Finland’s Schools Are Top Notch– My Critique

Why Finland’s schools are top-notch

By Pasi Sahlberg
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Mon October 6, 2014


Pasi Sahlberg is a visiting professor at The Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. He was the Director General of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.

“(CNN) — Millions of American parents spend countless hours trying to figure out how to help their children get better grades, better teachers or better schools.”

Why? I did not and my daughter did just fine. Parents tend too worry too much about grades. Not everyone is a genius or even a scholar! Parents should recognize this fact. We as parents recognize that fact that most kids will never run the sub 4 minute mile nor lift heavy weights, nor do anything of a physical nature to world-class levels so why do not accept that some kids are not geniuses?

The author suggests looking to Finland because they do so well on the PISA tests. PISA means Programme [sic—British English spelling] for International Student Development. Of course he is Finnish and had something to do with education in his country. He may be just a wee bit biased.

“[T]hey are surprised to hear that in Finland children don’t start school until they are 7 years old. They have less homework than their peers do in other countries. A child’s socioeconomic background is less of an impediment to academic performance. And there is only one standardized test, which is administered in the final year of high school.”

I am not surprised. I have long said that pre-school was unnecessary. I do not remember having much homework in the 1960s or 1970s even in high school. I have long said that we should go back to the way things were in the 1970s. I also claim that poverty is NOT much of an impediment to learning. While I do not put much stock in standardized tests in general and this one in particular, a recent PISA test results had a country that is in poverty do better, on average, than the United States did. While this is absolute proof of nothing it does tend to suggest two things. One is that poverty does not cause an inability to learn and two that being able to teach your young does not lead to a strong economy. Both of these things I have said for a few years now.

The author says that there are three things that make Finnish education good. The first has to do with financing all schools adequately. All kids will have access to healthcare and a national focus on the whole child not just academics.

Apparently early childhood education means age 7 and not what we would call pre-school. Funding in the United States is NOT an issue. Today we spend 4 times the amount of money to educate a 2nd grader than we spent to educate me in the 2nd grade, 50 years ago. It is being misspent. Finland does not spend money on computers and software to teach with. They do not use technology. They may have 3 teachers in each classroom though. They also do not have much need for healthcare because not many Finns are in poverty.

The second reason given by the author is the workload for Junior high is ½ that of the American teachers thus it means more time for teachers to talk to one another to discuss best practices.

Again, this may be because, at least in part, of more than one teacher per classroom. Why do they work together, unless they are in the same classroom? Sharing best practices? What practices are best? How does one determine that, especially without standardized tests?

The third reason has to with playing 15 minutes after each class, less homework, shorter school days.

This is kind of silly. I do agree that recess is important but 15 minutes several times a day? What could you really do in 15 minutes, especially if part of this time was used to get to the next class? Class-no class-class-no class-etc. Seems like this would be somewhat counterproductive. I do agree with he less homework policy. Having more times for recess might make some think about recess instead of what is being taught in school.

“up to 40% of U.S. school districts have reduced or eliminated recess in order to free more time for core academics, and one in four elementary schools no longer provides recess to all grades.”

I agree that recess is important. There is only so much one can learn in a day, especially if the teachers try to cram it down the throats of the kids. This would tend to stress them out and tire them out to boot.

“I hear people often arguing that because the United States is much bigger, more diverse, and more unequal, it’s harder to reach higher quality education. But even if this were true, it would not explain why in Finland students learn better in their schools than in most other places in the world.”

First of all you are basing this paper on a flawed test, the PISA. It was invented in Europe so European countries ought to do well. Those countries that do well on the PISA are small countries. China as a country does not take the PISA (a couple of its cities did). China does not even try to educate all of its people. While a couple of large cities in China do participate the whole of China does not. India does not participate at all. The United States is the third largest by population and of course the largest country that participates in the PISA. The fourth largest country is Indonesia and they are near the bottom in all three subjects tested. Both Singapore and Finland are populations of less than 6 million each. So, for the United States to be near the middle of the pack is understandable and good that we are not dead last and similar to Indonesia.

Finland is almost entirely Finn with a 10% or less Swedish population.
They have basically two religions Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy. So, it is homogeneous society with the same language and nearly the same religion. They would have very similar beliefs and traditions with not much of a problem communicating with one another, at least as compared with the United States. They all have similar, if not exactly the same values, as well.

The country is one of the most northern countries on Earth lying between 60 and 70 degrees North Latitude. A part of this country lies in the Arctic Circle. This makes it the near the land of the midnight sun in the summer and not much sunlight in the wintertime. This might tend to make it more conducive to study and without much distractions.

Besides the climate they do not have sports, say in high school. At least they do not have varsity teams playing other teams in other high schools that way we do. You go to school to learn not to play sports. Same can be for most of Europe even in colleges. They do not have the equivalent of America’s NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). But just try to get rid of sports in high school and college. It will never happen in the United States.

The author says US education is too hung up on standardized tests. With this I totally agree and the PISA is one of them. These other standardized tests waste about 1/3 of the instruction time, according to the author.

The author argues against school choice that tends to weaken the public education system that successful systems have elsewhere. The author mentions that high turnover among teachers hurts the students.

I would tend to agree. The author does not mention why. It is accountability based on standardized tests that many experienced teachers quit and novice teachers do not last long.

“What would be the way forward then? The United States can’t become Finland, but there is a lot it can learn about what works and what doesn’t.”

The thing about what works and what does not concerns me. If a system works in the small it usually does not work in the large. Systems that work tend to be small. Anytime you try to scale it up you will have unintended consequences, or surprises. You will have problems probably so much so that the scaling up was not worth the effort.

The author suggests that we end standardized testing and rethink accountability. I have already said so, too.

“[W]hen poverty explains up to half of student achievement.”

I do disagree that poverty plays a big role in education attainment. As I said above a recent PISA results would tend to contradict that assumption. Enhancing equity will not matter that much. It is not a matter of money. We spend way too much as it is. It is just misspent.

But children in poverty in Finland was 5% in 1995 and 14% in 2007. Children with only a mother were in poverty at a 10% rate in 1995 and a 25% rate in 2007, according to <<>&gt;. This is much lower than in the United States.

According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) says,


“PISA is unique because it develops tests which are not directly linked to the school curriculum. The tests are designed to assess to what extent students at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society. The information collected through background questionnaires also provides context which can help analysts interpret the results.”

What is the need to apply knowledge to so-called real-life situations? What is the importance of knowing what a 15-year old knows? Also, 15-year olds are NOT at the end of compulsory education, at least they have not finished high school. In fact they have 2-3 years left in order to complete high school.

“In addition, given PISA is an ongoing triennial survey, countries and economies participating in successive surveys can compare their students’ performance over time and assess the impact of education policy decisions.”

This is needless. Since you do not teach what is tested how can you gage anything about your teaching? Unless you teach to the test, which is what most are trying to do now. Since you do not have the test in front of you then how can you even teach to this test?


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