Educating for Democracy: Following Finland's Example... Backwards

In a recent article in The American Educator, "Lessons from Finland", Pasi Sahlberg, a distinguished Finnish education specialist, outlined some of the Finnish educational policies that have led to the success of his country's school system, rated among the best in the world. Prof. Sahlberg's main points are being "mirrored" in the policies being increasingly adopted by cities and states around the United States, encouraged by the Department of Education in the last decade with the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs in the true sense of "mirroring" -- we're doing what they're doing but in the opposite direction.

According to Sahlberg:

1. In Finland teacher-candidate selection and teacher preparation is very rigorous and demanding:

Annually only one in ten applicants will be accepted to study to become a primary school teacher.

They are required to receive a degree in a major area that is not centered on education courses. Rigorous mentoring and training is an additional part of the teacher-candidates' educational preparation. In this country too often students that don't think they would be able to get a degree in any other subject "settle" for a Bachelor's of Ed. This was certainly the case at my former college which has an excellent reputation for teacher education and has turned out proportionately more elementary school teachers than any other in the State of New York. Not that there weren't some outstanding students who chose the profession; but the majority were not nearly the top students that are recruited in Finland. Ironically, our veteran teachers who are among "the best and brightest" because they've been dedicated enough to stay on for twenty or more years and have discovered ways to deliver good teaching despite the oppressive system in which they teach are now among the most vulnerable to lose their jobs because they are getting higher salaries than novices, half of which will be out of the school system within five years.

2. In Finland, "high social prestige, professional autonomy in schools and an ethos of teaching as a service to society, and the public good" are powerful inducements for excellent students to pursue a teaching career. In this country, politicians are vilifying teachers as "lazy and irresponsible" for wanting to be treated fairly in negotiating contracts. Unions are often accused of being more interested in the welfare of their teachers than the students they are supposed to serve.

3. In Finland, "the teaching force... is highly unionized; almost all teachers are members of the Trade Union of Education."

To summarize other points:

In Finland:

...there is no formal teacher evaluation; teachers receive feedback from school principals and the staff itself; Because Finland does not have a standardized assessment of evaluating students, there is no formal outcomes in the evaluation. A good teacher is one who is able to help all children progress and grow in a holistic way.

With our emphasis on teacher evaluation through standardized tests, we seem to be moving in the very opposite direction from Finland in our educational policies while praising their success. And that success isn't due to longer school hours:

A typical middle school teacher in Finland teaches just under 600 hours annually. In the United States, by contrast, a teacher at the same level typically devotes 1080 hours to teaching annually.

However, in Finland, part of the teachers' work days are devoted to "work with the community." For them "some of the most important aspects of their work are conducted outside the classroom." Thus, in many respects, in contrast to teachers in this country, Finnish teachers have a high degree of autonomy. They are not micromanaged.

Incidentally, unlike the high turnover rate of American teachers -- 50% in the first five years -- only 10 to 15 percent of Finnish teachers leave the profession before retirement. So how can we both admire the Finnish model of education and do the exact opposite of what they do to "reform" our educational system? A recent item in the New York Times reveals the ineffectiveness of our "reforms."

According to a New York State Department of Education report only 37% of students who entered high school in 2006 were adequately prepared for college-level work when they graduated four years later. The percentage in New York City, under the control of Mayor Bloomberg, was even worse: 21%. These woeful numbers are in spite of the fact that graduation rates in the State and City of New York are continuing to rise. Yet the Mayor, apparently blissfully oblivious of the implications of these numbers, declared:

'No one could have predicted in their wildest dreams that we would be this successful,' ...gesturing to a chart that showed the steady rise in the graduation rates for all groups.

But the Mayor should be well aware of the gimmicks that are being used to increase graduation rates such as "cut scores" which "pass" a student on a Regents which he actually failed, or "credit recovery" which awards credits to students who failed their classes by "substituting" inferior work as if it were of the same quality required to earn Regents credits. Bloomberg's insistence that the dismal showing of 21% of college-ready high school graduates is a sign of "success" reminds me of a variation on an old Soviet adage: "We'll pretend to teach and they'll pretend to learn." Besides, if "they" don't, the Mayor has a remedy for schools with low graduation rates: call them "failing" and shut them down to be replaced with charter schools which are even better at "gaming" graduation rates than the district schools.

There are many other reasons besides good schooling that lead to academic success in Finland that are not comparable to the United States: an almost homogeneous ethnic population, a much smaller disparity in wealth between rich and poor, a more equitable system of school funding, and an excellent health and social welfare system for all. But certainly relying on the teacher, well-trained, highly selected, and autonomous in choosing the way they teach is an important element in achieving excellence in education. Generally, when someone admires another person or country for outstanding achievement, they try to emulate its practices. As far as Finland is concerned, we show our admiration by following the opposite of its example.