Lessons from Finland: Is There a Third Way?
Education is plagued by a reform de jour syndrome. One week charter schools are touted as “the answer,” the next week its value-added teacher assessment, today it is mandatory grade retention for third graders who fail to meet state reading requirements. With all these silver bullets flying around sometimes the best thing to do is to run for cover and hope that common sense will eventually ride into town and proclaim a moratorium on educational fads.
That’s why when my colleagues started talking about the educational reforms in Finland as a model for the United States, I was skeptical. Finland’s population is about the same size as Minnesota’s population. The Finnish economy is tiny compared to the economy of the United States. The histories of the two countries could not be more different.
But still…beginning in the 1980s until today, Finland has come out of the middle of the pack in international achievement competitions to lead the world, while we remain a perennial also ran.
The first thing I learned when I looked into the Finnish “miracle” is that not so long ago they had the same problems as we do today. Test scores were low, equality of educational opportunity was a sound bite not a policy, and Finnish students were being pushed to the margins in the global race to the top.
What did the Finns do to turn their education system around? Pasi Sahlberg, one of the leaders in the Finnish education revolution, summed up their strategy as follows in his 2011 book Finnish Lessons, “The Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation---not choice and competition---can lead to an education system where all children can learn well.”
This amounts to heresy for most of the American educational reformers who have come to intellectual age in the last two decades. Our reform trajectory is standards, uniformity and testing. Could it be we are racing at full speed down an educational blind alley? Is there a new model that combines competition with cooperation which might, just might, give us the policy levers to create a system of public schools where the learning needs of 21st century students would met?
Is there a third way we have yet to explore?