Lessons from Finland

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For several years now, we in America have been hearing how public education is better in Finland than here.  At the very least, Finnish students consistently score near the top of the Program for International Student Assessments (PISA) for reading, mathematics, and science.  In 2012, Finland ranked third compared to the United States’ twenty-first among thirty-four Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.  In this CNN article (http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/06/opinion/sahlberg-finland-education/),  Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and former director general in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, gives his views on how Finnish and American public schools differ.  His perspective might surprise most Americans and should give many public education reformers pause in their various crusades.

Sahlberg lists the three key differences he feels matter most:  Equity, teachers spending more time interacting with each other, and children having time to play.

Equity results from every child in Finland having access to early education, schools being funded equally, everyone’s having access to health care, and a national curriculum which requires schools to focus on the whole child rather than narrow academic achievement.  Illinois’s property tax system for the majority of school funding in the Chicago suburbs is very far away from an equitable system—the rich live in areas of quality, well-funded schools while the poor have weaker, poorly funded schools.  Finnish students take one standardized test at the completion of high school, whereas American students are bombarded with standardized tests multiple times annually in some places with a wide variety of tests utilized in different states.

Teachers spending time interacting with each other means less time in classrooms and more time at institutes and collegial activities.  In other words, Hinsdale High School District 86’s school board’s decision to eliminate a county-wide institute day in favor of a student attendance day on February 27 was exactly the wrong decision to make.  Teachers need input and ideas from other teachers all the time, and as Sahlberg points out, Finnish junior high teachers spend half the time teaching children as their American counterparts, leading to more opportunities for that interaction to take place.

“Play” has rapidly faded from the curricula of most American schools; Illinois is the last state which still mandates daily physical education classes for all children kindergarten through grade 12.  And even Illinois allows for many waivers to diminish how much actual time students have for recreation.  Across the nation, some 40% of elementary schools have curtailed recess in favor of more academic rigor.  Sahlberg points out that Finnish schools require a fifteen minute play period following every class period, not to mention a shorter school day with less homework so that children have time to follow hobbies and recreational activities of their own choosing.

In other words, the accountability and standardized testing pushes have been the wrong approaches to improving education, at least based on the Finland’s experience.  America would do well to learn more about these Finnish concepts (or at least investigate their efficacy) in order to educate our children better.

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