Friday, April 09, 2004

Finnishing School

A New York Times article about the world-beating, value-for-money-providing Finnish educational system touches on one of the major raisons d'etre of this blog: what can the experience of one country teach others?

Imagine an educational system where children do not start school until they are 7, where spending is a paltry $5,000 a year per student, where there are no gifted programs and class sizes often approach 30. A prescription for failure, no doubt, in the eyes of many experts, but in this case a description of Finnish schools, which were recently ranked the world's best.
The question on people's minds is obvious: how did Finland, which was hobbled by a deep recession in the 1990's, manage to outscore 31 other countries, including the United States, in the review by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development last September? The rankings were based on reading, math and science tests given to a sample of 15-year-olds attending both public and private schools. United States students placed in the middle of the pack.

Finland's recipe is both complex and unabashedly basic. It is also similar to that in other Nordic countries. Some of the ingredients can be exported (its flexibility in the classroom, for example) and some cannot (the nation's small, homogenous population and the relative prosperity of most Finns, to name two).

If one trait sets Finland apart from many other countries, it is the quality and social standing of its teachers, said Barry Macgaw, the director for education at the O.E.C.D.
So long as schools stick to the core national curriculum, which lays out goals and subject areas, they are free to teach the way they want. They can choose their textbooks or ditch them altogether, teach indoors or outdoors, cluster children in small or large groups.
There are two lessons that can be easily implemented:
  • Finland has been successful despite the lack of headstart programs, heavy spending, gifted programs or small class sizes. Therefore, undue emphasis on these issues is probably a distraction from the measures that actually need to be taken.
  • Individual schools should be free to teach what and how they want within the broad guidelines of a national curriculum.
The implementation of others will probably face strong resistance from identity groups.
  • Finland's educational success is due in part to its homogeneity. Assuming that we rule out ethnic cleansing (and we should), multiculturalism should be downplayed rather than stressed.
One conclusion that the left can take heart in
  • Finland, like the other Nordic countries, puts the social in social democracy, which means that strong, active teachers' unions may not necessarily be the obstacle to good educational policy that libertarians, especially in the United States, make them out to be.
And a caveat.
  • Finland's small, prosperous, homogenous population and even its high esteem for teachers may not be so easy to replicate. If its success depends heavily on any of these factors, then otherwise unnecessary measures such as headstart programs, heavy spending, gifted programs, small class sizes and union-busting may, in fact, prove necessary.