Seminar Looks at Success of Finland's School System

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Finland, with its 5.5 million residents and 2 million saunas, is an unlikely source of inspiration for countries around the world when it comes to student achievement. But the small Nordic nation has risen to the top of international comparisons in recent years, and a Dec. 8 seminar at the Finnish Embassy in Washington, D.C., attempted to answer the question of why Finnish kids are so smart.

The event came just a day after the release of the of the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which confirmed the strong performance of Finland's schools, along with the merely average showing of U.S. students.

AFT president Randi Weingarten, who recently visited Finland as part of an AFT delegation to learn more about the country's education system, spoke at the seminar, and said Finland and other countries that outperform us "do things in a very, very, very different way." One major difference, she noted, is the way other nations use data. While there are plenty of examples in this country of schools that have both good practices and good policies in place, we haven't figured out how to sustain and replicate them in ways that lead to steady progress.

Weingarten emphasized some themes she has spoken and written about recently in explaining what she has learned about high-performing schools in this country and abroad (such as in her recent "What Matters Most" column in the New York Times). The common characteristics include collaboration, strong teacher development, adequate tools and support for educators, collective responsibility, and public engagement and support.

Pasi Sahlberg, director general of Finland's National Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, cautioned the audience against copying some elements of Finland's education system, but he did point out some aspects worth considering. Among them:

  • steady progress in student achievement over time, and significantly closing achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds;
  • policies that differ substantially from those in many other countries, such as Finland's requirement that every teacher have a master's degree, and its strong commitment to treating teachers as professionals;
  • testing less and learning more, since Finland administers almost no standardized tests;
  • getting more with less in a country where teachers and students spend fewer hours in the classroom than international norms, and students do less homework than many of their counterparts abroad; and
  • the full use of innovative American ideas, such as cooperative learning.

Weingarten said one fact that struck her during her visit to Finland was that education is not a political issue, as it is here. We need to get away from trying to assign blame for failures in the system, and from looking at conflict and disruption—such as school closings and mass firings—as part of solution. The answer, she said, is to find consensus around long-term strategies to improve schools—many of which are firmly in place in Finland. [Dan Gursky, video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

December 9, 2010