Friday, October 21, 2011

Be Like Finland?

By Jaime Willis

For educators, reformers and wonks, Finland has, in the past several years, become the 'gold standard' of effective public K-12 education.

Finland, a county in the icy north of Europe, has a population of about 5.3 million people, roughly the same population and climate of the State of Minnesota.

In 1971, the government of Finland commissioned a study on their public education that conclude that education was the key to boosting the national economy.  As a result, they instituted several reforms to their current education model: reducing class sizes, boosting teacher pay, and requiring all teachers to complete a rigorous master's program (the last reform was given 8 years of preparation time so the existing work force had time to comply).

What is perhaps more notable than what they chose to do is what they chose NOT to do.  Finland soundly rejected the standardized testing model -- students in Finland are only required to take one standardized exam at the end of their schooling as a college entrance test.  Finnish teachers have a federal curriculum, but use it as a guide for creating their own lesson plans and designing their own course structure.  Finland also doesn't track students (honors/remedial courses) and doesn't have struggling/failing students repeat grades.

The results are pretty impressive.  The 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an exam covering math, science, and reading and given every three years to 15-year-olds around the world showed Finnish students scoring 3rd in the world in reading, 2nd in science, and 6th in math.  The United States, by contrast, was 31st (in a field of 65) in reading and math and 23rd in science.

Since the 1971 reforms, K-12 teaching in Finland has become an esteemed career.  The country's Masters in Education programs are so popular that only 1 student in 9 or 10 is accepted.  The best and brightest, and frequently most passionate educators are saturated throughout the entire public school system, rather than targeted in small pockets of "good" school districts.  As a result, the difference between the "best" and "worst" public schools in Finland is negligible -- all students are doing the same, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or economic status.

So, the question of the hour is how can we in the United States take these research-based reforms that are working so well in a tiny homogenous country in Europe and apply them to a country whose population is almost 60 times greater?

I'd think it be really interesting to have a state serve as an incubator for this model.  Mississippi may be a great test case.  The state has a population of under 3 million, and their students consistently score in the bottom quartile in standardized tests.  Could Mississippi State work with their public universities to create a rigorous master's program? Could the state afford to boost the salary of public educators across the state to entice graduates to stay in Mississippi and teach?  Could the local economy support the infrastructure changes required to reduce class sizes? How differently would Mississippi look 10 years from now if it were able to start making these changes today?

Finland has a bursting high-tech market with companies like Nokia leading the way.  Could Mississippi become the next Silicon Valley?

What challenges do you think any state faces in introducing Finnish education reforms?  Are any states introducing these reforms already and if so, to what effect?

I know I am excited by the idea of breeding a fertile ground for passionate educators and this reform model seems like one great way to do it.

Research on this post comes, in part, from a great article in The New Republic entitled "Children Must Play." 

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