What Education Reform is Not
It seems that Finland is big in the news of late as that small country continues to take center stage in the world of education reform. As this recent article in the New York Times points up, the “Finnish model” has been all the rage at education conferences and in the press.While there are lessons to be learned from Finland, lessons we’ve been touting here at LearningDiversity.org right along, the doctrine of the Finnish model is distracting and not applicable in a general way. Finland, with a homogeneous population of roughly 5.5 million and a low poverty rate, doesn’t bear much resemblance to the United States. For those seeking a successful national education program to emulate, our neighbor to the north might provide a more applicable model. Canada closely followed Finland in the rankings from the latest OECD-PISA results. With the obvious regional proximity and cultural and economic ties, it’s surprising that our education conferences haven’t been more crowded with Canadian specialists.
So what lessons can we learn from Finland? In Finland the teaching profession is prestigious. Teachers are required to have masters degrees, and the available slots in university teaching programs are highly sought after. There is little testing or homework before the teenage years, rather children are prepared for future learning and allowed to develop a passion for education.
So what’s the real problem with education in America? We’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the problem is clearly poverty. The problem is that poverty seems to be a bit more of an intractable problem and policy-makers seem loathe to highlight it. Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske make this point again in the recent New York Times article entitled Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit it?, as have we in The Correlation between Poverty and Low Achievement, and Diane Ravitch: the Problem is Poverty not Bad Teachers. But from an international perspective, since we are talking about Finland, perhaps most striking is this analysis from the National Association of Secondary School Principles. This analysis first points up the clear correlation between low poverty levels and high performance on the PISA assessment. Finland, for instance, with a poverty rate of 3.4% had a PISA score of 536. The U.S. scored 500 with a whopping poverty rate of 21.7 %. When poverty was controlled for the picture changed drastically. U.S. schools with poverty rates of less than 10% blew past Finland with an average PISA score of 551.
So maybe we shouldn’t be overly focused on how to apply any nation’s education model to our own rather than focusing on the real problem of poverty. I do think though that we can take a valuable lesson from Finland in what education reform does not need to be. I’ll leave you with some thoughts from Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahklberg when asked about what other countries can learn from the Finnish success:
“The main lesson from Finland is that there is another way to transform current education systems than that based on standardization, testing, accountability and competition. Finland also shows that we don’t need to rely on corporate school reform models to achieve our goals. Finnish lesson is that good policies and overall well-being of people, including poverty reduction, are the corner stones of sustainable educational success.”