Much has been written in the past year about the education system in Finland. Finnish students have scored among the top in the world in international math, science and reading tests over the last decade, so American education experts debate ways to translate that kind of success to our own schools. As part of a U.S. delegation organized by the Education Funders Strategy Group to visit Finland this August, I’ve been asking those same questions.
In some ways, it’s an uneven comparison between the two countries. The U.S. cannot import 400 years of universal literacy that Finland has. Nor is our country likely to reduce child poverty to 4 percent or abolish private schools, as is the case in Finland.
But there are some lessons that seem translatable.
We can develop the political will, and we have the national resources, to have universally available, affordable, developmentally appropriate early childhood care and education. Finland’s early childhood programs –universally available, highly subsidized – are developmentally appropriate and not overly academic. Staff child ratios are 1:4 for the youngest children and 1:7 for older ones, and one of every 3 teachers must have a master-level degree in early childhood development. Special needs are identified early and are addressed. In these centers children learn, among other things, how to be responsible for themselves. Ensuring that every child is ready for school has significant long-term impact on future student success.
We can work on re-professionalizing teaching and have more uniformity of highly competent teachers in every classroom. Finland’s teaching profession is highly selective and requires a master-level degree. Those admitted to the university’s teacher training program receive full tuition and complete a year of observation and practice in a national professional development school under the tutelage of carefully selected master teachers. This intentional early investment in teachers leads to widespread trust and valuing of teachers as professionals, which in turn contributes to a high level of teacher stability within schools. To create a positive cycle for U.S. teachers similar to the Finnish one, we can:
- raise prestige with teacher education scholarships and selective programs, so schools of education and school systems can be more selective, and more teachers graduate free of debt;
- invest in early training and induction support for teachers;
- train good school leaders who know how to maintain favorable working conditions and eliminate unnecessary rigidity from curricula and assessment in order to retain teachers longer;
- by reducing turnover, decrease the annual demand for teachers.
We can build a culture or trust and responsibility for teachers and students in our schools. Finland’s cultural values support high levels of educational achievement – the country believes in a national imperative to educate everyone and a collective responsibility to provide every child with whatever he or she needs to succeed. With a culture of trust and responsibility within the schools, principals exercise a limited amount of oversight over teachers, students are expected to behave responsibly and be responsible for doing their work, and teachers take responsibility for their students’ learning. There is no standardized testing. Finnish public policy concerning education is consensus based and stable.
We as a nation are capable of all of these three things. The question is whether we will do what it takes to make it happen.
Leslie J. Winner, a member of the NC New Schools Board of Directors, is the executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Prior to this role, she worked as general counsel to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and as Vice President and General Counsel to the University of North Carolina. She was also elected to three terms (1993-1998) with the North Carolina State Senate.