Better schools require national discussion, not fast political moves
In the 1970s, faced with a mass exodus from public schools, the people of Finland revamped their educational system. They didn’t do it using the conventional wisdom of today — no modeling after systems in Japan or Korea, no heightened end-of-grade testing, no lengthened school year. Yet the results have been spectacular.
For the last decade Finland students have led the Western world in their knowledge of science, mathematics and reading. And while China swept the scores in the most recent round of testing, Finland youth remain near the top among world nations. Not only are their test scores high, but the margin between the highest- and lowest-performing students is the narrowest of the nations tested, meaning very few of their children fail to learn. Seems while we have been spouting the mantra “No Child Left Behind,” our friends in northern Europe have been making it happen.
Maybe it’s time we set aside political clichés and easy answers — like sliding an extra five school days into the year through a state budget amendment — and look at what these people have accomplished.
Many of Finland’s techniques are directly contrary to the United States’ efforts at reform. While the U.S. has emphasized end-of-grade testing with a vengeance, Finland doesn’t test students in early grades and has only one national test, given at the end of high school. While the U.S. is proclaiming the need to add hours to the school day and days to the school year, Finland students actually go among the fewest hours of any system in the Western world. (Generally they attend a few more days than our traditional 180, but the length of those days is shorter.) And while we have increased the paperwork of the teaching profession, thanks to testing and “accountability,” Finland has done a remarkable job of streamlining its bureaucracy.
Perhaps most important, while American politicians talk of a more standardized national curriculum, Finland has given its teachers room to be creative and innovative. Because the nation has elevated the teaching profession to high status, it is an extremely competitive career field. Since teaching is so highly regarded, only the best are hired — and so can be trusted to develop lessons that best work for their students. While Finland has a national curriculum that must be followed, teachers are free to decide how it will be learned. Former 300-page curriculum manuals have been streamlined to 20 pages.
Finland’s efforts have paid off with spectacular results in the last two decades. Should Americans then copy the system, much as we have assumed copying other efforts would result in success? There are large elements of Finland’s program that we should study and copy. But to copy their approach in total would miss one of the most important lessons we could learn from this small nation, whose population is close to the size of North Carolina’s.
Finland’s educational leaders based their changes on what that nation wanted from its schools — not on what had worked elsewhere. The nation’s sense of identity and culture played a large role in its educational changes. The nation, for example, is very community minded. That meant the commitment to working intensively with struggling students with a goal that all youth — not just those academically gifted — would do well. That sense of community ensured that Finland’s schools would remain small, that parents would have a close relationship with teachers. Finland also made a commitment to health, providing free lunch for every student and breaking up class time with frequent breaks outdoors. Perhaps, in the United States’ competitive culture, we wouldn’t want to give up testing in early grades. Perhaps we wouldn’t want shorter school hours but with greater emphasis on after-school activities.
But we desperately need to ask what we, as Americans, do want from our schools. Do we want a system where teaching is a profession hard to enter, but where teachers are trusted to be innovative? Do we want a system where parents are intimately involved in education, or where we teach our children to be independent? Do we want to eliminate bureaucracy? Do we want to invent better ways to be accountable than end-of-grade tests?
We must decide what we want rather than what works in other places. We need a passionate national discussion — and a passionate discussion within each state — rather than trite solutions like extra school days squeezed into the state’s budget bill.
The United States became a great nation because it embraced a culture of freedom and innovation. It’s time we reclaim that philosophy in our educational system.
Kathy M.N. Ross is a mother of three sons and wife to farmer Steve Ross. They live in Crabtree. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org