If Americans harbored any doubts about their eroded global edge, this week’s release of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) fourth international comparison of educational performance should rattle the nation from its “We’re No. 1” complacency. The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, released in December 2010 revealed that although it made some modest gains, the United States is lagging behind many other developed nations in the ability of its 15-year-olds to apply when tested internationally what they learned in school. The country isn’t flunking: like France, England and Sweden, learning here has stagnated at below-average levels. That “Gentleman’s C” should be a call to change the course.
Take heart. Finland, one of the world’s top educational performers according to the last OECD PISA study and a recent McKinsey report, was once in a similar slump. Thus, we can offer some lessons for the United States and others who are seeking a cure for the chronic poor educational performance of their public schools. As recently as a quarter of century ago, Finnish students were below the international average in mathematics and science. At that time, there also were large learning differences between schools, with urban or affluent students typically outperforming their rural or low-income peers. Today, as the OECD’s most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have been able to accomplish both a high quality of learning and widespread equity in learning opportunities and outcomes at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable – students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest American educators because Finns have employed very different – even opposing – ideas and policies in reforming education.
Consider educational policies. Finland has a very different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there external standardized tests or data used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.
Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge in order to do their jobs well. Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finnish people trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers year after year.
Educational leadership also is different in Finland. School principals, district education leaders and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. In fact, to lead a school, principals must be qualified to teach there. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community. This means that education policies and reforms are guided by principles of teaching and learning rather than business management models, which are alien in the Finnish education system.
I have experienced that many Americans doubt that Finland has much relevance to the United States. It is easy to point to its rather homogeneous population and culture. In 2009, just 4 percent of the population was foreign-born and 10 percent spoke some language other than Finnish at home. However, due to growing migration in Europe ethnic and cultural diversity is changing very quickly in Finland.
Then there are those who argue that Finland is a small country and thus not a good model for whole-system reform for the United States. Finland’s current population of 5.5 million is the same size or larger than two-thirds of the states, among them Maryland, Connecticut and Colorado. Yes, Finland has special characteristics but it is similar enough to many state educational jurisdictions to merit consideration as a source of learning about how to make all school succeed.
The secret of Finnish educational success is that in the 20th century Finns had the advantage to study and emulate such advanced nations as Sweden, Germany and the United States. This allowed Finland to see how other nations were reforming their education systems. Finns adopted some education policies from elsewhere but also avoided mistakes made by these leading education performers. Finland not only has been very successful in listening to the OECD’s and European Union’s advice about how its education system should be changed. Americans may find it interesting that many of the educational innovations and solutions to practical problems of teaching and learning came initially from American experts and friends. Cooperative learning, portfolio assessment and models of school leadership are examples of great American ideas that have been successfully imported to and widely employed in Finnish schools.
What could the United States learn from the Finns? I offer three ideas. First, reconsider those education policies that advocate choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement. None of the best-performing education systems rely primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation – not choice and competition – can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on their students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones though charters or other means does not belong to repertoire of educational improvement in Finland.
Second, reconsider your teacher policies by giving teachers government-paid university education, more professional support in their work and making teaching a respected profession. As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent in the United States is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career. The experience of Finland and from other high-performing education systems speaks clearly to this.
Finally, with the fourth PISA study again showing that the American education system is lagging those in many other countries, Americans should admit that there is much to learn from these high-performing systems. Relying on one’s past reputation is not necessarily the best position when transforming education systems to meet the needs of the future. Therefore, aim at being close to the leaders. With America’s “can do” mentality and superior knowledge-base in educational improvement, you could shift course before it’s too late.