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Why do the Education Reformers Ignore Finland's Best Practices?

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Discussions about education reform almost always include a mention of Finnish students' top performance on international tests, results which make it clear that Finland is implementing the very "best practices." It makes one wonder why the dominant education reformers are ignoring these best practices, and why they are so intent on steering U.S. public education reform in another direction.

The Finnish approach is described by Pasi Sahlberg in detail in his 2009 paper "A short history of educational reform in Finland."

Sahlberg is a prominent educator, researcher and school improvement activist. He has held positions at Finland's Ministry of Education, World Bank, OECD, the European Union and is currently the Director General for the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) as well as a professor at the University of Helsinki.

Here's Sahlberg's comparison of Finland's education policies to those he calls the "global education reform movement" (embraced by U.S. reformers), as outlined in his September 2010 PowerPoint presentation "Lessons from Finland: The evolution of the Finnish school system and its lessons for other nations" (slide 37):

Education policies in Finland:
  • Broad and creative learning
  • Customizing
  • Professional responsibilities
  • Slow learning
  • Owning a dream (Building a shared inspirational vision of what good education system school and teaching look like. Appointing education professionals to leadership positions.)
Global education reform movement
  • Teaching core subjects
  • Standardization
  • Test-based accountability
  • Renting reform ideas (Adopting educational reform ideas from corporate world and scientific management. Hiring private sector experts as leaders.)

Other things to note about Finland are the following (excerpts from Sahlberg's 2009 paper):

Compulsory education in Finland lasts nine years. Unlike in most other countries, Finnish children start formal education at the age of 7. (p. 11)

Many primary schools therefore have become learning and caring communities rather than merely instructional institutions that prepare pupils for the next level of schooling... all students receive a free, two-course warm meal daily, free health care, transportation, learning materials, and counselling [sic] in their own schools... Finnish education policy has never compromised the principle of extended childhood at the expense of increasing time devoted to formal education. (p. 24)

In Finnish society, the teaching profession has always enjoyed great public respect and appreciation... Classroom teaching is considered an independent, high status profession that attracts some of the best secondary school graduates... In international comparisons, Finnish teacher education programs are distinguished by their depth and scope. (pp. 24-25)

Finland has not followed the global accountability movement in education that assumes that making schools and teachers more accountable for their performance is the key to raising student achievement... The only standardized, high-stakes assessment is the Matriculation Examination at the end of general upper secondary school, before students enter tertiary education... Primary school, particularly, is, to a large extent, a 'testing-free zone' reserved for learning to know, to do, and to sustain natural curiosity. Teachers also experience more genuine freedom in curriculum planning; they do not need to focus on annual tests or exams. (p. 26)

It is necessary to realize that the Finnish education system was highly centralized before the great reforms in the 1970s were introduced and implemented nationwide and remained centrally controlled until 1985. Schools were previously strictly regulated by the central agencies; a dense network of rules and orders regulated the daily work of teachers. The gradual shift toward trusting schools and teachers began in the 1980s, when major phases of the initial reform agenda were completely implemented and consolidated within the education system. In the early 1990s, the era of a trust-based school culture formally started in Finland. (p. 27)

Even if we adopted Finland's approach, the United States has a problem that will probably prevent us from achieving similar success: our tolerance for a high child poverty rate. Finland's child poverty rate is one of the lowest of all OECD countries at 4.3 percent; the United States rate is 22.4 percent, and it is certain that child poverty rates in U.S. public schools are substantially higher because many affluent families do not use the public school system. Would Finland's academic success be the same if its child poverty rate was sextupled?

And if unions are the primary cause of student failure, as many members of the ed reform crowd claim, what explains Finland's academic success while having a fully-unionized teacher workforce? Finland's trade union membership is 76 percent of its employed population, ranking it at number two of the OECD countries (tied with Denmark). The United States is near the bottom of the ranking (number 17), at 13 percent and dropping. Could the reason that Finnish students produce higher test scores partly be due to the fact that they are children of a union-protected population?

Best practices should be emulated, but this is not happening in the current U.S. public education reform scheme of things. It makes one wonder why today's dominant reformers are so flagrantly disregarding approaches which have now been time-tested and proven to work. The only possible explanation for such intentional neglect is that the free-market, business-model-admiring reformers are not as much interested in truly improving public education for America's children as they say. They do seem to be quite interested, however, in transforming our nearly 200-year-old public school system to one which is exclusively controlled from the top-down and is privatized.