Anxiety about Finnish Schools

Viikki Teacher Training School in Helsinki (image courtesy Malene Erkmann).

Finnish schools are routinely heralded as the gold standard for the rest of the world, primarily by self-conscious Americans who persistently troop through Finnish classrooms hoping to find the magic potion.  It is not clear that the American K-12 educational system is failing in all the ways American ideologues transparently lament, but the attention to Finnish schools is perhaps most interesting as an ethnographic question revolving around Americans’ own anxieties about education and American competitiveness.  The Finns certainly seem to do some things quite well and have improved significantly since the 1970s, but their system is radically different: The Finns dismiss American reforms such as testing, private and charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, and suffocating teacher evaluation.  Despite Americans’ fascination with Finland’s high test scores, America may be unwilling if not unable materially, socially, and culturally to make such profound transformations.

Americans’ fascination with Finnish education (and apprehension over our own self-perceived shortcomings) has been most clearly initiated by their stellar test scores and various rankings placing them at or near the world’s best school systems.  The Program for International Student Assessment(PISA) test that compares schools around the world in math, reading, and science has placed Finnish students at or near the top in each of the three studies conducted since 2000, while Americans have limped along well behind the Finns.  In the 2009 PISA test, the Finns placed second (to the Republic of Korea) in both reading and mathematics (the US was 14th and 25th respectively); and the Finns were first in science (the US was 17th).  In 2009 the United Nations Education Index placed Finland in a five-way tie for the world’s best school system (along with Denmark, Cuba, Australia, and New Zealand; the US was 13th).

Arola Elementary School in Ohkola (image courtesy MikeAncient).

For Americans, the Finnish model is puzzling: Finnish schools assign nearly no homework at all, valuing creativity and genuine Socratic conversation.  American students visiting Finland (I have an ethnographic study subject in my own household) are joyful to find that Finnish children spend fewer hours in school than in any school system in the developed world.  Finnish children do not start school until they are seven years old, though nearly all are in preschools, where the focus is on allowing children to play (and they always receive a long recess).  For a system in which children test very well, students are nearly never tested.  In 2008 the Wall Street Journal surveyed these facts and scratched its head in bemusement that “High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7. …. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.”

The Finns long had no concrete goal to produce high test scores; instead, they simply aspired to serving all Finnish children with good, free meals, consistent health care, sound buildings, small class sizes (average size of 20), and respected and well-paid teachers.  In few if any countries in the world are teachers more highly valued and respected than in Finland.  Finnish teachers receive their educations at the cost of the state; all have Master’s degrees; the competition for teaching jobs is significant; they are unionized; most teachers stay with a class group for five years, as opposed to changing teachers every year; and they have considerable freedom to craft lesson plans appropriate to their students and community.

All of this has been dissected by the popular press as it paints a caricature of the American school system that ignores all the complexities of the US and all the successes of American education.  From an ethnographic perspective Americans’ popular vision of education may be most interesting in the recurring American neurosis about universal measures of success like test scores, which misses Finns’ ability to see “success” in much more complex ways that include students’ self-esteem, teachers’ own satisfaction, and an unwillingness to leave behind members of the community who may not have conventional academic skills.

It also conveniently ignores that ours is a system and society characterized by profound disparities.  Visit a range of central Indiana schools—or those in any other relatively diverse metropolitan American city—and you will find some exceptionally beautiful and well-equipped buildings in some zip codes, and other schools in lower tax brackets are poorly outfitted and deteriorating structures.  Comparison of Finnish and American schools is unreasonable if not hypocritical in some ways.  A 2012 study of student poverty by UNICEF found that American kids had the second highest poverty rate in the world at 23.1%, whereas Finns’ 5.3% rate was the second lowest in the world.  Changing that system would not come cheap, and in contemporary Finland–in school and all social services–everybody pays and everybody benefits.  “Success” may have little or nothing to do with Americans’ working harder or teachers developing new classroom practices and much more to do with rethinking some of the fundamental assumptions about what we want out of schools at all.

Arola School image courtesy MikeAncient

Viikii School image courtesy Malene Erkmann