficiency levels.  At the moment these notions raise more questions for the Finns than provide answers to what to do next. Nevertheless, Finland’s education minister promised to kick off the reform of country’s praised basic school system without any delay.

 It is also noteworthy that Finnish school system is one of the most equitable in a sense that performance variation between schools remains small and that students’ learning in school depends less on their family background than in most other countries. From the Finnish perspective the most important ‘PISA results’ overall are the following underlying messages which the new data reinforce.

  1. High average performance and equity are not mutually exclusive. This has been the cornerstone of Finland’s education policy since the 1970s. Investing systematically in equity, e.g. fair school resourcing, universal access to early childhood programs, health and wellbeing services for all in every school, and whole child approach in curriculum, gradually enhances quality of learning outcomes.
  2. Countries that grant schools autonomy over curricula and assessments tend to perform better. This is another finding that resonates with the fundamentals of Finnish educational logic. PISA data also show that the best performing education systems don’t rely on frequent standardized testing of students but combine teacher-made assessments, sample-based tests and high-quality examinations in mindful ways that don’t disturb teaching and learning in schools.
  3. School choice does not improve the performance of education system. Indeed, strong public school systems seem to be outperforming those that have increase alternative schools through various mechanisms, including charter schools, free schools and private schools. Finland has a strong commitment to maintain and further develop its education system by relying on locally governed and publicly funded schools.

 International student assessments should always be used with care. PISA is a good servant but a bad master. Although Finland has slipped backwards since 2006, it remains among the best performers in the OECD family. Some have suggested that due to educational downturn “the advocates of the Finnish model may need to begin to ask themselves some questions”. It is important to underline that lessons from PISA 2012 challenge the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) that assumes that competition, standardization, test-based accountability and privatization are effective drivers of whole system improvement. Finland must stay the course that has taken earlier. What is needed now is smart renewal of its old school system while preserving the ideals of collaboration, creativity, trust and professionalism as the determinants of teachers work.

Published in Times Education Supplement in December 2013