Since I, too, have visited Finland long enough to accumulate various anecdotes, statistics and observations supporting my pre-conceived policy preferences, I feel well-qualified to respond to Samuel Abrams’s TNR piece on the subject.
He’s right about one thing: they really do make their kids play outside in the cold. We visited an early childcare center where a bunch of 3- and 4-year olds spend like two hours every morning scrambling around in snowsuits. They all seemed perfectly healthy so I plan to take this approach with my own kid.
In other areas, however, I don’t think the evidence fits his agenda so neatly. For example:
Today, teaching is such a desirable profession that only one in ten applicants to the country’s eight master’s programs in education is accepted. In the United States, on the other hand, college graduates may become teachers without earning a master’s. What’s more, Finnish teachers earn very competitive salaries: High school teachers with 15 years of experience make 102 percent of what their fellow university graduates do. In the United States, by contrast, they earn just 65 percent.
The reason for the 102 / 65 difference is not that teachers in Finland make more money than teachers in the United States. It’s because doctors, lawyers, and other Finnish college graduates make less money than in the United States. Finland’s labor market is much different than ours. 12% of American workers are unionized. 75% of Finnish workers are unionized. Taxation is higher and there aren’t as many obscenely rich people per capita.
The 10 percent acceptance into Finnish teacher education programs is for real. I have never, ever heard a serious proposal from the anti-testing / school of education crowd to raise admissions standards into teacher preparation to anything approaching the levels that would result in a 10 percent admission rate — or, heck, a 50 percent admission rate. In fact, only one American teacher preparation program has ever successfully set the bar that high and sent significant numbers of elite candidates into the classroom: Teach for America, which Abrams predictably critiques later in the piece.
Then we get to standards and tests:
But perhaps most striking on the list of what makes Finland’s school system unique is that the country has deliberately rejected the prevailing standardization movement. While nations around the world introduced heavy standardized testing regimes in the 1990s, the Finnish National Board of Education concluded that such tests would consume too much instructional time, cost too much to construct, proctor, and grade, and generate undue stress. The Finnish answer to standardized tests has been to give exams to small but statistically significant samples of students and to trust teachers—so much so that the National Board of Education closed its inspectorate in 1991. Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classesas their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues. The only point at which all Finnish students take standardized exams is as high school seniors if they wish to go to university.
As Abrams notes, Finland has a national curriculum, i.e. national standards. It also administers a high-stakes test to seniors tied to the national standards. We have neither of those things in this country. Standards are de-centralized at the state level and standardized testing runs mainly through elementary and middle school. Even states that nominally have standardized high school exit exams don’t really enforce them. Is it really so obvious which country is more committed to standardization?
Finland is an unambiguous success story and there’s a lot we can learn from them. The “Finland is homogeneous and thus has nothing to teach us” argument is, I believe, mistaken. Far and away the most Finland-like American state is Utah (white, mono-religious, few natural resources, strong cultural bonds) and their educational results aren’t nearly as good.
But anyone arguing that the evidence from Finland cleanly supports either side of the American education reform debate is being dishonest.