Friday, December 20, 2013


By Ronald Fox
On December 4th, American news outlets reported the results of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)-administered 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. Once again it showed American teens to be lagging in global education rankings. Our students scored below average in math and roughly average in reading and science compared with teens in the 65 nations that participated in the test. Among the 34 OECD countries, which include most western industrial countries, plus Japan and Korea, the U.S. ranked 26th in math, 21st in science (from 17th in 2009) and slipped to 17th in reading (from 14th in 2009). Already the finger-pointing has begun.

The PISA test is far different from the standardized tests students take in the U.S. Administered every three years to 15-year olds, the PISA test is designed to measure a student’s ability to think critically and solve problems in math, reading and science (it was initiated in 2001). PISA demands fluency in problem solving and the ability to communicate, skills that its framers believe are necessary for working, thinking and adapting to the world beyond school, a world choked with information and subject to rapid economic change. I find the PISA test a valuable instrument for cross-national comparisons of what teens know.

I don’t claim to know why our students test so poorly internationally, nor do I want to get into a debate on the subject; I’ll leave that to the finger-pointers, who will undoubtedly have their say in assigning blame for our latest educational black mark. What I want to do in this post is talk about what one high-scoring country does differently from the U.S. in educating their kids. This country is Finland. Up until a few decades ago, Finland was a largely illiterate farming and logging nation with failing schools. A concerted effort to turn its education system around, however, has resulted in a remarkable success story. Finland now regularly ranks near the top in PISA scores in math, science and reading. What changes did Finland make? How is that country’s education philosophy different from ours?

The information I present below on Finland’s school reform is drawn primarily from Amanda Ripley’s excellent book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. I have no corroborating evidence to validate Ripley's claims about the Finnish education system, though some may indeed exist, but it's hard to argue with the PISA results.  The logic underlying the changes they made seems sound to me.

In embarking on a restructuring of their public school system, Finnish officials proceeded on the assumption that to improve student knowledge school had to be taken more seriously by everyone involved: teachers, administrators, politicians, parents, and students. To accomplish this, they embarked on two major changes: creation of a pool of highly educated and trained teachers and the establishment of high academic standards.

The first step was to make teaching a serious, prestigious, and well-paid profession. They began by making teacher training programs more rigorous and selective. Only top graduates from public high schools (based on grades and scores on the difficult final high school exit exam) are able to gain admission to one of six teacher training universities. They take roughly 20% of applicants, similar to getting into to UC Berkeley.  Admittance is as prestigious in Finland as getting into a U.S. medical school.  To get credentialed, teachers must go through a six-year program with teacher training beginning in the fourth year. All teacher candidates are required to get a masters degree in the field they plan to teach. The program requires a year of in-class teaching in public schools under the direction of three mentors. This program produces a crop of highly educated, trained, and mentally prepared professionals.

With the best and brightest emerging from the teacher training universities, it was much easier to toughen academic standards. Teachers were relied on to help develop a demanding national core curriculum, which because of their rigorous academic training came natural to them. In-class exams were to be toughened (no multiple-choice/true-false), more written work required, and students would have to take a demanding final exam before graduating from high school. Courses were to be reduced in number, but covered in greater depth. Geometry, for example, includes some calculus and trigonometry. One persistent problem in the U.S. when attempts are made to stiffen standards, such as with Common Core, is that current teachers are often insufficiently educated or trained to teach to the higher standards. Replacing those who don’t measure up, an approach favored by education “reformers” such as Michelle Rhee, is not a viable solution because there is no guarantee replacements will be any better.  Such is not the case in Finland.

Respectful of the high quality of teacher program graduates, Finnish school administrators allow teachers autonomy to run their classes and choose their own textbooks. It is the results that matter. To ensure accountability, teachers are evaluated by their own students, parents (via a survey), and other teachers. Changes in standardized test scores are not used as part of the evaluation process. The purpose of the evaluation is to let teachers and schools know how they are doing and to provide useful feedback for improvement. Low scoring teachers are required to undergo further training.

In the Finnish school system, tough academic standards start at the beginning with teacher preparation and early, on-the-job encouragement, not later in a teacher’s career with intrusive schemes designed to reward the “best” (on the basis of test score growth) and weed out the worst teachers, a characteristic of the top-down, No-Child-Left-Behind, U.S. approach. Under the Finnish system, there is no need for intrusive teacher assessments. Standardized testing is used, but in contrast to the U.S. tests are given infrequently and target only samples of students to make sure schools are meeting standards.

Also in contrast to our system, low-performing schools in Finland are not hit with reduced funding, high pressure ultimatums, possible closure, or other sanctions. Instead, they are given more resources to improve student learning. Low-performing students, instead of facing tracking, suspension, or expulsion are provided extra help. Perhaps the greatest contrast is that Finland allocates public school resources on the basis of need, not wealth, as is the case in America where funding per student is tied to property taxes. And, available resources are focused on exclusively academic ends. Tight funding is not compromised further by expenditures and energy devoted to sports, fancy technology for the classroom, and standardized test preparation, none of which has proven in the U.S. to have any positive connection to student learning.

Teaching excellence and serious academic rigor has transformed Finland’s education culture. Teachers and students have a clear vision of what’s expected and what they should strive to achieve. Students who receive poor scores are motivated to work harder. Peer pressure inspires excellence rather than mediocrity, as is so often the case in the U.S. As Ripley says, “kids took school more seriously because everyone agreed it should be.” Improvement in student knowledge has been across the entire social spectrum, making Finland stand out among other countries where poverty, social background, poor neighborhoods and disengaged parents are often given as reasons for poor student performance, and, for that matter, why the curriculum is “dumbed down.” While the poverty narrative no doubt has merit, it doesn’t seem to apply to Finland.

I'd like to think American educators will take a serious look at the Finnish model, but this is not likely to happen.   I'll touch on reasons why in a later posting.

1 comment:

  1. When Peter Schrag’s California was released, I attended a talk and book signing at the UC Center in Sacramento. I was 25 years old, relatively fresh out of graduate school, and already beginning to exhibit the first signs of apathy I’d always associated with “real grownups.” That day (and for many days both before and since), my mind spun ‘round and ‘round about how to effectively educate California’s diverse student population. Looking at many of the inputs that are proven predictors of student achievement—socioeconomic status, English proficiency, parent education, race—a Calexico and a Palo Alto are about as different as different can be. When students aren’t starting on even ground, how can we expect them to reach the same heights?

    Years later, I read quite a bit on the [then well-established] principle of Learner-Centered Instruction. Each student comes to school with his or her own perspective, traits, abilities, and needs. It seemed so obvious—if educational attainment hinges on the teacher’s ability to engage the student, then personalized learning has to be a prerequisite.

    As a Californian, I am thankful that our new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) codifies the direction of additional resources to traditionally underserved populations. I wholeheartedly agree that we can’t continue to ignore the fact that some students need more public resources than others. As the LCFF implementing regulations, templates, and procedures unfold, our state holds a collective breath, waiting to see how “successful” the combination of local control and local accountability will be.


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