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Lessons From Finland and Asia About Real Education Reform

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There has been much publicity in recent years about how Finnish students have excelled in the international comparisons called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), given each three years to samples of 15-year-olds. In a recent issue of the New Republic, Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, explains what Finland did to turn around its education system:

"Finland's schools weren't always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master's program.

The Finns also banned all standardized testing, and now give standardized exams only to statistical samples of students to diagnose and assess school progress. According to Abrams, the "only point at which all Finnish students take standardized exams is as high school seniors if they wish to go to university." The Finns "trust teachers" and allow them to "design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide."

According to Abrams, average class size in Finland first and second grades is 19; in grades three through nine, it is 21. All science classes are capped at 16. Smaller classes were won by Finland's teachers union in return for agreeing to the elimination of tracking, as it would be too difficult for teachers to lead heterogeneous groups if classes remained large.

He concludes:

The Finns have made clear that, in any country, no matter its size or composition, there is much wisdom to minimizing testing and instead investing in broader curricula, smaller classes, and better training, pay, and treatment of teachers. The United States should take heed.

Also, see this recent interview with Pasi Sahlberg, another expert on the Finnish educational system, who was asked about the current push towards test-based teacher evaluation systems in our country:

"If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn't return until this crazy idea went away. Finns don't believe you can reliably measure the essence of learning. You know, one big difference in thinking about education and the whole discourse is that in the U.S. it's based on a belief in competition. In my country, we are in education because we believe in cooperation and sharing. Cooperation is a core starting point for growth."

And yet what lesson have the Obama administration and its allies taken from the PISA results? That there needs to be even more high-stakes testing, based on uniform core standards, that teachers should be evaluated and laid off primarily on the basis of their students' test scores, and that it's fine if class sizes are increased.

In a speech, Duncan recently said that "Many high-performing education systems, especially in Asia," Duncan says, "have substantially larger classes than the United States."

What he did not mention is that Finland based its success largely upon smaller class sizes; nor that experts in Asian education recognize the heavy costs of their test-based accountability system. Increasingly, these experts warn against emulating their system, which has undermined the ability of their students to develop as creative and innovate thinkers -- which their future economic growth and ours will depend upon.

As Jiang Xueqin, the director of the International Division of Peking University High School, wrote in the Wall St. Journal:

According to research on education, using tests to structure schooling is a mistake. Students lose their innate inquisitiveness and imagination, and become insecure and amoral in the pursuit of high scores. ...This is seen as a deep crisis... A consensus is growing that instead of vaulting the country past the West, China's schools are holding it back.

Nor do Duncan and his allies discuss the fact that many Asian education experts are calling for the need to reduce class size in their own countries. For example, a study from the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation revealed that South Korean students are highly disengaged from their classes compared to those in other nations.

The answer, according to the authors of the study? "To ...raise their interest in class, much improvement needs to be made including reducing the number of students per class."

It's time that parents, teachers and community activists fought for a more research-based and progressive vision of education reform, based on small classes, experienced teachers, a well-rounded curriculum, and evaluation systems that go beyond test scores. Check out what Parents Across America believe will improve our children's schools, and join us.