How the Finnish school system outshines U.S. education

The Finnish school system might sound like a restless American schoolchild’s daydream: school hours cut in half, little homework, no standardized tests, 50-minute recess and free lunch.

But the Finns’ unconventional approach to education has vaulted Finland to the upper echelon of countries in overall academic performance, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Finnish students have ranked at or near the top of the Program for International Student Assessment ever since testing started in 2000. In the most recent assessment in 2009, they ranked sixth in math, second in science and third in reading. By comparison, U.S. students ranked 30th, 23rd and 17th, respectively, of the 65 tested countries/economies.

But Finland’s system hasn’t always been successful.

“Finland had been traditionally thought of as the lowest achieving country in Scandinavia, and one of the lower achieving ones in Europe for a very long time. It was not a highly developed education system,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the co-director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, in a lecture delivered Tuesday afternoon about the Finnish educational success story. She introduced the main speaker, Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education expert and the director of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture.

From worst to first

“We came from behind from everybody else,” Sahlberg said. “At some point in the last 40 years we’ve been able to pass the others.”

In the last decades, U.S. and Finnish education policies have appeared to be moving in opposite directions. While U.S. public schools moved to standardized testing, Finnish schools eschewed nationwide tests to evaluate teachers, students or schools, instead relying on sample-based testing and school principals to identify potential problems, Sahlberg said.

While U.S. public schools are locally funded, usually from property taxes, and rewarded based on high performance through programs such as the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grants, Finnish schools are nationally funded based on the number of students. Schools are provided additional funding if they have a higher proportion of immigrants or students whose parents are uneducated or unemployed, he said.

Darling-Hammond, who wrote about the Finnish educational system in her book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, also contrasted America’s test-based teaching to Finland’s more flexible system.

“The [Finnish] curricula are very much focused on critical thinking and problem solving, project-based learning, and learning to learn,” she said. “There is a lot of collaboration in the classroom.”

In his lecture, Sahlberg discussed three key areas: equality in education, time management and perception of teachers as professionals, topics also covered in his recent book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

Lower cost, better results

“We are spending less money than average for developed countries, much less than the United States. We spend less time, but the learning achievements are high,” Sahlberg said. “You put more money and more time there, but the outcome, the achievements are less.

“When we compare teachers to other professions in society, we compare them to lawyers or doctors or architects,” he said. “Not as here [in the United States], where they are compared to nurses or therapists, or something like that, that require lower academic training.”

Teachers in Finland are required to obtain a three-year master’s degree, state-funded, before teaching. These education positions are highly coveted, Sahlberg said. For example, only one in 10 primary-school teacher applicants are accepted.

“It’s harder to get into primary school education than a medical program,” he said.

But Sahlberg identified the biggest obstacle in the U.S. system as the same policy intended to revolutionize education. “If I could change one thing in policy, I would seriously rethink the role of standardized testing,” he said in an interview with the Stanford News Service. “No high-performing nation in the world has been successful using the policies that the United States is using.”

Sahlberg said that he doesn’t think standardized testing is inherently bad, but “the way it’s done here is simply leading to so many negative consequences, in the form of narrowing curricula and reshaping the way teachers and schools are working.”

Sahlberg is quick to point out that solutions won’t be as easy as transplanting Finland’s policies across the Atlantic.

“I’m not trying to convince people that if they follow what Finland is doing, things will be good. All the education issues and reforms are done specifically to the culture and should be done locally,” he said. “I’m very much aware that America is very different culturally. I’m trying to tell what we’ve been doing and use Finland as real-world evidence.”

Ironically, inspiration for many of Finland’s changes came from research in the United States, which contributes 80 percent of the world’s education research, by Sahlberg’s estimation. “We’ve built this excellent, high-performing, equitable system that everyone is praising today, based on American innovations,” he said.

1 COMMENT

  1. University of Helsinki – Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347 Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen

    Signs of declining results 15 y

    The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably.The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average.

    ‘Since 1996, educational effectiveness has been understood in Finland to include not only subject specific knowledge and skills but also the more general competences which are not the exclusive domain of any single subject but develop through good teaching along a student’s educational career. Many of these, including the object of the present assessment, learning to learn, have been named in the education policy documents of the European Union as key competences which each member state should provide their citizens as part of general education (EU 2006).

    In spring 2012, the Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment implemented a nationally representative assessment of ninth grade students’ learning to learn competence. The assessment was inspired by signs of declining results in the past few years’ assessments. This decline had been observed both in the subject specific assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education, in the OECD PISA 2009 study, and in the learning to learn assessment implemented by the Centre for Educational Assessment in all comprehensive schools in Vantaa in 2010.

    The results of the Vantaa study could be compared against the results of a similar assessment implemented in 2004. As the decline in students’ cognitive competence and in their learning related attitudes was especially strong in the two Vantaa studies, with only 6 years apart, a decision was made to direct the national assessment of spring 2012 to the same schools which had participated in a respective study in 2001.

    Girls performed better

    The goal of the assessment was to find out whether the decline in results, observed in the Helsinki region, were the same for the whole country. The assessment also offered a possibility to look at the readiness of schools to implement a computer-based assessment, and how this has changed during the 11 years between the two assessments. After all, the 2001 assessment was the first in Finland where large scale student assessment data was collected in schools using the Internet.
    The main focus of the assessment was on students’ competence and their learning-related attitudes at the end of the comprehensive school education, but the assessment also relates to educational equity: to regional, between-school, and between- class differences and to the relation of students’ gender and home background to their competence and attitudes.
    The assessment reached about 7800 ninth grade students in 82 schools in 65 municipalities. Of the students, 49% were girls and 51% boys. The share of students in Swedish speaking schools was 3.4%. As in 2001, the assessment was implemented in about half of the schools using a printed test booklet and in the other half via the Internet. The results of the 2001 and 2012 assessments were uniformed through IRT modelling to secure the comparability of the results. Hence, the results can be interpreted to represent the full Finnish ninth grade population.

    Girls performed better than boys in all three fields of competence measured in the assessment: reasoning, mathematical thinking, and reading comprehension. The difference was especially noticeable in reading comprehension even if in this task girls’ attainment had declined more than boys’ attainment. Differences between the AVI-districts were small.

    Decline of attainment

    The impact of students’ home-background was, instead, obvious: the higher the education of the parents, the better the student performed in the assessment tasks. There was no difference in the impact of mother’s education on boys’ and girls’ attainment. The between-school-differences were very small (explaining under 2% of the variance) while the between-class differences were relatively large (9 % – 20 %). The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001. The mean level of attitudes detrimental to learning has risen but the rise is more modest.

    Girls’ attainment has declined more than boys’ in three of the five tasks. There was no gender difference in the change of students’ attitudes, however. Between-school differences were un-changed but differences between classes and between individual students had grown. The change in attitudes—unlike the change in attainment—was related to students’ home background: The decline in learning-supporting attitudes and the growth in attitudes detrimental to school work were weaker the better educated the mother. Home background was not related to the change in students’ attainment, however. A decline could be discerned both among the best and the weakest students.
    Deeper cultural change

    The results of the assessment point to a deeper, on-going cultural change which seems to affect the young generation especially hard. Formal education seems to be losing its former power and the accepting of the societal expectations which the school represents seems to be related more strongly than before to students’ home background.

    The school has to compete with students’ self-elected pastime activities, the social media, and the boundless world of information and entertainment open to all through the Internet. The school is to a growing number of young people just one, often critically reviewed, developmental environment among many. The change is not a surprise, however. A similar decline in student attainment has been registered in the other Nordic countries already earlier.
    It is time to concede that the signals of change have been discernible already for a while and to open up a national discussion regarding the state and future of the Finnish comprehensive school that rose to international acclaim due to our students’ success in the PISA studies.’

    Source: University of Helsinki – Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347 Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen

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