Finnish Educational Success: Public Schools, No Standardized Testing, and Equity

03.19.2013, 11:08 AM

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).


19 Responses to “Finnish Educational Success: Public Schools, No Standardized Testing, and Equity”

  1. Diane M says:

    I think a key factor is the salary and respect that the teachers get. They can earn as much as doctors do in Finland (which I think is less than here), so they can choose from a large group of teachers.

    One thing that would quickly improve our schools would be hiring people who were smart and knew the subjects they were teaching.

    And, of course, taking the high stakes out of educational testing. They’ve done a lot to warp education and lower standards.

  2. Roxeanne de Luca says:

    You may want to change “equity” to “equality”.

    For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

    In America, teacher pay ranges all over the place – from $25k starting in some districts, to those who get $70k to $80k by age thirty or thirty-two. In some states, teachers make as much as their accountant and mechanical engineer peers when they start – and, of course, work fewer hours over a year and make far more in benefits. The average American teacher out-earns the average American household, even before their benefits are counted.

    More than that, teachers in America are not, on the whole, very talented. Their GRE scores are among the lowest among all groups applying to professional school, beaten out for dead last only by MPA candidates.

    But we do not pay talented teachers more than we pay untalented ones; in fact, the system drives out the very talented, who understand that they aren’t being paid for their talent. (The only exception is those who are able to snag jobs in rich towns that pay all of their teachers more, but the “let’s pay everyone the same” doesn’t enable other towns to retain a few high-quality teachers.)

    Finland also has radically different demographics than does the United States, and a very different immigration system.

    Which is to say, you cannot really copy Finland onto the U.S., eliminate any private education, and assume that everything will come up roses. The best thing to do is to run the public school system less like a bureaucracy and more like the private sector. Enable schools to pay more to good teachers. Enable them to get rid of bad teachers. Enable them to change the ratio of benefits/salary given, so that those who want more in salary and less in benefits are able to get it.

    Most importantly, hold students to high standards. This does not mean “multiple choice tests,” but it does mean that we have to get rid of the notion that everyone is a special snowflake.

  3. Anna Cook says:

    Roxeanne,

    I used the word “equity” because that is the language used in the article I link to.

    Regarding your suggestion that the homogeneity of the Finnish population makes the comparison unhelpful, this is addressed toward the end of the article:

    The number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

    Every nation has its differences, yes, but we are perhaps too quick to claim American exceptionalism in the face of global lessons which might help us better care for our children.

    I also find your suggestion that teachers are “not, on the whole, very talented” based solely on the GRE scores they turn in to be short-sighted in the extreme. In fact, the lesson of the Finnish system is that standardized tests such as the GRE are very poor indicators of future performance.

    I have my philosophical differences with many institutional educational practices, but most of the teachers I have known — serving in a wide variety of school systems — are dedicated to their work, spend enormous sums of money out of their own pocket on both their own professional development and on supplies for educating their students (which should never have to be the case), and put in longer days than most of us to ensure as best they can that their students are cared for.

  4. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: More than that, teachers in America are not, on the whole, very talented. Their GRE scores are among the lowest among all groups applying to professional school, beaten out for dead last only by MPA candidates.

    I think that needs a little qualification. The GRE is an indicator of general intelligence, and the low GRE scores indicate that teachers and education majors aren’t of particularly high intelligence, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t talented or good at what they do. Not every job necessarily requires you to have amazing cognitive skills, abilities for abstract reasoning, etc. It could be that what makes for a good teacher has rather little to do with raw intelligence (above some threshold), and so the fact that teachers tend to be less smart might not matter.

    The experience of Finland is interesting, but it would be important to see if they corrected for demographic factors, cultural factors, etc. which might make the Finnish population very different than ours.

  5. Diane M says:

    Studies in the US have found that high verbal scores on the SAT for a teacher are correlated with students doing better on tests. So there is some evidence that being smart makes you a better teacher.

    In addition, for middle school and high school, teachers who have studied the subject they are teaching have students who do better on standardized tests.

    I’m assuming that since Finnish teaching jobs are very competitive, that they attract the Finnish equivalent of a high SAT score and a degree in math or history. If it’s true that they have masters, that would be a good sign.

    @Roxanne DeLucca – I remember reading that a Finnish teacher could earn as much as a Finnish doctor. That’s even better than a teacher who earns as much as the median income here. We also have to keep in mind that they really work more hours than the school day and school year.

    However, I think the key here is the pay differential by school system. If you live in a more well-off neighborhood in the US, you have the best teachers. They probably don’t earn as much as the top earners in that area, but they can do well.

    Effectively, being a good teacher or good applicant does mean you get paid more in the US if you can move to the top-paying areas.

    But that leaves a lot of schools and children behind.

    Also, even with the good pay, the credentials system means that kids sometimes end up with middle school teachers who aren’t experts in their subject area. Hiring middle school teachers who know their subject area would be a quick way to improve education.

    @Anna Cook – I think one of the lessons of the Finnish system is that focusing education on kids’ standardized test scores is short-sighted. Finland just hires talented well educated teachers and lets them do their job. We have a system that increasingly assumes teachers are idiots who have to be given a boxed curriculum to administer like medicine.

    However, I don’t think that contradicts the idea that high GRE scores for teachers are a good thing. GRE scores measure intelligence and knowledge about a subject area. Having teachers who know the subject area really does improve teaching. After all, if you were signing up for a course in sign language, would you prefer a teacher who had studied educational psychology and was using the textbook to figure out sign language or a fluent sign language speaker?

  6. Mont D. Law says:

    (The best thing to do is to run the public school system less like a bureaucracy and more like the private sector. Enable schools to pay more to good teachers. Enable them to get rid of bad teachers. Enable them to change the ratio of benefits/salary given, so that those who want more in salary and less in benefits are able to get it.)

    I see this benefiting the Republican Party, the religious right and for profit school conglomerates. I don’t see how it will benefit poor children at all.

    (You may want to change “equity” to “equality”.)

    Since the article is clear that they are trying to achieve equity in educational opportunity that would be silly.

    (Finland also has radically different demographics than does the United States, and a very different immigration system. )

    Explain how they are different & how this matters.

    (Which is to say, you cannot really copy Finland onto the U.S., eliminate any private education, and assume that everything will come up roses.)

    Of course you can’t because American’s don’t really care what happens to poor children. Which is why you have so many.

    (Most importantly, hold students to high standards. This does not mean “multiple choice tests,” but it does mean that we have to get rid of the notion that everyone is a special snowflake.)

    Yeah the problem at failing schools in is that the children are treated like special snowflakes, not you know, the poverty, violence, lack of health and dental care, and food insecurity.

  7. Diane M says:

    There are some important questions about equality and Finnish schools.

    The most serious one is this:

    There are many differences between Finnish schools and other systems, so how do we know that equality is the one that makes their students do better. What if having a long recess makes children healthier and smarter? (There is some evidence that it might.) What if starting school when you are older is the key? Or not teaching to tests? Or maybe it’s the free lunches and counseling services. I tend to favor hiring really good teachers as the most important factor because there is research linking well-educated teachers with good test scores for children. In any case, there are quite a few differences that could be significant.

    The educational load is also a reasonable thing to bring up. They are really not diverse and that means that teachers aren’t going to be trying to deal with large numbers of kids who don’t speak Finnish. Presumably they are also not dealing with kids who live in dangerous neighborhoods or don’t have enough to eat. So copying them here might be difficult to do.

    The system as a whole is fairly small – they are dealing with something the size of a small US city or maybe even a large county. It might not be easy to copy on a national scale for a country as large as ours.

    I am not sure that the international tests they do well on are a fair measure of how well their schools serve all students. They have a high rate of doing well on the tests, but how are their top students doing? Could they do better in a different system? And NCLB makes a point of breaking out numbers for students in various categories including race, gender, poverty, special education, and English as a second language. Do the tests that compare the Finns to other countries do this? Because it’s possible that the average Finnish student is doing well, but some sub-groups aren’t.

    Having said all that, I think the fact that students who are not pushed to do well on standardized tests end up doing even better on international standardized tests is highly significant.

    I would love to see us throw out high stakes testing, mandate recess, and hire well-educated teachers. We have research supporting the value of highly educated teachers and exercise for learning. Research on high-stakes testing is more of a dilemma as part of the problem is that teaching to the test makes you do better on that test, it just doesn’t always make you smarter.

    It would probably also help if we could get economic integration in our schools. This is a much harder thing to imagine happening politically because people’s property values are so closely tied to the schools in their neighborhoods.

  8. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law and Anna Cook – About equity versus equality -

    The article uses the term “equity” but I think it could be debated whether or not that is what Finland is doing.

    Putting everybody in the same schoolroom makes them equal. It may not be equity in the sense of fairness. You can argue about which word to use, but I think there is a real question here – is putting people in classrooms based on their age only actually a fair thing to do?

    In America, we know that when we group by age, there are some students who are bored. They don’t learn in school (in this sense things are not equal). They don’t achieve as much as they do if they are grouped with other students like them and allowed to learn more/faster/at an advanced level.

  9. Mont D. Law says:

    (In America, we know that when we group by age, there are some students who are bored. They don’t learn in school (in this sense things are not equal). They don’t achieve as much as they do if they are grouped with other students like them and allowed to learn more/faster/at an advanced level.)

    In Finland, as far as I can tell, all children are accommodated in the classroom. Since 93% of them graduate and the literacy rate is 100% it seems to be working far better than the American system. I don’t see how you can get fairer than that.

  10. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – I see no evidence that Finland is accommodating all children in the classroom.

    “In Finland, as far as I can tell, all children are accommodated in the classroom.”

    All we know is that their students are doing better on an international test than other students. How many are at an advanced level? How do their advanced students compare to other students?

    The research is very clear that there are some students who really can’t be accommodated in the classroom. It’s not a huge group (probably less than 5%), but at a certain point, even the best of teachers can’t teach someone who knows more and is learning faster than everybody else.

    I suspect that Finland does relatively well by its advanced students because the teachers are smart, the classes are small, and their aren’t as many kids with big needs. They are probably better off than many advanced students in America who are being taught a lower level curriculum in a larger class with no differentiation or grouping, plenty of kids with problems – not to mention that the advanced kids themselves might be hungry or afraid.

    On the other hand, to really convince me that the Finnish are accommodating advanced students, I would like to know how the kids do on advanced tests. I would also like to know how they feel – are they bored? do they say they learn all the time? are they spending their days teaching the other kids? do they have bad work habits? do they feel social pressure to hide their light under a bushel?

  11. mythago says:

    The average American teacher out-earns the average American household

    What does this even mean? Which “average” are we talking about – the arithmetic mean or the median income? Are we supposed to take this as a sign that teachers are overpaid, and why are we ignoring that teachers also have ‘households’?

  12. Mont D. Law says:

    (All we know is that their students are doing better on an international test than other students.)

    Well that and 93% of them graduate and 100% of the country can read. In your country those numbers are 78.2% and 99% respectively.
    (How many are at an advanced level? How do their advanced students compare to other students?)

    Why would this be relevant when they specifically reformed the system to be non-competitive. The test scores are a happy accident. Why would you reject a system that successfully educated 93 % of the population because you feel it might be unfair to the 6% of the population defined as gifted?

    {Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.}

    (I see no evidence that Finland is accommodating all children in the classroom.)

    Except for the graduation rate, the literacy rate, the international test scores and the parental satisfaction, all of which are very high.

  13. Matthew Kaal says:

    Mont,

    You asked for some clarification about how the demographics of Finland play into all this.

    Well, firstly, Finland is considerably smaller than the US: 5.4 million people vs. +300 million people. That means that there is likely about 1 million Finns within the education system (k-PhD) (or, about the same amount as there are preK-12th graders in the New York City Public School System). In the US the total number is likely somewhere between 75-90 million people preK-PhD.

    The Finnish system is centralized into one unified system, while the U.S.’s education system is broken up across thousands of independent districts all funded by local municipalities and states, haphazardly supervised by state and federal bureaucracies. Its been pointed out that this leads to vastly different outcomes depending on the demographic and socioeconomic profile of the city where a child is attending school.

    The Finns have several demographic factors working for them. While immigration to Finland is growing, there is not an increase in the number of foreign nationals living there (about 3.6% in 2012 according to Finnish Immigration Services, which is comparably very low). This is an oft under-reported population when it comes to educational resources, and one that has special education needs (mostly language barriers to overcome) that effect statistical outcomes. Compare with states like Arizona, Texas, or California, where upwards of 15% of the people living there are foreign nationals. It should also be noted that Finland invests quite a bit into helping immigrant families settling there permanently to succeed, which may help newly arrived immigrant children to be better students. This is not necessarily the case in US schools (even good ones).

    All that to say, Finland and the US are very different places, and that plays into the outcomes they achieve. Add to that the cultural and political differences between the two, and it becomes clear that Finnish educational reforms are not all that likely or feasible in the US. We need to find solutions that work for us, and these might include more market driven solutions which recognize that, in our political climate, a Finnish style social-democratic model isn’t going to happen, and would not be as effective because of our size and the way our education system is structured.

  14. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – I would reject using the term “equity” to describe something that is good for the majority, but bad for a minority. Fairness is about rights, not a cost-benefit analysis.

    However, I think my comments show that I do not reject the Finnish model. I would love to see the US hiring highly educated, intelligent people to be teachers. One way to get to that in our system is high wages. Another is requiring degrees in the field you will teach.

    I would also love to get rid of the high stakes in our standardized testing, give kids more recess, and start school at a later age. Small class sizes, free lunches, counselors in the schools – that all sound great.

    What I would not like to do is to force kids to be grouped and educated based only on their age. There is no reason to think that this particular piece of the Finnish system is the one that gives them their good outcomes. There are good reasons to think that it might actually not be the reason and might have some bad side effects. (See my earlier comments on why it might not be.)

  15. Diane M says:

    Whoops – about equality – the Finnish system is a little complicated on this one. After 9th grade, you choose between pre-college high school and vocational high school.

    So it’s actually a mixed system – grouping by age followed by tracking.

    Unrelated but interesting things – the Finnish system has very little homework, even in high school. The students attend school for fewer days per years than other systems.

    @Matthew Kaal – The Finnish school system is actually about half the size of NYC’s, at least in terms of students.

    “Its school system has roughly the same number of teachers as New York City’s but far fewer students, 600,000 compared with New York’s 1.1 million.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/education/from-finland-an-intriguing-school-reform-model.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    What stands out to me about this, is that they have about twice as many teachers/student as NYC. That might help the children learn.

    @Mont D Law – I think it’s very hard to take something that works in a smaller system and assume it will work in a larger one. It’s also harder to administer a bigger system.

  16. Matthew Kaal says:

    Diane,

    You are right, the million I cited included Finnish university and graduate students, so the primary/secondary school population is actually considerably smaller than NYC’s.

    More teachers is almost always a good thing. I worked for a couple years in the education industry, and my experience was that schools with classrooms where there were teaching teams of two or three adults were more successful across the board (in instruction, specialized learning, projects, discipline). This was especially true for younger students (preK-5th grade).

  17. Diane M says:

    @Matthew Kaal – Yes, I would generally like more teachers, although decreasing class sizes doesn’t seem to help test scores in general. On the other hand, one theory is that this is because when you add teachers, you may replace a more experienced teacher with a less experienced one.

    If I had to choose, I would go for more qualified teachers over just more teachers, but both seem like a good thing to me.

    Changing focus again, this is an interesting link on the question of gifted education in Finland. Mostly adds complexity to the issue:

    http://giftedexchange.blogspot.com/2008/02/what-makes-finnish-kids-so-smart.html

  18. Matthew Kaal says:

    Diane,

    My experience, at the Mustard Seed School in Hoboken New Jersey, was that teaching teams had a professional development component built into their structure. The school was very intentional about finding teachers who complemented each others’ skills in each classroom. Experienced teachers were often paired with younger teachers in the classroom, and the entire school was structured around bringing different age groups together in collaboration, which meant that teachers worked in teams with their peers on several topics (like Art, and integrated art learning). This produced a really great environment of collegiality and professional development that has been unique, in my experience. I definitely agree with you that quantity is not a substitute for quality in the teaching profession. The goal, I think, should be both.

    Other schools I’ve worked at, in contrast, underpaid their teachers while expecting them to single-handedly manage classrooms of 25-30 students. The teachers were exhausted and had little time for professional development or collegiality.

    It is interesting to note that Mustard Seed was a private school funded mostly by donations and tuition fees (although about half the kids were on scholarship, as one of the school’s values was opportunity.) I don’t want to undersell private schools – they can be great incubators for education reform and innovation when they are run well.

  19. Diane M says:

    Well, this is getting interesting. Thanks Anna Cook for bringing it up. (Although soon I better stop and get some work done!)

    Anyhow, a link I’m not thrilled by that should be considered – before getting rid of standardized tests, the Finnish educational system did the opposite for a while.

    http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-weekly/2013/january-3/real-lessons-from-finland-1.html#real-lessons-from-finland.html

    And a link I do like. Finnish moms take a year of leave for each child. Very few mothers of children under 1 are working (less than 10%) and about half the mothers of a child between 1 and 2 are at home.

    Maybe one reason the Finns have so many children ready for school is that all the kids are getting moms at home with them for the first year.

    http://www.tulane.edu/~rouxbee/soci626/finland/familyleave.html

    http://www.stat.fi/til/tyti/2011/14/tyti_2011_14_2012-09-11_kat_003_en.html

    So how about a year of paid leave here? (The moms are paid about 70% of their salary.)