Finland Finland Finland, the country where I quite want to teach

As it turns out, Monty Python was right:  Finland isn’t just a great place for snack lunch in the hall…

It really does have it all:  social democracy, smoked fish, and a public school system that American reformers are beginning to notice.  Too bad they are noticing the wrong thing.

As many of you know, Finland is all the rage in education reform circles these days, particularly among those who don’t think that teacher unions and school governance are the primary problems facing American public schools.  Finnish school children have done very well on international tests in recent years (far better than the middling U.S.), prompting a wave of visits to Scandinavia by American politicians and educators, and speaking tours by Finns here.

Most of the discussion has revolved around their model for the professionalization of teachers — kind of like Denver’s experiment on steroids — and on their lack of emphasis on standardized high-stakes testing and rote learning.  All teachers in Finland must earn masters’ degrees from competitive graduate programs, are paid like professionals, and given responsibilities for curriculum and assessment that vastly exceed those of American teachers in the post-NCLB era.

The curriculum, meanwhile, de-emphasizes competition and tracking, and tends to be much more focused on creative play and vocational preparation than one generally finds in American schools (particularly urban ones).  According to a recent article by Samuel Abrams in The New Republic, Finnish schools provide students with far more recess than their American counterparts — 75 minutes a day at the elementary level, compared to an average of 27 minutes in the U.S.  They also mandate lots of arts and crafts, and more learning by doing.

American school reformers seem to see what they want to see in the Finnish success story.  Liberals (if I can use that word in this context) point to their investment in early childhood education and parental leave policies, as well as the teacher autonomy discussed above.  Conservatives point to the ability of Finnish schools to get high achievement out of students despite large class sizes, and regardless of background.  If they can do it, they argue, why can’t our teachers?  Of course, the ‘blame-the-teachers’ mantra is somewhat undermined by the fact that Finnish teachers are unionized at even higher levels than American teachers are, and also have tenure.

It is also undermined by the fact that levels of inequality and child poverty in the U.S. vastly exceed Finland’s — a critical point.

Anu Partanan, a Finnish journalist, published a thoughtful short piece in the Atlantic Monthly in late December 2011 on K-12 education in her country.  The takeaway:  most American observers have really missed (ignored) what’s at the core of Finnish school reform — equity.

Dissatisfied with the quality of Finnish public education at the end of the 1960s, in 1971 a government commission concluded that economic modernization could only take place if schools were improved.  According to Abrams, Finland committed to reducing class size, boosting teacher pay, and requiring much more rigorous training for teachers.

While the US has focused primarily on ‘excellence’ since 1980 (based in part on the mistaken assumption that we had veered too far in the direction of equity since the mid-50s), Finland launched a concentrated effort to use public education to counteract inequality.  It did this, based on the belief that equity would lead to excellence, and enable resource-poor Finland to compete in an increasingly globalized and post-industrial economy.  This effort was supported by relevant social policies too.

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?told Partanan that the “main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”  At its core, Sahlberg says, this means that “schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.”

While Partanan may not be an experienced observer of American politics and society, she is almost certainly correct that the way that American ‘reformers’ are viewing Finland’s success — ignoring the equity goals that are at the heart of it — demonstrates a kind of willful blindness to what is fundamentally wrong with the opportunity structure in the US, and how it undermines both the quality and distribution of public education.

The money quote:

“It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

 The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.”

It is unfortunate that so many of the moderates and liberals who formerly served as voices for equality of opportunity in public schools in the U.S. have fairly tripped over themselves — and others — to leap onto the bandwagon of ‘reform’ as its presently understood.

Originally posted on Chants Democratic blog.

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Mark Santow is Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, where he teaches classes on U.S. political history, cities, race relations, social policy, and foreign policy. He also serves as Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities in New Bedford MA, which offers humanities classes to low-income adults for college credit. The co-author of Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze (2005) and a forthcoming volume on Saul Alinsky and racial segregation, Santow is presently writing a book on home ownership. He blogs at http://chantsdemocratic.blogspot.com/.

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