Assessment Opinion

Finland Embraced a Highly Productive Reform Strategy; The United States is Racing Toward a Dead End—Why?

By Marc Tucker — April 25, 2012 9 min read
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Over the last thirty years, the United States has seen the status of its education system relative to that of other industrial nations sink from the top to the middle. In the same period, Finland’s system has risen from obscurity to first place. Finland got there in large measure by greatly raising the quality of its teachers and treating them in every respect the way high-status professionals are treated everywhere, in matters ranging from the way they are paid and trained to the kind of autonomy they have and the way they are largely accountable to one another rather than to traditional supervisors.

In recent years, rather than adapting the strategies that have enabled its competitors to perform at much higher levels, the United States has pursued another, very different, course.

It has introduced young entrepreneurs into the schools in the hope of producing “disruptive innovation.” It has adopted market mechanisms like charters, in the hope of creating more attractive options for students and parents. And reformers have relied ever-more-heavily on accountability systems designed to identify good teachers and bad ones using data derived from basic skills tests, in order to shame poor-performing teachers into leaving the schools.

There is no evidence, either from the top-performing countries, or from within the United States, that such strategies have worked or could work to greatly improve student performance at scale. But the United States nonetheless remains committed to them. The question is why? The answer, as we shall see, is revealed by tracing the broad outlines of the history of education in Finland and the United States since World War II.

Teaching has had a very high status in Finland for a very long time, much higher than in the United States. The word for teacher in Finland is the same for school teachers as it is for university professors. In the 1950s, at state dinners, the order of precedence for leaving the table after the dinner was the senior statesmen first and then the teachers, followed by every other class of attendees. The key inflection point on the path from a very ordinary, low attainment education system after World War II to its current status among the world leaders was the development of the “Finnish consensus” to move forward with the creation of a new form of school, the peruskoulu, in the early 1970s. The new peruskoulu was a nine-year common school for all students with the same curriculum for all. The challenge level for everyone was set to that formerly set only for Finland’s student elite. It was a decision to go for the highest possible levels of both quality and equity at the same time.

It was this decision that led almost ineluctably to the decision that Finland would have to have teachers for all its students of the same kind and quality formerly thought necessary only for its elite students. Thereafter, the Finns did what they had to do to greatly improve the quality of the teaching force. The effect of having these very high quality teachers was revealed in 2001 by the startling success of Finland in the initial and subsequent administrations of the OECD-PISA assessments. This quite unexpected success not only provided a justification for trust in Finland’s teachers, but also staved off the demands from some important quarters to import into Finland important elements of the American education reform agenda. At no point in this story did the Finnish public lose faith in its teachers or had any reason to do so.

Now let us consider what was happening in the United States in the same period.

The Carnegie report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, calling for the professionalization of the American teaching force, was released in June of 1986, not long after the implementation of the new peruskoulu in Finland and just as that country was putting in place the elements of its plan to professionalize its teaching force. But the upward trajectory of teaching and of the public’s view of teachers in Finland was matched by a downward spiral in the United States. Finland was going from middling performance on the international stage to the top of the league tables. The United States was going from undisputed world leader in public education to the middle of the league tables. Not only that, but the cost of education in the United States was moving from the middle of the league tables to the top. Income distribution in the United States was moving from among the most equal in the industrialized world to the least equal, steadily increasing the rate of poverty. While Finland was climbing to technological preeminence in the global economy, global American companies were being hollowed out, iconic American firms were going under and the American consumer was living off of loans from China, a developing country. Not least important for this story, the quality of American teachers was declining by many objective measures, matched by a steep decline in the performance of American school children, relative to the performance of the leading countries, which, one by one, were surpassing the United States.

In retrospect, it is clear that the environment for education policy making was hugely influenced by the upward trend in Finland and the downward trend in the United States. The Finns never had a reason to distrust their teachers. The long-standing reverence for teachers made it natural for the country to call on young people to come to the aid of their young people when the country responded to the emergency caused by the sudden failure of their protected market in the Soviet Union when that country fell apart and the banking crisis that ensued, and just as natural for the best of their young people to agree to become teachers. When the peruskoulu turned out to be a success, these fine new teachers were celebrated by the citizens and became the spouses most desired by other young people interested in forming families. They put their heart and soul into their teaching, which produced the Finnish surprise when the 200 PISA scores came out, and that cemented the Finnish Way of education policy. This is a classic virtuous cycle if ever there was one.

But the opposite happened in the United States. The seeds were sown just after World War II, with the passage of the GI Bill. Young soldiers who would never otherwise have gone to college, did so. Many went on to graduate schools. In their 40s in the 1970s, many had more education and a better education than the women who taught their children. Whereas before the war, teachers were respected because they had more education than the parents of the students they taught, after the war, that became less and less true, and because it was less and less true, they were progressively less respected, especially in the middle class suburbs where the burgeoning class of professionals and managers lived. In the 1970s, teachers’ salaries slipped badly relative to those of people in other college-educated occupations and teachers were sometimes on the “wrong” side of the civil rights issues. Teachers, feeling that their backs were to the wall, joined the American Federation of Teachers if they were in the cities, or the newly unionized National Education Association if they were in the suburbs. The unions they joined were not like the European unions, which included professionals and were invited to partner with business owners in setting important national policies. They were conceived in the old Tayloristic American model, actually reinforcing the grip of the blue-collar model of teaching in the United States.

Then other countries began to outperform the United States, an enormous blow to national pride, and the cost of education went up without student achievement following, leaving many Americans with the impression that the teachers had taken the money and simply put it in their pockets, without doing what they needed to do to use it to improve student performance. Few Americans realized that, as American’s real wages were declining, full time homemakers were going into the workplace and were no longer at home when their children came home, an increasing number of families had only one parent, and the number of children in poverty was swiftly rising. Much less did they stop to realize the significance of these trends for the work of teachers in our schools.

The cumulative effect of these developments in the United States was to alienate ordinary Americans from their teachers. While Finnish teachers were being credited with improving student achievement, American teachers were being blamed for letting it decline. While Finnish teachers were celebrated for producing high achievement at modest cost, American teachers were scorned for increasing the cost of schools dramatically while doing nothing to improve student performance. While Finnish teachers were doing whatever needed to be done to improve the performance of their students, American teachers were perceived to be working to the union rule and unwilling to police the poor performers in their own ranks.

In 1983, when A Nation at Risk charged that the condition of American education would be cause for war if it had been inflicted on us by another nation, the clear implication was that American educators were responsible. The more American teachers were blamed for the poor performance and rising costs of American schools, the more they relied on their unions as their sole source of support and the more the unions were attacked, the greater their bunker mentality. I have absolutely no doubt that you and I—any of us—would have behaved in exactly the same way in the same circumstances. But it produced a perfect vicious circle.

This turn of events produced the current politics of American education. Admired American governors started to take on the teachers and their unions and to demand that the educators take some responsibility for the poor performance of American students and become accountable for their own performance.

The Clinton administration was the turning point. “Third Way” politicians like Clinton (and Blair in England) were not about to base their education policies on trust in teachers. There was no constituency for trust of teachers in the United States, either among Democrats or Republicans. Both parties were looking for ways to fix education but neither party could figure out how to do it by rebuilding the system from the inside. Key figures in both parties perceived the education system to have been captured by the professional educators.

The forces created by the downward spiral I have described were so powerful and the respect for professional educators so depleted that key figures in both parties were trying not to fix the system but to blow it up. The Democrats would not go for vouchers and the Republicans could not get enough support for vouchers from the public to put them into play, so the two parties settled on charters as the bipartisan strategy for fixing the schools.

It will do no good to tell American policymakers that they need to change their attitudes on these matters. What happened in the United States and England, I believe, was not an accident and not the result of stupidity. It was the result of a downward spiral that Finland never experienced, and the jaundiced view formed by the American public about public educators that came from their bitter disappointment in their educators and the educators’ unions. There is no doubt in my mind that the course that the United States is now on will lead to ever poorer performance. All the evidence, from every quarter, points to that outcome. I believe, however, that we will have to wait for the currently dominant American education reform agenda to burn itself out before we change course. We can only hope that Winston Churchill’s famous dictum that “Americans always do the right thing...after they have exhausted all the alternatives” was prophetic in this case.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.