Every three years the PISA survey, conducted by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), compares the levels of reading, math, and science literacies of 15 year olds world-wide. Students in Finland are racking up the highest scores, beating out Hong Kong, Singapore, even Japan. The United States’ scores are in the middle and actually below the world’s average in math and science.
This result is surprising and intriguing because Finnish schools do not give standardized tests (actually only one taken at the end of high school), give much less homework, and emphasize a lot of creative play. The model that Finland has employed when they began to reform their schools in the 1970s is to make sure that all students receive equitable educations. They did not decide to focus on excellence, but rather on equity. And when their students rated so high in the PISA survey, they were shocked.
There are no private schools in Finland which means that parents cannot buy their children an education. (Actually there are a few but they are all publicly funded and cannot charge tuition). In fact, even Finnish universities are all public. In Finland every student is given the same opportunities to learn. Family income, family background, geography do not figure into the quality of a child’s education. The schools give every student free meals, access to health care, guidance, and counseling services.
Teachers in Finland create the assessments they deem appropriate for their own classrooms. In fact, teachers are paid very well in Finland. Teachers even have prestige culturally and are given a lot of responsibility commensurate with their professionalism. Apparently there is no word for accountability in Finnish. Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility said that in Finland, “Accountability is what is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” Instead of competition there is collaboration and cooperation between teachers and schools.
It should not be surprising, as Alfie Kohn reminds us, that in this country it is the noninstructional factors that demonstrate the disparity in test scores when comparing schools and districts. One is tempted to wonder what would happen here if the quality of all educational resources were equitable–including the quality of teachers and the quality of the physical school buildings themselves? What if pay for teachers was significantly higher? What if the pervasiveness of standardized tests was replaced with experiential learning, problem-solving, collaboration, group work? What if we could erase it all and start over again with equity as the goal?
Our fevered individuality and cut-throat competitiveness may actually be doing more harm than good. When the best opportunities are only offered to the few, the whole fabric remains torn.
The Finnish unwittingly have discovered a simple but profound truth: We all rise by lifting others (Robert Ingersoll). It’s not “No Child Left Behind” or even the “Race to the Top” anymore. Where we need to be going is in the direction of the Finnish Line.
(The information in this article is from the article, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success,” by Anu Partinen, published in The Atlantic.)