Democracy Dies in Darkness

Answer Sheet | Perspective

Educator: In Finland, I realized how 'mean-spirited’ the U.S. education system really is

November 26, 2018 at 3:19 PM

If you have paid any attention to the education debate in this country during the past dozen years or so, you’ve heard that students in Finland score at or near the top of international test scores, time and time again. You may know that, among other things, Finland has no standardized tests, starts formal reading instruction at age 7, requires all general teachers to have a master’s degree and makes sure no student goes hungry.

Related: What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?

U.S. educators visit there often, including Michael J. Hynes, superintendent of New York’s Patchogue Medford School District, who recently chronicled his visit to Finnish schools on Twitter. For example:

This past spring, educators from Shenandoah University in Virginia went to Finland, and this is a report on what they saw. It was written by Mary K. Tedrow, who began teaching high school English in 1978 and ended her K-12 career as the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School in 2016.

She is currently the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. A former Frederick County teacher of the year, she teaches at Lord Fairfax Community College and Johns Hopkins University and is the author of “Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across Content Areas.

By Mary Tedrow

A group of educators from Shenandoah University this year toured schools in Finland, a country which performs at or near the top of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams since the exam came into existence in 2000. PISA tests 15-year-olds every three years and compares achievement levels across the world. Finland surprised everyone in 2000 by being ranked number one and staying in the top ranks in subsequent years.

Two days after we arrived back in the United States this past spring, the United Nations also rated Finland as the happiest country. Could the two be linked?

Though we were very interested in the schooling system, a moment of distinction for me was the fullness of the Finnish commitment to the educational philosophy of no dead ends. In addition to keeping the door perpetually open to learning, the Finns also include competency as a goal — assisting students in finding what they do well.

After World War II, the Finns realized their human beings are their most valuable resource. Their budget reflects this belief. In spite of having three major political parties, all factions agree that human development is paramount, and the educational program has had consistent attention over decades.

The public school system is free to all, for as long as they live. Compulsory education extends from age 6 to 16. After that, students can choose schools, tracks and interests. Students can track academically or vocationally, change their minds midstream, or meld the two together. Remember the goal: competency.

Though students are required to go to school only until age 16, those who leave before secondary school are considered dropouts. Programs designed to entice these youngsters — typically those who struggle academically for a variety of reasons — back into education address the national 5 percent dropout rate. We visited one of these classrooms where teachers rotated three weeks of instruction with three weeks of internships in area businesses.

We toured a secondary school with both a technical and academic wing. The teachers were experimenting with melding the two programs. In the technical wing, we visited a classroom where adults were receiving training to make a career switch. Free.

The fact that students can fail and return, or work and return, or retire and return had a palpable effect on the mood and the tone of the buildings. Surprisingly, considering their achievements, Finnish students spend less time in the classroom, have more breaks throughout the day, and benefit from receiving medical, dental, psychiatric care and healthful meals while in school. It was ... nice.

In comparison, the United States public school system (an idea we invented, by the way) seems decidedly mean-spirited.

Our students enter at around age 5 and have some 13 years to attain a high school diploma. Failure to earn a diploma is a dead end for most. In the United States, when students fail at school — or leave due to many other factors, sometimes just as resistant teenagers — we are done with you. Sure, there are outliers who are successful through luck, sweat, connections or all three, but for most, the lack of a diploma is a serious obstacle toward advancement.

Without a high school diploma, educational aspirations can be severely truncated. Students need a high school diploma to attend community colleges and many technical schools which provide access to advanced skills that impact the living standard.

With or without the needed diploma, any additional education is at the student’s expense in time or money — a further blow to financial standing.

The 13-year window of opportunity does not factor in the developmental level of students at the time of entry. Any educator knows that children do not arrive with the same readiness to learn.

Related: Five U.S. innovations that helped Finland’s schools improve but that American reformers now ignore

There are many other differences. Unlike the Finnish competency system, ours is based on meeting a prescribed set of standards by passing tests of discrete knowledge. Our students face a gauntlet of tests, even though any standards can be woefully outdated by the time a graduate enters a quickly evolving job market. The Finns take matriculation tests (there is choice in these as well) at the end of secondary but all interviewed said the scores did not have much bearing on what students could do next.

One thing is not different: the teaching. The Finns readily admit they did not invent much of their pedagogy. They credit borrowing from the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. Their literature frequently credits the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) for many of the resources used for the development of programs. ASCD headquarters are in Alexandria, Va.

On one of our nights in Helsinki, the streets were filled with students celebrating the end of one of their matriculation tests. We asked them: 'What do you think is different between your schools and ours?"

They were able to tell us in English — one of up to four languages most students have — that American students know they are all competing against each other for limited seats at university and that they will have to find the money to go there. “We are not worried about that, so we can just focus on learning,” they said.

When you think your people are important, it shows.


Valerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times.

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