Ellen Gamerman has a fascinating article in the WSJ about education in Finland. Having lived in Norway which shares a common border with Finland, having visited Finland, and having a brother that spent time living in Finland and that can speak Finnish, I was interested.

Finnish 15-year-olds ranked the best in the world on recent standardized tests focused on science, math, and reading. Yet:
  • Finland spends less per student than does Utah, which perpetually ranks 51st among U.S. states in per-pupil spending.
  • Finnish children don’t start school until age seven.
  • Class time is less structured than in most U.S. schools.
  • Finnish students have little homework.
  • Their schools offer few extracurricular activities such as sports and social dances.
  • There are no programs for the gifted or recognition of high performers.
  • Finnish teachers are paid about the same as their American counterparts, although, the country has a higher cost of living.
There are some inconvenient thoughts there for those that perpetually clamor for increased time in school, more money for education, and more top-down educational mandates.

While Gamerman explains that the last three years of high school are split into academic and vocational disciplines, she skips the fact that compulsory attendance stops just prior to those years. This fact perhaps helps explain Finland’s lower high school dropout rate (4% for academic and 10% for vocational schools) when compared to the U.S. rate that is “roughly 25%.”

But that doesn’t explain why students that have yet to enter their final three years of high school outperform their peers around the globe. According to Gamerman, the elements that contribute to this superior performance include:
  • Good basic teaching sans a lot of the fluff and frills to which we have grown accustomed.
  • A great deal of teacher autonomy, including selection of textbooks and development of curriculum designed with the goal of getting students to reach national standards.
  • A high degree of student responsibility. Gamerman suggests that this is rooted in cultural norms.
  • A high level of cultural, social, and economic homogeneity.
  • A culturally based (or maybe need based) love of reading.
My three younger children have been attending a charter school that provides more teacher autonomy and has a less rigid structure but with clearly defined goals. We have seen some successes with this. It’s a very customized approach. I thought of this when I read one official’s comment that “In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs.”

The standard U.S. model of recent years has been to trust teachers less and less and to mandate more and more from centralized bureaucracies. It would appear that the U.S. trajectory is going in the wrong direction.

The author credits Finland’s entirely free college education system with allowing “Finnish children to enjoy a less-pressured childhood,” since they don’t have to worry about getting into college or paying for it. OK, but that’s kind of a weird comment to put into an article about educational excellence. Somehow, lack of pressure to perform well is supposed to improve performance? I’m not seeing the connection. Nowhere does Gamerman explain how free college affects degree attainment rates or how it affects the value of a degree.

Gamerman mentions a 15-year-old that she suggests is gifted. When the girl is ahead of her peers in the classroom, “she sometimes doodles in her journal while waiting for others to catch up.” I wonder what the gifted yet active bodied boys do. I have at least two sons that often can’t seem to consistently sit around and quietly doodle in such situations. Although at least one of them is a spectacular doodler, these boys often get up, move around, chatter, and generally bother others. I’d like to see how Finnish teachers handle such cases.

While the Finnish teaching model is probably a great benefit (we know, for example, from research that if a child in American schools can get high quality teachers three years in a row before junior high school, they can exceed all of the other bad teaching put together), I wonder how much of the Finnish excellence is based in cultural factors that are not easily reproduced elsewhere.

By definition (per founding documents), the United States is a pluralistic society. Despite what others claim, the U.S. is the most culturally diverse nation on earth. We’re simply never going to have the kind of homogeneity they have in Finland. Nor do we generally believe such to be a virtue.

Parents can do a lot to increase their children’s responsibility level and to promote reading. But achieving some kind of wholesale cultural change in this direction would be a tall order and would probably include unacceptable levels of coercion.

Studying the Finnish model of education is a worthwhile pursuit. But we would do well to be careful to pull out those worthy elements that can feasibly be emulated and then try them out in pilot programs where they can be refined and improved. We can’t become Finland, nor should we try. But there are things we can learn from Finland that would improve American education without increasing its cost or expanding the power of the educrats.

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