It’s little surprise. Finland has been painted as a haven for eschewing testing, accountability, and competition. It’s the counterexample to be thrown at those who would tweak the system we have created in undesirable directions.
I question the motives of those who exalt the Finnish system. I suspect that it is a carefully curated example, picked to highlight desirable lessons and avoid undesirable ones regardless of their actual truth.
Below are the PISA 2012 scores, which supporters use to lay claim to Finnish superiority.
Did you find Finland? It’s not as simple as looking at the top of the list. That’s because Finland isn’t actually the best system. According to the test, the preferred metric of Finnophiles, the best system is found in Shanghai.
Wikipedia reports that a PISA spokesperson
…described Shanghai as a pioneer of educational reform in which “there has been a sea change in pedagogy”. Schleicher stated that Shanghai abandoned its “focus on educating a small elite, and instead worked to construct a more inclusive system. They also significantly increased teacher pay and training, reducing the emphasis on rote learning and focusing classroom activities on problem solving.”
Why haven’t The Atlantic and the New York Times fallen over themselves to explain why we should become more like Shanghai?
Because that is the worst possible thing you could say to the kind of person who subscribes to The Atlantic or the New York Times, and I say this as a paid subscriber to the former. “Be like Shanghai” is for the Wall Street Journal crowd. Shanghai is rote memorization and beating your kids and no bathroom breaks and pretending you aren’t numbed by classical music. Finland is culture and castles and liking classical music because you’d be a better person and maybe windmills.
Of course, maybe you just think China’s government is somehow cheating. That would allow you to rule out Hong Kong too. That would still leave Singapore and Japan both outperforming Finland in all three categories and South Korea showing better performance overall. Hey, what do all those countries have in common again?
Of course, you could argue that Asian kids and teachers are too culturally different from Americans. Sure, maybe all that “focusing classroom activities on problem solving” works for those little collectivist brains there, but that won’t fly in Dubuque, Iowa.
That is a legitimate objection. Systems can work in some places and not in others. It does make some sense to choose as a benchmark a country that is more similar to yours.
But that ain’t Finland.
Rafael Irizarry notes that “Finland has less students living in poverty ( 3%) than the US (20%).” Additionally, US schools with relative poverty rates under 10% actually outperform Finland. If anything, it seems they should be learning from us—specifically from US schools with children who aren’t living in relative poverty. Suck on that, Finns. Murica. (The links refer to the 2009 PISA.)
Now, if only there were a capitalist, work-obsessed country with a respectable percentage of children living in relative poverty, say maybe 15%, that got even better scores than the Finns did in all three PISA categories. Oh, wait. There is:
OK, let’s say there is an as yet unarticulated reason to insist that no Asian country’s education system can serve as a plausible model for the United States. Now can we finally say we’re stuck with the Finns?
No. There is still a much, much better non-Asian model. It’s Massachusetts.
14% of children in Massachusetts live in relative poverty. That’s still below the US average, but much more American-like than Finland.
Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has already figured out how to deal with all the existing regulations imposed by the US government.
Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has figured out how to cooperate productively with US teachers unions.
Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has demonstrated how to get results from US-trained teachers rather than masters holders from Finnish research schools, of which the world only has so many.
Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has experienced success teaching real American students who go home every day to be subjected to American parenting styles.
The 2012 PISA reading scores for Massachusetts were 527. Math was 514. Science was 527. Finland’s were 524, 519, and 545 respectively. Better in two of three categories, but with a different population on a different continent with different resources facing different constraints and challenges. Achieving Massachusetts scores nationally would move us up 20 places in the math rankings, 19 in science, and 18 in reading (which would be ahead of Finland).
The Finland-is-best OpEd pieces go out of their way to emphasize how radically different the Finnish system is from the US, but they do not seem to realize that this might be a good reason not to try to emulate Finland.
Educational systems are complex systems that have evolved over long periods of time. They consist of multiple, interconnecting parts that though adaptive on one context might be maladaptive in another. You can’t take one element out of one system that you happen to like (e.g. a lack of accountability) and expect it to work the same way in another setting absent the unknown things it needs to do its job properly (e.g. removing any current teachers who have not “demonstrate[d] that they possess knowledge, skills and morals necessary to be a successful teacher.” It would be like taking a single piston rod out of a Ferrari and stuffing it into a Tesla. It would be worse, in fact. The Ferrari was at least designed top-down; educational systems are evolved. There is no master list of all the prerequisites that must be met for a particular practice to work. It’s the reason the technocrats failed to turn the Soviet Union into a bunch of well-functioning capitalist democracies.
Massachusetts cannot be a model for the US, because it would involve giving some indirect credit to Mitt Romney. En route to the election, every achievement he may have laid claim to had to be refuted across all possible avenues. This piece, somewhat hilariously, attacks a scholarship program Romney passed by claiming that the money actually hurt the students by delaying their graduations. Further, this (hurtful, remember) money was being kept from poor and minority students. Finally, there wasn’t enough (still hurtful) money given in the first place. At no point do the authors seem to realize what the implication would be if all their claims were simultaneously true, because the only purpose was to make as many attacks against the enemy as possible. I don’t mean to pick these particular writers. Google “Massachusetts Romney education” and soak in 10 pages of the same.
It’s not only Mitt’s fault. Who reads The Atlantic and the New York Times? It isn’t education reformers. It’s us. They write. We consume, digest, and excrete later. It’s for sharing on Facebook and bringing up at cocktail parties and debating on blogs. And for that “Finns succeed because they do everything the opposite of America” is a winner. “Massachusetts succeeds because they have some subtle curricular and pedagogical differences that require careful examination to disentangle” is not.
Credit for unattributed photos: Wikimedia Commons