What makes Finland’s education system so good?

A couple of things that I can think of:

  1. They want it to be good, so they stress education as a profession.
  2. Their system is based on trust.

The trust is earned because the system works — Finland ranks at or near the top in all categories of the OECD’s PISA survey and has on every PISA since 2000. And yet,

  • There is no competition from private schools because there are no private schools
  • There is national testing, but it is more of a sampling, minimal by American standards; there are virtually no standardized tests
  • There is no great overall goal of “excellence.” Rather the guiding principle is equality of opportunity for all Finnish students.

As a recent article on Atlantic.com puts it: The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

In the food-for-thought department, here are a couple of great quotes:

Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.

Real winners do not compete.

I suggest you read this article not as a guide for educational reform in the US (or wherever you live, outside Finland) but as a good example of how locked orientation can drive actions long after the results of those actions should have been obvious. The assumptions underlying American education are so ingrained that we can hardly imagine alternatives. I’ll suggest three of them:

  • Numbers tell the tale — if you want to improve it, measure it; if you want to improve it more, measure it more
  • Education is a drag on the economy; it’s a low-status occupation whose cost should be minimized
  • Those who can afford better education for their kids can escape the system by going out and buying it

[Note: the next three paragraphs are a significant revision to the original post] Somehow, in this country, we need to break out of this mindset, and similar ones in health care and perhaps even in defense. You might compare these assumptions with the two points — status of the teaching profession and trust in the educational system — listed at the beginning of the post. Maybe that’s where to start, even in an incremental fashion. Maybe even in a single state (Finland is about the same size as many US states).

As one of the top officials in Finland’s educational establishment put it in an interview with the Washington Post last year:

In Finland, there is a strong sense of trust in schools and teachers to carry out these responsibilities. There is no external inspection of schools or standardized testing of all pupils in Finland. For our national analysis of educational performance, we rely on testing only a small sample of students. The United States really cannot leave curriculum design and student assessment in the hands of schools and teachers unless there is similar public confidence in schools and teachers. To get there, a more coherent national system of teacher education is one major step.

I don’t know, though. So long as we value investment bankers and corporate CEOs at hundreds or thousands of times what we value even seasoned teachers, we’re going to get the system we deserve.

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