The Finnish Education System May Not Be the Answer to Our Woes

Jim ShimabukuroBy 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.

Pasi Sahlberg at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu on 11/14/13.

Pasi Sahlberg at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu on 11/14/13.

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:

4 McCabe, Cynthia. “The Economics Behind International Education Rankings.” NEAtoday, 9 Dec. 2010.
5 Hancock, LynNell. “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?”, Sep. 2011.

11 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this, Jim! The reality that “equity and excellence go hand in hand’” is a vitally important insight. In the last chapter of Seven Futures, I argue that we (the US) is far from having a society where everyone’s education matters (the seventh future) because we are far from having a society where everyone matters, period. In the US, social inequity is at present a defining cultural characteristic due to the 30+-year reign of free market mythology(/rigged market reality) that started with the Reagan Administration. That is the “box” within which we currently find ourselves trapped, and it will likely take even more than imagination and will to find ourselves a way out of it…

  2. John, the irony is that we’re not standing still. In fact, we seem to be working harder than ever before to fix our schools. But the problem is that we’re going at it piecemeal without a game plan. And when we force ourselves onto the same page, the only thing we seem able to agree on is more mindnumbing standardized testing.

    Perhaps what we don’t see in our headlong rush to systematically solve the problem is that standardization itself may be the problem. Perhaps we need more reasonable chaos than insane uniformity. The Finns are loose in standardization and give their teachers a lot of room to be creative. Their P-9 curriculum is heavy on recreation, play, music, art, 2nd and 3rd languages. In fact, they don’t do any standardized testing until students are 16.

    Maybe through age 15, the emphasis in the US ought to be greater teacher autonomy along the lines that Bonnie describes in many of her articles — field trips, excursions, real-world hands-on activities — stepping outside the classroom and into the world for learning that’s fun, engaging.

    I’ve always been wary of academic vs. vocational tracking in some school systems in Europe (including Finland) and Asia where students at around age 16 have to choose one or the other. However, the Finns seem to have made the vocational path a bit more credible by offering higher-ed equivalent programs that lead to university-level credentials.

    I think we ought to really look into this 2-track approach. I can see a lot of otherwise disaffected students taking an interest in school programs that lead to technical jobs that involve college level programs and degrees. And if we remain flexible, like the Finns, we could make it easy for them to cross over from one track to the other as their interests and skills develop. In fact, those in vocational tracks could very well end up earning more than their academic counterparts.

    But none of these stand a chance as long as students don’t have the basics in life: a safe and nurturing home and community environment with state-of-the-art resources for learning in classrooms and via the internet 24/7.

  3. “… the more unequal the distribution of wealth in a country, the lower the test scores tend to be.”

    This quote is only half of the story. The other half is that poor education (assumed to be related to low test scores — not provable but probably statistically true) causes lower income. Thus, we have a vicious cycle in which poor schools produce poor people and the income disparities are continued and even increased.

    At the same time, the upper echelons (wealth-wise) of our society do all in their power (well, most do anyway) to continue the current stratified society and to exaggerate it further. They act in the own short-term interest but are harming their long-term prospects because a sinking boat will drown all passengers, including those in first-class.

    We cannot readily overcome these problems, which have taken decades to set up and build into our laws and culture.

    I think that improving education for the poorest neighborhoods will help to break this cycle. The more conservative of the wealth-owners will not like to see this happen because a better educated society will reject demagoguery that is the mainstay of those who would keep the poor “in their place.” But, we cannot readily improve education either — unless technology plays a significant role.

    We stand at a crucial juncture. Educational technology is being built in many ways by many organizations and people. It can be built to support a memory-based education with high-stakes tests or to support learning to think and mastery instead of testing as the measure of success. The latter is more difficult and more costly than the former. The entrepreneurial rewards will take longer to reap, but they will be sustainable and will help to fix our long-standing problems.

    Do not expect any educational solution to fix poverty. What we can hope for is a reduction in income disparity and improvement in the hopes and aspirations of all of our children.

  4. While I tend to agree, in my gut, with the conclusions above, a part of me says to think about it all a bit more. Correlation does not prove causation.

    We spend more money per child than Finland. Does that mean that cutting education budgets will get us better results? Also, do the U.S. education expenditures include local education foundation expenditures?

    Finland has a national set of education standards, a “Common Core” if you will. We have not had that until recently, and it has been strongly opposed in many quarters, leading to a general watering-down of them. What about correlation between strong national standards and national performance? Who has analyzed that? Note that the top schools mentioned above already have strong standards in place, and they’re implemented. The poor schools are less likely to have good standards and their strong implementation.

    And so it goes. It is a certainty that eliminating poverty would raise our education quality for a variety of reasons. We have no direct means to do that in a manner that would be supported by our government. I can already hear the shouts of “socialism.”

    Instead, we can argue forcefully that we are destroying the lives of innocent children with substandard education. Because this writing is being posted in the Educational Technology & Change Journal, it’s most appropriate that I point out the value of educational technology in fixing this problem. We must have very inexpensive hardware and software that is age-appropriate and that helps our children learn both the fundamentals (the 3 Rs) and develop good thinking skills. The balance will favor the former in early years and shift to the latter in upper grades. Then, we must deploy these materials preferentially to poorer areas, both rural and urban.

    Doing so means having reasonable Internet access and a good school and district network infrastructure. I argue that the former must precede (or be done at the same time as) the latter. Putting gigabit Internet into a school with obsolete network infrastructure is just a waste of money. A smart infrastructure will reduce WAN bandwidth requirements.

    There’s just no question that you will be able to get (are sometimes are able to get) the best educational software at the lowest cost if you get it over the Internet. That cost must consider the download stresses on your system and the cost of hardware.

    For these reasons, you should seek out software that is platform-agnostic and that does not require a hefty bandwidth to function well.

    OER is a big buzzword these days, but they used to say in the 1960s that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This dictum applies everywhere. All OERs are not created equal. That’s not to say that a fee-based educational product or service is guaranteed to be great either. However, the profit motive does help as much as hinder.

    More expensive does not necessarily mean better any more than free means better. Seek the best without concern for cost. Then, look at cost. If several solutions have similar capabilities, then you can choose the least expensive one — if you have included all costs including training, infrastructure impact, and maintenance.

    For the last item, web-based (aka cloud-based) services may be your best bet. You don’t have to upgrade; it’s automatic. To ensure your future, pick something that is platform-agnostic and tracks updates to platforms. Today, HTML5 appears to have the edge here. You will have to have recent versions of browsers (not necessarily the latest). Make sure that your vendor is tracking developments in this area so that a browser upgrade does not break the software — and don’t upgrade until you contact the vendor regarding support.

    We can solve this problem. The only question is, “Will we?” The solution will not come out of the usual places because it hasn’t and has had plenty of time to.

    • Harry: We spend more money per child than Finland. Does that mean that cutting education budgets will get us better results?

      Hi, Harry. Good question, and the answer is maybe.

      Maybe because appropriating 30% less will translate to 30% less of what we’re currently doing. Maybe this is a good thing since what we’re currently doing with the poverty student population (PSP) obviously isn’t working. What would we cut? One possibility is to cut a majority of the PSP-oriented services in the most needy schools.

      That 30% could then be redirected to new PSP efforts. For example, the amount earmarked for schools would remain the same, but the 30% differential could be allotted to EORs (equal opportunity resources). EORs would be specifically designed to address problems in a school’s home and community learning environments.

      EOR staff could be hired and assigned to visit students’ homes and given the power to authorize funding to qualified families for broadband internet access as well as computer hardware and software. All of this could be subsidized by EOR funds and require parents or guardians to attend periodic neighborhood workshops, with their children, on how to use the technology.

      In this way, parents and neighborhoods could be brought into the learning sphere. Adults, too, would be encouraged to use the equipment to improve their educational backgrounds and job outlooks.

      Another facet of EORs could be shelter, health, and nutrition visits — in conjunction with the technology effort to get a foot in the door. EOR staff would have the power to authorize subsidized medical and dental care as well as rent and food assistance.

      There’s no getting around the need to take care of the basic essentials for life and learning if we want our schools to succeed with the PSP. Present methods aren’t working. With some creativity, we may be able to boost our chances without spending more than we already are.

      There’s also the possibility for additional social services funds from other state agencies when these other issues are addressed. This wouldn’t mean more taxes. Instead, it would mean a better accounting of current tax dollars.

      Improving learning conditions in the homes of the PSP will have far-reaching consequences for both students and their families. One of the possibilities is lifelong learning and job training and retraining via online courses.

      Additional impacts would be more dynamic school systems, which would begin to realize the advantages of expanding their online learning resources and services.

      In the interest of equalization, students from middle class and affluent families could be required to provide their own in-school technology and the savings could be passed on to the EOR program.

      Again, we have to use our imaginations. We have to see more than what’s in our rear-view mirrors. We have to see the possibilities — and many of the possibilities are embedded in the latest technologies that are readily available to the majority.

      • Well, when I wrote that, I was thinking of cutting as much as 100%. That was my point. You can’t just cut and cut and hope for better. For the wealthy, it makes no difference. For the rest of us, it’s crucial.

        Many of your suggestions are excellent. I wish we could do those things. I don’t know why we aren’t, except of the power of inertia.

        Improving PSP education should be a national priority. Those figures regarding reading scores and poverty should be a national disgrace. Yet, everyone seems to shrug and say that that’s just how things are. What about how things can be?

        And equalization? Once more, I can hear the howls of “socialism” coming from all over. It’s fine to take from the poor and give to the rich. They call that capitalism (but it really isn’t).

        Why can’t people see that sinking ships drown everyone regardless of the class of their tickets? Why can’t we see that our country is in a struggle and must not waste our most valuable resource: the minds of our children? Poor does not mean dumb. Abraham Lincoln grew up poor. So have many of our great people. How many more great people might we have if everyone received a good education? How much would that add to our GDP? And it’s not just the great ones who contribute to our success. It’s every single person who works hard. But, hard work will not fix everything. If there’s an educated mind in that hard worker, the impact on society is much greater.

        I really don’t care whether it’s done with EORs or with foundation grants or with sweat and pluck. We must do it or drown.

  5. The Finish language is very phonetic and their spelling is a one to one relation between sounds and letters in Finish words. Reading is simpler in Finish therefore we might want to look at the problems between phonetics and spelling. Teaching a Finish kid to read is relatively simple and therefore they can devote more attention to content.

  6. Frank, I agree. We needed to switch to a phonetic spelling system a long time ago. Instead, we created a huge roadblock to learning by requiring a memory intensive spelling system. Perhaps tehnology will step in with sophisticated input systems that will automatically correct approximate phonetic spellings or, better yet, with better voice reognition systems that will allow us to bypass keyboards and spelling altogether. For reading, tech could easily provide a voice or audio option that could translate written text.

    Your suggestion, in many of your past articles, for year-round schooling also makes a lot of sense in light of repeated research that indicates a signiicant loss of learning over the summer, especially for students in poor learning environments.

    Your repeated suggestion for extendng the hours that schools remain open is also an acknowledgement that learning isn’t, and shouldn’t, be confined to 8am-3pm. The space is already there, and with creative scheduling and use of paraprofessionals or volunteers, access to learning could be made available into the evening. Here, too, tech could play a big part, engaging students and freeing teachers to manage a broader time schedule.

    You’ve also written about 24/7 access to learning, and tech can definitely play a role here.

    Finally, your repeated calls for student-centered learning and extending the walls of the classroom to include excursions and field trips to transform learning from a dull text and lecture mode to real-life experiences haven’t gone unheard.

    Don’t stop reminding us that so much more can be done to pump new life into our deflated schools. We hear you . . .

    • It was in the 1950s that I ran across The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (published in 1952), which contained a short essay published by W. K. Lessing under the pseudonym Dolton Edwards. The title says it all quite humorously: Meihem in ce Klasrum.

      The beauty of this essay is that it has you reading phonetically as though nothing odd had happened to the spelling by the end of the essay. It has the wonderful bonus of requiring no new alphabetical symbols or diacritical marks. It’s simple, clean, and easy.

      The big problem would be that all older works may become difficult to read, much as middle English is today. I just finished reading Undaunted Courage. It contained many quotes, as originally written, by Lewis, Clark, and members of the group. In quite a few passages, I had to stop and reread because the spelling threw me off.

      Here is one copy:

      While there has been some criticism of this approach, I don’t believe that Lessing intended his idea to be implemented exactly but rather merely showed a path forward. To get the feeling for the essay, read the last paragraph first and then the entire essay from the beginning. How far should the quest for phonetic English go?

    • I certainly agree that summer vacation is foolish and that ending the school day at 3 pm also harms us.

      In the first place, the investment in the physical plant of a school is huge and is mostly wasted in summer and after 3 pm. In the second place, students manage to forget much of their previous year’s schooling during the summer. In the third place, today’s world demands a great deal of parents, and having children remain at school a bit longer will help very many of them cope.

    • The concept of 24/7 access to learning can now be realized. Hallelujah!

      As you all know, I’m doing my part, as my limited ability and resources allow.

      We here at Smart Science Education have converted our software to run on mobile platforms through the amazing capabilities of Google Web Toolkit. We have rolled it out to a large school district, a very large U.S. university system, a textbook publisher, and a big-name company in the business of media-based education.

      For many years, we have received positive feedback here and there on what we’re doing, but it’s been mostly individual teachers. Now, we have validation from top-level professionals. I can tell you that it’s very gratifying. These remarks may seem commercial in character, and they are somewhat, but they are intended to show that quality 24/7 learning can be delivered today.

      Big education companies and other large education enterprises have no excuse. If my micro-company can do it with no outside investment, then they can too. If they won’t, then we the people must take matters into our own hands and do it ourselves. All of the ideas are out there floating around in web space. Just do it!

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