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Finland's Lessons

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Finland, a country best known for vodka, modern design, skiers, and saunas, also has a track record of impressive achievements in education. So on a trip last year to Helsinki, I included a series of visits to schools and teacher preparation institutions. I spoke to students, teachers, parents, administratorsand, of course, to taxi drivershoping to find lessons for schools in the United States. In general, I learned the following:

  • Finland's literacy rate is about 99 percent, and its high school graduation rate is about 99 percent.
  • The best and the brightest students are attracted to teaching. There is great competition for every opening in teacher preparation programs.
  • Teachers are paid almost as much as physicians and lawyers, and there is great respect for their knowledge and proficiencies.
  • There is a deep regard for education and a cultural passion for learning and wisdom.

Comparative international test-score results are equally impressive. They are usually up there with the top 10 nations and nation-states, including Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and Singapore. How did this idyllic condition come about? And more importantly, what can the United States learn from this tiny nation of 5 million people?

First, perhaps, is that public policy for free education in Finland gives more than lip service to what is a genuine national obsession with education. One official at the National Board of Education suggested to me that the Kalevala, a book of epic poems revered by the Finns, provides a clue to understanding this high regard. The Kalevala is the repository of the folklore that built the nation's common beliefs. It epitomizes the virtues of study, wisdom, hard work, and cultural pride. Finnish students are exposed to these words and lessons in primary school, and the impact seems to linger.

The Kalevala no doubt has played a part in the nation's high regard for teachers, a force that has produced powerful results in the classroom. The Finnish people's stress on character education and parental support has enhanced classroom quality. And the fact that lifelong, continual learning is prized is obvious at the country's elaborate neighborhood centers that house libraries, mini-theaters, and a wide variety of popular courses for large segments of the community. This is a nation that has become what many U.S. reformers talk about. It is a learning community.

The Helsinki taxi driver I spoke to had spent a year as an exchange student in the United States. She said that while most American students could "buy" their way into college, in Finland students have to "earn the right" to attend any of the advanced-learning institutions. She also noted that in preparing to find a job, Finnish young people know that employers will examine their entire school record and examination results.

Interestingly, the Finnish teachers I spoke with were uniform in the belief that it is their job to see that all children progress and succeed during their year together. In the classrooms, students were motivated, engaged, encouraged, and assisted as they found new ways to learn. Teachers at one high school I visited described their approach to ensuring that every student graduates as something akin to a swat-team effort. A group of "super" teachers seeks out the marginal students who might become lost in the system and delivers to them the finest levels of pedagogical support and assistance.

If we survey the current scene in American education, some stark comparisons arise. Gaining full support for public education in America has been rather elusive. We have lost our way in too many urban centers and perhaps in rural America as well. In the past 10 years, educational planners and leaders have darted about designing and redesigning corrective programs. Even with the musical-chairs game being played with superintendents, the resistance to change at local schools has become endemic and people are shouting for "results"--whatever they might be.

Here, certainly, we part company with the Finns. The political, fiscal, and philosophical battles being waged in the school districts of America have generally missed the strong emphasis on teacher recruitment and full devotion to educating all students. Political leaders, board members, and media pundits uniformly say that our children and their education represent the future of the United States. Yet their declarations bear little fruit when it comes to public policy. The politicization of education is not the same as a deep political concern for all children. Tax limitations and political expediencies seem to be driving the educational realities of America more than its vaunted concern for its children and their future.

Being in Finland, and seeing the genuineness of its rhetoric of learning, caused me to wonder about all of the reforms, restructuring, and "breaking the mold" schools being promulgated here. The inconsistencies of our public policy seem to run counter to the way the Finns quietly and consistently go about their education business.

Finland has made a grand deal with its citizens. The Finns honor, celebrate, and help their educators, and the educators in turn bring the national consensus on learning to full fruition. Their students are some of the best educated in the world.

Teachers in America, meanwhile, have become the adversaries of special-interest groups and are fighting for minimal respect and dignity.

Some might say that the homogeneity of the Finnish population has made educational success possible. That may be partially right. But I also sensed a determination and a palpable love of academic rigor in that country that has to be felt firsthand to understand its power.

Is it possible that the Finns have made a simple discovery that we have not? When families and society in general value education, a higher degree of excellence follows.

As we lurch forward with Goals 2000, vouchers, charters, privatization, and other initiatives, perhaps we should spend some time also doing the obvious: building up the foundation of support needed for successful public policy in education. And, of equal importance, we should ask ourselves whether the nation has the will to replace the schools and teacher preparation programs that have been unable to deliver for growing numbers of students.

Schools alone cannot make the changes American society needs to move positively toward the future. That task begs the help of full employment, economic security, social equality, and family support. But the political forces of America could begin to point the way toward a revitalized sense of the importance of learning to progress by adopting some of Finland's lessons.

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