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Administrator Magazine: Curriculum
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Finland is #1!

Finland's education success has the rest of the world looking north for answers.

By Wayne D'Orio
Where are the education secrets?<br />
Where are the education secrets?

In this moment of time before the day-to-day rush of students, classes, and problems comes roaring back, every administrator finds him- or herself wondering occasionally about the big picture.

Is there a better way to educate our students? Would tweaking the K–12 system we have now encourage improvement and meet children’s 21st-century needs? The biggest what-if, looking-out-the-window question remains: How would you construct an educational system if you could start from scratch?

It turns out that not only does everyone ponder these timeless queries, but more and more groups of educators have been making a pilgrimage to northern Europe to see if the answers lie in a small country of just 5.3 million people: Finland.

For a country that famously avoids competitive, high-stakes tests, Finland has been garnering a lot of acclaim for its students’ scores on the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment test. Finland’s 15-year-olds topped the science tests given two years ago, besting students from 56 other countries, from Argentina to Uruguay. Combined with its high scores on the most recent reading and math tests, this gives Finland teens the top ranking in the world.

 


Secrets to Success
With visions of imitating Finland’s success back home, educators from 50 countries around the globe have visited the Nordic country over the past few years, including numerous groups from the United States.

What they found was somewhat surprising. Although there are certainly pieces of the Finnish educational system that can be copied over here, the three biggest reasons for the country’s success are probably the hardest to replicate.

First of all, “there is a near absence of poverty,” says Julie Walker, a board member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Walker visited Finland, along with Sweden and Denmark, with a delegation from the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) in late 2007. “They have socialized medicine and much more educational funding,” she adds. For residents, school lunches are free, preschool is free, college is free. “Children come to school ready to learn. They come to school healthy. That’s not a problem the United States has solved yet.”

The second reason is all students’ fluency with languages. Most students know three languages: Finnish, Swedish, and English.

“They are way ahead of the game on the language side,” says the National School Boards Association’s Ann Flynn, who made the trip with CoSN. “Nearly every student can communicate in English as well as in their native tongue.

”Although Finnish children don’t start formal schooling until the age of 7, by the end of their first year, they all know how to read and write, says Bryan Luizzi, principal of Brookfield High School in Connecticut. Luizzi visited the country this year with a Connecticut contingent from Education Connection.

The third reason is the degree of respect and trust teachers are given in Finland. Walker compared it to the status that doctors enjoy in the United States.

Flynn agreed, adding, “I was left with the most amazing sense of respect for the teaching profession. It’s how they were viewed in this country 75 years ago.”

One of the reasons for that reverence is how hard it is to become a teacher in Finland. Only one of eight applicants to teacher education programs is accepted; each teacher has a master’s degree. “The best and the brightest want to become teachers in Finland,” says Keith Krueger, CoSN’s CEO. “In our higher education system, the bottom third of the students are becoming teachers.”

A member of the National Education Association on the CoSN trip inquired about the teacher salaries, no doubt expecting that Finnish counterparts would be better paid. But it wasn’t the case. Salaries are roughly comparable, and in total Finland spends about $1,200 less per student than the United States’ $8,700 per-pupil average.

Long-Term Turnaround
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Finland’s educational success is the path it took to the top. Thirty-five years ago the country was considered middle-of-the-road or worse educationally. The country eliminated its education inspector and rethought its educational system.

The most impressive part of Finland’s turnaround for many visitors is the patience the country showed. Of course, this is a country that understands that supplying prenatal vitamins to pregnant women will help pay off in a more productive member of society 25 years later, so long-term thinking isn’t unusual.

“They made some changes, and then they waited,” says Luizzi. The United States has more of a Christmas tree approach to education reform, he adds. “We are always putting on new ornaments. Finland thinks more strategically.”

Students start school at age 7 and complete secondary school at 15 or 16. Based on grades, students then go to either vocational school or upper secondary school. Slightly more than half of Finnish students attend upper secondary school.
While Finland famously supports its residents and students, it is notable to mention what’s missing at its schools. There are no sports teams, no marching bands, no cocurricular activities, and no school busing system.

Upending Technology Expectations
The biggest surprise visitors find in Finland schools is a lack of technology. “It was a bit disarming,” Luizzi says. “I didn’t see a single student with a laptop.” He added that outside of school, most students have two or three cell phones, with many of them boasting better features than Americans see.

Walker says the people on the CoSN trip were disappointed by what they didn’t find. While there are computers available and students searching for digital information, “I would say in any semi-wealthy U.S. school district, you’d see more technology.”

One anecdote that truly illuminates the difference between U.S. and Finnish culture came when visitors asked librarians how they filter the Internet for students. Finnish educators didn’t understand the question, Walker says, because the concept was so foreign to them.Finally, the two responses the group got were, “Students know these computers are for learning,” and “The filters are in students’ heads.”

Aspirational Goals
What parts of the Finnish system might be more easily adopted in the United States? There are some areas that, while they aren’t entirely similar, are certainly close enough not to require a sea change in this country.While there’s much discussion in the U. S. about data-driven decision-making and moving to individualized instruction for each student, Finland seems to have achieved this goal in a more organic way.“Everyone owned each student,” Walker says. “In the U.S., we would be, ‘He’s in Mrs. Smith’s class.’ In Denmark and Finland, the ownership was by the entire faculty. They felt responsible, and the learning was more individualized.”

Flynn says teachers focus less on data-driven decisions and more on differentiated instruction—partly the result of high-quality teachers, and partly because they know their students better.The country’s upper secondary schools have 70-minute classes, echoing the block schedule still used by some high schools here. While the length of the school year is similar between countries, Finland’s courses are split into six-week units, Luizzi says. It’s a modular approach, with students having to pass each section before moving on.

The last major change in education Finland made was to loosen the national curriculum and give teachers more control. “They still give out objectives and expected outcomes,” Luizzi says, “but they allow teachers to determine how to get there.” This, of course, is counter to the direction that the U.S. education system has been heading.

 
 


Summing Up
So what’s the big lesson that educators are going to take away from Finland? “We won’t find quick fixes here,” says Krueger. “But there are a lot of lessons to be learned.” Finland’s non-competitive ethos, for example, flies in the face of No Child Left Behind’s high-stakes, high-competition regulations. In Finland, schools aren’t ranked against each other, teachers don’t face formal reviews, and students aren’t under intense pressure to get into college.

Krueger says the care Finland has taken to create a “good learning environment” shouldn’t be lost on policy makers in this country. “Our obsession with testing doesn’t mean we are doing better.”

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