What We Can't Learn from Finland's Schools: Apples, Oranges, and Denial

I fear our fetishization of Finland is less about finding the good things to copy and more about willful denial of the roots of the problems in the United States. Posts about Finland mention the length of recess, time out doors, student agency, starting school later and freedom. Those are important.
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education elementary school ...
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It happened again. This morning yet another Facebook friend clicked share on yet another article about how Finland is doing a better job educating kids than the US. The article mentioned the usual more recess time, teachers earning both more respect and more money, children starting kindergarten later. I know. I know.

As a United States educator whose career began with the birth of "No Child Left Behind" and punishing mandates for high stakes testing, I'm tired of playing Jan to Finland's Marcia. Edu-Corp consultants contracted by district Professional Development specialists focus on Finland. Op-Ed writers looking for quick edu-solves bring up Finland. Reformer-junkies talk up Finland as they introduce the charters they founded. Administrators remind us about Finland during staff meetings. Teachers' Unions use Finland to point out teachers need more respect. Ex-pat parents wistfully blog about how lucky they are to have their child in a Finnish school.

It's difficult not to feel like Jan Brady. After ten years of reading about Finland, I want to put on my knee socks and red jumper, pout, and plug in "Finland" for "Marcia. "Every time Finland turns around they hand it a blue ribbon or something. All I hear all day long at school is hear how great Finland is at this or how wonderful Finland is at that. Finland! Finland! Finland!"

Yes, as the Brady parents pointed out, Finland's worked very hard for those things. They reformed their whole education system. They deserve recognition, trophies, and ribbons. There's a reason that the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching receives so many US applicants desiring placement in Finland. So many more applicants in fact that the application directions tell US teachers to consider applying to visit another country if they wish to be selected for the award.

But I fear our fetishization of Finland is less about finding the good things to copy and more about willful denial of the roots of the problems in the United States. Posts about Finland mention the length of recess, time out doors, student agency, starting school later and freedom. Those are important.

But articles about Finland don't address poverty, rates of youth incarceration, the availability of affordable medical care, the availability of maternal/paternal leave, the impact of the rise and influence of religious fundamentalism on public education, or the monetization of our education system by entrepreneurial edu-corp reformers. They certainly don't discuss the impact our history of slavery, genocide, and segregation has upon school systems.

As a Fulbrighter in India this spring, I'm seeing uncomfortable similarities between Indian education and education in the United States. It's so uncomfortable I can see why our edu-corp community wants to look somewhere else for inspiration, but I think being uncomfortable is part of the work. So in the interest of making everyone squirm, here are some issues that the US and India have in common.

1. The US and India share brutal histories involving race and caste. The US Government's genocidal policies toward Native Americans and the 400 years of slavery upon which our country's economic system was built have had a lasting impact on our educational system. India's caste system has had a lasting impact as well. The systemic impact of these oppressive systems shape the way our students learn today. If United States and Indian educators partner to share curricular successes, peacebuilding paradigms, and our work toward equity, we could prove to be supports for one another.

2. The US is in the process of dismantling its public schools to look more like Indian Government schools. In India, I've learned about the different systems of school. Public (the equivalent private school in the US) and Government (the equivalent of public school in the US) are the two most important distinctions to understand in my argument. Here parents won't send their children to Government schools (public). They do everything not to send kids there. The stereotype of a Government school teacher in India is lazy, poorly trained, and hugely overpaid (sound familiar). Because Government schools are so feared, Public schools (private, to Americans) have proliferated. Families undergo tremendous stress to get their child into the "right" Public (private) school here. Even extra "donations" to the school. In the US, among the wealthy, no one goes to public school. Among the professional middle class, parents strive for charters or move into a neighborhood with a good school. The poor wind up stuck with the school no one else wants. We're on our way to the same Public (private)/Government (public) system here in India, we're just not starving for tuitions yet. Studying how this split occurred in India and whether it can be healed could help us deal with our own problems.

3. Diversity of language, culture, and religion is an issue in both the United States and India. Although the US likes to pretend it has one language, it has many. India, to its credit, knows it has many. US educators have much to learn from multi-lingual Indians. Both India and US schools have to confront issues of religious diversity and freedom. As often as a "Finland is great" blog post appears, one is published about a religious extremist in the US objecting to basic science, literature, or sexual education curriculum. Political religious struggles at the state level impact the quality of learning in the classroom and relationships between students in the classroom. Scholars in India and the US could examine our schools' responses to linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity to develop and share best practices.

4. The US has the one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. In this regard, we're much closer to India than Finland. Finland has the second lowest rate of child poverty in the world (and the lowest in Europe). To learn how to educate our children, we need to work with other countries working to end child poverty, not compare our outcomes to countries that don't suffer from the same widespread blight. India, like the US has uneven rates of literacy and poverty among its states. We could work together to explore the causes and cures.

On top of our poverty rate, the incarceration rate in the US is the highest in the world. Another popular blog topic is the school-to-prison pipeline. Finland has one of the lower rates. In my research, I learned that Finland's prisons, like its schools, are touted among scholars of effective incarceration. While I'm not visiting India's youth prisons, I work in one in the United States. When you step into my classroom there, the correlation between racism, poverty, addiction, and incarceration is so apparent, it seems silly to have to ask people to prove it through research. It's like asking someone to prove ice is slippery.

That's how I feel as a US educator of incarcerated youth when I read articles about Finland. I'm a teacher, not a skeptic. I know kids deserve "highly qualified, highly respected and highly professionalized teachers who conduct personalized one-on-one instruction; manageable class sizes; a rich, developmentally correct curriculum; regular physical activity; little or no low-quality standardized tests" as William Doyle, the author of today's "Finland's doing it right" article, says. Knowing that is the easy part. All it takes is a few weeks working in the classroom to realize it.

Yes, we need those kinds of classrooms in the US, but ten years of fawning over Finland is like standing on the beach watching while someone else drowns.

It's not that I'm against longer recess, more freedom for students, and more respect for teachers, more loving classrooms, edu-corps consultants being banned. Sign me up. What worries me is that we argue for these things at the expense of addressing deeper issues that impact our schools: poverty, corporate interests divvying up our public schools, the complexities of diversity, the dangers of religious fundamentalism, and our country's longstanding institutionalized racism. We need to create equity. Longer recess isn't going to cut it.

Dear ones writing about education, I know what Finland is doing is good for students. Beyond test scores, it's good classroom practice. I aspire to adopt the model of caring schools here in the US. It's both possible and necessary for the US to do better for children.

What about our children, who aren't provided the much lauded "baby box" at birth? Education writers and bloggers, what I want you to show me are practices that are working for poor students struggling with issues more like the ones I see everyday in the United States and India. Help me find those educators. They are my peers.

And Finland, keep up the excellent work. We all aspire to be one of your peers someday.

Nicole Stellon O'Donnell is a 2015-2016 Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching recipient and is currently researching education in India. Her book, Steam Laundry, won the 2013 Willa Award for Poetry. She teaches English at a school of incarcerated youth in Fairbanks, Alaska. More of her writing is available at her blog. The opinions in this article are her own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the US Department of State.

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