Finnish Lessons for American School Boards: Are We More Alike than We Think?

Change is always inevitable, and in public education it's urgent. A recent report by the Education Post outlines that only 3 percent of American parents like public education "as it is." As parents, teachers, school leaders and employers call for action, local school boards are becoming a stronger voice in how we shape the future of education. The Annual Conference of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) is the one place where Maryland policy makers come together to discuss lessons learned and best practices throughout the state and in one session, lessons from Cuba, China, India, and Finland. My experience researching Finnish education for the Council on Foreign Relations made me a worthy target for conference organizers to ask to present.

Skeptics of comparisons between education in the U.S. and Finland draw attention to population and demographic differences. Finland's population (5.4M) is more comparable to Minnesota's than the U.S. and the U.S. percentage of immigrants (13 percent) is nearly three times Finland's (5.5 percent). Skeptics also highlight that U.S. schools "educate everyone," code for "poor kids." Only 3 percent of Finland's students live in poverty, while over 20 percent of U.S. students live in poverty. With comparisons like these why would a school board member from Maryland, "America's #1 Rated School System in America by Education Week for four years in a row," believe that U.S. could learn from Finland?

Maryland is home to just 24 of the over 15,000 school boards in America; each with local solutions to what they believe are local issues. And in spite of the perception of school boards through the U.S., serving on a school board is a thankless role too often disregarded at election time. As the mid-term elections approach, its important to highlight that the inaction of Congress to address public education has put renewed pressures on state and local governments to act.

Finnish Education expert Pasi Sahlberg recently wrote an article for entitled "Why Finland's schools are top-notch" (October 6, 2014). In this article Pasi highlights how far Finland has come but does little to reference recent debates in Finland about the future of education. One-sided illustrations of Finland's education system give opponents of comparisons between U.S. and Finland ammunition.

The perceived unblemished success of Finland's education system would give anyone looking for answers to public education issues pause. After all, what could a system and country with so much success teach American school boards struggling to create systematic and intergenerational change with less money? A cursory look at the 2013 PISA results only reinforce the notion that U.S.-Finland comparison are pointless: the U.S. is 27th in Math, 17th in Reading, and 20th in Science, while Finland ranks 12th in Math, 6th in Reading, and 5th in Science. A closer look tells a different story.

Though U.S. scores on the Reading and Science sections of PISA seem low, they are average for OECD countries. The U.S. doesn't have the "worst school system in the world" its actually pretty middle of the road. The stagnation of the U.S. scores on PISA over time has caused foreigners to question the future of U.S. public education, and Americans to question the PISA exam. The irony in the argument that the PISA exam is to blame also means that if the U.S. improves on PISA, detractors can say, "You see, the test was broken after all."

Though Finland still ranks in the top 12 in each of the three categories of PISA, their Math scores are down 22 points, their Reading scores are down 12 points, and their Science scores are down 9 points. Most of the Finnish officials I met while conducting research for CFR indicated that their decline on PISA was anticipated. Finland's response to 2013 PISA results were quite different from the U.S. Instead of pointing fingers at the exam, Finland looked inward to diagnose the problem as they prepared for their pre-scheduled review of their education standards.

Finland's success on PISA gave government an excuse to cut back on education funding while the growth of the IT sector created competition for the country's brightest math minds leading many to choose the private sector over becoming a teacher. More specifically, the drop in Math scores was attributed to male students in the eastern Finland, many of whom have been impacted by less qualified instructors and to apathy toward education as Finland unemployment rate rose (9.5 percent).

News of Finland's decline piqued the attention of workshop participants who presumably were tuned out by the same one-sided story of U.S. and Finnish PISA results. On a Power Point slide entitled, "Not U.S. vs. Finland, but U.S. AND Finland," I highlighted that education in the U.S. and Finland had many things in common: local control over policy implementation, teacher-centered, and support to lowest performers. Even workshop participants agreed that the foundations for change that brought about the reforms Finland enacted nearly 20 years ago are present in the U.S. today.

Whether its Finland's policy of selecting prospective education majors based on their upper secondary school record, their policy requiring future primary school teachers to major in education and future secondary school teachers to major in the content they teach, their policy of funding at least three days of mandatory professional development each year, or their policy of making teacher salaries more competitive compared to other professions; workshop participants agreed that Finland's policy solutions were possible and necessary for Maryland's future success.

Finland's policy of raising standards for career entry was recently passed in Delaware requiring education majors to have a minimum Grade Point Average and SAT score. Finland's policy of raising standards for teacher entry exists in districts like Montgomery County (MD), where only a small percentage of college graduates are offered teacher contracts. Finland's notion of mandating professional development days could be seen in Fairfax County (VA), where the entire district took half-days on Fridays to allow for teachers to collaborate and lesson plan. And Finland's notion of raising teacher salaries to compete with other fields can be seen in states like Rhode Island where the average elementary school teacher makes $66,790 a year. In the end, Finnish lessons in education are not foreign to the U.S. after all.