This piece from The Atlantic by Anu Partanen, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success” caught my eye last week. I am perennially fascinated by what our debates about education and childcare can tell us about how Americans understand human nature, human well-being, and the activity of learning.
Partanen’s piece focuses on educational thought leader du jour, Pasi Sahlberg, whose new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? has been generating headlines and garnering the author speaking engagements here in the United States.
The problem, Partanen argues, is that American audiences refuse to engage with the key lessons we might actually learn from Sahlberg’s work (and Finland’s experience of educational reform). What worked for Finland? Publicly-funded education, teacher independence (no “teaching to the test”), an emphasis on cooperation over competition, and social equity:
Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.
…The public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.
As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”
…Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
All of these values are foreign to mainstream educational reform here in the United States, with its emphasis on privatization, market competition and school choice, teacher accountability, and standardized testing. We also continue to fund schools through property taxes, leaving children from impoverished neighborhoods with the fewest resources.
I wonder what it will take to change the education debate in the U.S., turning it away from extrinsic motivations and measures (testing) and toward intrinsic value (child well-being and growth).