Feb. 13th, 2011

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The Children Must Play

What the United States could learn from Finland about education reform.


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.


Today, teaching is such a desirable profession that only one in ten applicants to the country’s eight master’s programs in education is accepted.
In the United States, on the other hand, college graduates may become teachers without earning a master’s. What’s more, Finnish teachers earn very competitive salaries: High school teachers with 15 years of experience make 102 percent of what their fellow university graduates do. In the United States, by contrast, they earn just 65 percent.

Though, unlike U.S. education reformers, Finnish authorities haven’t outsourced school management to for-profit or non-profit organizations, implemented merit pay, or ranked teachers and schools according to test results, they’ve made excellent use of business strategies. They’ve won the war for talent by making teaching so appealing. In choosing principals, superintendents, and policymakers from inside the education world rather than looking outside it, Finnish authorities have likewise taken a page from the corporate playbook: Great organizations, as the business historian Alfred Chandler documented, cultivate talent from within. Of the many officials I interviewed at the Finnish Ministry of Education, the National Board of Education, the Education Evaluation Council, and the Helsinki Department of Education, all had been teachers for at least four years.

The Finnish approach to pedagogy is also distinct. In grades seven through nine, for instance, classes in science—the subject in which Finnish students have done especially well on PISA—are capped at 16 so students may do labs each lesson. And students in grades one through nine spend from four to eleven periods each week taking classes in art, music, cooking, carpentry, metalwork, and textiles. These classes provide natural venues for learning math and science, nurture critical cooperative skills, and implicitly cultivate respect for people who make their living working with their hands.



But perhaps most striking on the list of what makes Finland’s school system unique is that the country has deliberately rejected the prevailing standardization movement. While nations around the world introduced heavy standardized testing regimes in the 1990s, the Finnish National Board of Education concluded that such tests would consume too much instructional time, cost too much to construct, proctor, and grade, and generate undue stress. The Finnish answer to standardized tests has been to give exams to small but statistically significant samples of students and to trust teachers—so much so that the National Board of Education closed its inspectorate in 1991. Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classes as their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues. The only point at which all Finnish students take standardized exams is as high school seniors if they wish to go to university.

Regard for students’ well-being is evident in more subtle ways, as well. Since 1985, students have not been tracked (or grouped by ability) until the tenth grade. Furthermore, since 1991, authorities have rejected the practice of holding back underachievers, concluding that the consequences of grade repetition were too stigmatizing to be effective and that students would be better off being tutored by learning specialists in areas of academic weakness.MORE



I wonder how they allocate funds their school system?

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