By Jim Shimabukuro
Pasi Sahlberg1 talked about the Finnish comprehensive public education system at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu on 14 November 2013 (Essoyan2). The system ranks among the highest in the world in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and other international tests. It is free for students from preschool through higher education and is considered a model for the rest of the world.
Features of the system have been widely covered for years3, so I won’t go into them. What’s worth highlighting in Sahlberg’s talk at West Oahu, however, is his caveat that “‘what works in Finland doesn’t necessarily work someplace else.'” In other words, we can’t and shouldn’t simply port Finnish practices over to the U.S. and hope for the same results.
Sahlberg presented “slides showing that the more unequal the distribution of wealth in a country, the lower the test scores tend to be.” The United States, he said, “has high inequality and relatively low academic performance, while the reverse is true for Finland.” According to Sahlberg, the U.S. is “‘one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. There is a big gap between those who have and don’t have.'” He characterized Finland as a lot more egalitarian. “‘Somehow,'” he said, “‘the equity and excellence go hand in hand'” (Essoyan).
The poverty factor in international test results for the U.S. was analyzed a few years ago by Gerald N. Tirozzi, head of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. His findings underscore Sahlberg’s warning that poverty is a critical variable in test performance. Control for it, and U.S. students are right up there with the highest scoring countries:
- In schools where less than 10 percent of students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score is 551. That would place those U.S. students at No. 2 on the international ranking for reading, just behind Shanghai, China, which topped the ranking with a score of 556.
- In schools where 75 percent or more of the students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score was 446. That’s off the bottom of the charts, below last-place Greece’s 483.4
The message from Sahlberg is a simple one, but it’s one that we can’t afford to ignore. The issue in our failing schools is in large part socioeconomic — not educational.
In the U.S., we tend to think that the solution to fixing our schools is to spend more on them, but the sad fact is that “Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.”5 The need, perhaps, is to step back, look at the bigger picture, and ask ourselves: What are the key poverty-related factors that impact learning? How can we address them? Can we find practical and sustainable responses to them? Ultimately, the question may come down to: Do we have the imagination and the will to think outside the box to improve our schools?
1 Pasi Sahlberg is Director General of CIMO (National Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture in Helsinki. He will be a visiting professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in January 2014.
2 Essoyan, Susan. “Social Equity Identified As Key to School Success: A Finnish Expert Cites Aspects of His Nation’s Schools that the U.S. Could Follow.” Star-Advertiser, 17 Nov. 2013.
3 Sampling of sources on Finland’s education system:
- Linda Darling-Hammond, “What We Can Learn from Finland’s Successful School Reform” (NEA, Oct. 2010).
- Adam Taylor, “Why Finland’s Unorthodox Education System Is the Best in the World” (Business Insider, 27 Nov. 2012).
- Ellen Gamerman, “What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?” (Wall Street Journal, 29 Feb. 2008).
- Linda Moore, “Finland Has an Education System the US Should Envy – and Learn From” (The Guardian, 17 Oct. 2013).
- Finland Education, Huff Post, 25 May 2011 – 19 Feb. 2013.
- Diane Ravitch, “Teacher Education in Finland” (Diane Ravitch’s Blog, 15 Sep. 2013).
- C.J. Westerberg, “Finland Education: What’s Up?” (The Daily Riff, 15 Sep. 2013).
4 McCabe, Cynthia. “The Economics Behind International Education Rankings.” NEAtoday, 9 Dec. 2010.
5 Hancock, LynNell. “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” Smithsonian.com, Sep. 2011.