What liberals missed in Finland’s educational success

Most readers of Smithsonian magazine’s profile of successful Finnish schools glommed on to this as the explanation for Finland’s achievement and our demise:

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

Of course. Missed the human aspect. No fantastic teacher would stand for marketplace reforms. Yada, yada, yada. What liberal readers missed a few paragraphs ahead was this:
“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education.
Only the cream of the crop in Finland are allowed to teach. How egalitarian, no?  What a stark contrast to our own teachers of tomorrow, who show the smallest gains in learning, critical thinking or complex reasoning. Teachers’ unions exist to protect the weak and incompetent. That problem doesn’t exist in Finland.
More unexpected wisdom:
In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots, according to Sahlberg. By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils.
Two more “conservative” ideas on how to reform the education system, eh, competition and local control. The Finns even abolished the “inspectorate.” Wouldn’t we love to see that happen to the Department of Education? A fine idea, indeed.


10 Responses

  1. Yeah, the education system here is basically opposite of Finland’s high standards for teachers. Instead, our system attracts and protects the lazier and dumber among us. No, really: “Low grading standards in university education departments are part of a larger culture of low standards for educators.”


    • I learned the hard way in the one and only undergrad education course I took. Can you say “pariah”? lol. I’m surprised I passed. How dare anyone insinuate teachers should be held to standards or fired? Union all the way, baby.

  2. You made some very very good points, however, I’m not sure how useful international comparisons are. Consider:
    “The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world.”
    In the Soviet Union grade school started at 7 and ended 10 years later. But unsuccessful students (either not capable or not willing) were asked to leave after 8 years. It’s a common practice around the world, actually. So is said test picking up the scores of all Finnish students?
    Considering that educational standards are deteriorating around the developed world — I heard even German education is giving in — it could be that other countries are falling behind.

    • I’m intrigued by the idea that the unsuccessful students are asked to leave before they can possibly screw up the data sets. I will say that the attitude of the Finnish educators is not one found here: the vast majority of teachers here don’t have the expertise or the drive to keep trying something different until it works. My old principal was HUGE on that–if the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught–and … it doesn’t happen that way in the vast majority of public schools.

      • It’s a good point. I’m not enthused about our public primary school… I’m going to blog about it at some point…
        I’m not saying that the Finns and others are not allowing kids to continue on with their education to game the scores. This is something that’s typically done in Europe, and it’s not necessarily a bad idea. A kid who goes through high school halfway can still go to a technical school, and from there to a university. The truth is, some students, especially men will not be ready to finish their education until maybe 10 years after.

  3. I don’t have time to read it right now, but does it say how they get paid? That must be part of the equation. 6600 applications for 660 positions?

    • It’s a government position and equated with doctor or lawyer. Didn’t give the pay info specifically, though veteran teachers made more.

      • I have a cousin who is a teacher. They get paid pretty well and have a very good pension when they retire (although that is not unusual in Scandanvian countries anyway). Teachers are looked at as being a valuable commodity and hold a place of high esteem in the community.

        We don’t value teachers or education in the way they do there. Which is a very sad commentary on our country and our future.

  4. What is so funny is that many teachers from Finland come here for part of their education. I am Finnish and Swedish and have family in both countries. People come here for summer programs and sometimes a full semester on a pretty regular basis.

    But you are correct, it is not easy to become a teacher in Finland. You are very well educated before you step into the classroom and if you don’t make the grade there are plenty of others that are willing to take your place.

    Another big difference is that education is looked at totally differently, dropping out is shameful and is only done in extreme circumstances. We should be so lucky that we view education the same way in this country.

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