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What the Finns Know Shouldn’t Surprise Us (But Does)

By Patrick F. Bassett — February 19, 2008 6 min read
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While reindeer jerky and lingonberries have yet to become an international sensation, the education system in Finland has managed to gain worldwide attention over the past few years. Test results from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, have revealed that Finnish students routinely outperform those of other countries. And a recent report by the international consulting firm McKinsey & Co. highlights the country’s extraordinary successes. So, what does Finland know that shouldn’t surprise us (but does)?

The three key elements for its success, laid out in the McKinsey report and reinforced by my own experiences on a recent trip to Finland, can be stated as the following: (1) Get the best teachers; (2) Get the best out of teachers; and (3) Intervene when pupils start to lag behind.

It’s no great surprise to anyone who works in education that high-quality teachers lead to successful students. According to the Finnish Ministry of Education, all teachers there must have master’s degrees, and only 10 percent of undergraduates, the cream of the crop, are accepted into the teacher-training program. It turns out that, as is true with this country’s Teach For America (which routinely attracts five times more applicants than it accepts), restricted access to a program increases its attraction. In Finland, it’s not the money, but the status and prestige of teaching that attracts the best and brightest to the profession.

In the United States, we know how important teachers are to the success of students, but we have difficulty recruiting top-notch candidates for the job. The public school system requires that all teachers be “highly qualified,” meaning certified (that is, having an education degree and/or passing a battery of education courses). Independent schools in the United States have long rejected that definition in favor of hiring “high quality” teachers, meaning those who have a degree in the subject they love and teach (that is, math and physics majors, not education majors, teaching math and physics). Part of the rationale for independent schools’ hiring liberal arts graduates from competitive and selective universities (also, incidentally, the strategy of Teach For America) is that while some education degree programs in this country are top-notch, many others attract the weakest, not the strongest, students.

In Finland, it’s not the money, but the status and prestige of teaching that attracts the best and brightest to the profession.

We can’t shift cultural perceptions about the prestige of teaching overnight, but we can begin to make strides in this process, an action that will help improve education for everyone. First, we could develop more programs to get the most talented students to pursue teaching as a career, and help them succeed once there. Second, education schools could become more selective in their admissions and more focused on the task of instilling deep subject knowledge in their graduates. Third, all districts and schools could recruit on the campuses of colleges and universities with highly selective undergraduate admissions standards.

Fairer compensation would help improve the prestige of teaching, too. As our more highly paid veteran teachers retire, we have an unprecedented opportunity to increase starting salaries so that teaching is as lucrative a career choice as other professional jobs.

A second place where American education falls short, in both its public and private segments, is in “professionalizing the profession.” While there is much talk about and some progress in creating “professional learning communities” of teachers, and also some promise in creating digital communities, as a country we fall far short of the commitments of our competitors in the world marketplace.

In Finland (and Japan, too), groups of teachers visit each others’ classrooms and plan lessons together in a system that includes “rounds” similar to those in the medical profession. Finnish teachers get one afternoon off each week for professional development (substitute teachers included).

Some independent schools here have also recognized the value of this approach. At one school, each teacher must visit a colleague’s classroom three times a year and report on the experience by writing a response to the question “How was my teaching informed by this visit?” The responses become part of a database that all teachers read. At another school, teachers develop videotaped portfolios of their teaching. Combined with journal entries, lesson plans, and samples of student work, such aids allow the teachers to confer with mentors to identify successful techniques that can be shared with other teachers and to identify areas for potential improvement.

All U.S. schools could benefit immensely from creating true professional learning communities focused on peer learning, peer observations, and collaborative lesson-planning. If teacher evaluations were linked to engagement in these communities, there would be a huge jump in the professionalism of teaching.

A third factor contributing to success of the Finnish system is its early and powerful intervention when a student begins to fall behind. Frequent diagnostic testing (“formative testing”) at early stages reveals students who need extra help, and the Finns provide it intensively.

At one presentation I attended while in Finland, a spokesperson from the education ministry said that education spending there is weighted toward the middle school years: Finland spends about the same as its counterparts in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the lower primary grades (grades 1-5), and a lot less in the upper secondary years (primarily because of larger classes in grades 10-12). But it spends a lot more in the middle years (grades 6-9).

Why don’t schools follow the model of businesses and tap into the global marketplace of ideas that have worked elsewhere?

In the United States and many other countries, this is the time when kids begin to fail and drop out. How sensible is the Finnish model to increase resources at that point to keep kids from the disaster of failing at school. In Finland, there are no dead-end streets on the education highway.

In helping students at risk of failure, U.S. schools must move from a medical model (learning disabilities) to a diversity model (learning differences) and reorient themselves to identify, value, and use a student’s strengths as “workarounds” and palliatives to weaknesses.

One independent boarding school for girls already takes this approach with its students, some of whom have been diagnosed with learning differences that put them at risk. The school helps students come up with strategies to address challenges, but it also works to identify each girl’s strengths so that she can maximize her potential.

This concentration on strengths, while still addressing challenges, seems to be a good approach for the American education system. One criticism of the McKinsey report is that it focuses on the elements that have been successful in certain contexts, but does not take into consideration the circumstances under which those same efforts have failed.

But doesn’t flexibility make sense? With every new administration in Washington, and every hot new trend in education, we hear arguments for full-scale renovation of the system. One-size-fits-all rarely works in individual schools, however, let alone for the entire country. Why don’t schools follow the model of businesses and tap into the global marketplace of ideas that have worked elsewhere?

Lingonberries and reindeer jerky may never take the world by storm, but the Finns can certainly teach us a thing or two about education.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week as What the Finns Know Shouldn’t Surprise Us (But Does)

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