Wednesday, January 04, 2012

From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model

A very interesting article about Finland's educational system, which I think does have some important lessons for the U.S., especially in the area of recruiting only top college students to become teachers.  Can you imagine how quickly things would improve if ALL teacher recruiting in this country was done like Teach for America does it???

In his country, Dr. Sahlberg said later in an interview, teachers typically spend about four hours a day in the classroom, and are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development. At the University of Helsinki, where he teaches, 2,400 people competed last year for 120 slots in the (fully subsidized) master's program for schoolteachers. "It's more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine," he said.

Dr. Sahlberg puts high-quality teachers at the heart of Finland's education success story — which, as it happens, has become a personal success story of sorts, part of an American obsession with all things Finnish when it comes to schools.

…Ever since Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million that does not start formal education until age 7 and scorns homework and testing until well into the teenage years, scored at the top of a well-respectedinternational test in 2001 in math, science and reading, it has been an object of fascination among American educators and policy makers.

Finlandophilia only picked up when the nation placed close to the top again in 2009, while the United States ranked 15th in reading, 19th in math and 27th in science.

The Finnish Embassy in Washington hosts brunch seminars with titles like "Why Are Finnish Kids So Smart?" and organizes trips to Finland for education journalists eager to see for themselves. In Helsinki, the Education Ministry has had 100 official delegations from 40 to 45 countries visit each year since 2005. Schools there used to love the attention, making cakes and doing folk dances for the foreigners, Dr. Sahlberg said, but now the crush of observers is considered a national distraction.

Critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for the United States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogenous population — 5 percent are foreign-born — and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income).

Its school system has roughly the same number of teachers as New York City's but far fewer students, 600,000 compared with New York's 1.1 million. Finnish students speak Finnish and Swedish and usually English. (Patrick F. Bassett, head of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, a fan of what Finland has been doing, said one of the things he learned on his own pilgrimage to Finland was that the average resident checks out 17 books a year from the library.)

"There are things they do right," said Mark Schneiderman, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, "but I'm not sure how many lessons we get are portable." Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Finlandophilia was "totally deified" and "blown out of proportion."

Bob Compton (who did my documentary, A Right Denied; has made a compelling documentary about Finland's educational system called The Finland Phenomenon: Inside The World's Most Surprising School System.  You can see the trailer and order it at:

Compton's film makes an interesting comparison between Finland and Minnesota: same size population, same demographics, even similar amounts of money spent on education. Yet Finland is #1 and Minnesota kids are #12 on international exams.  Compton also points out that 35 US states are the same size as Finland or smaller.  And 17 states have very similar demographics.  Compton believes the U.S. has much to learn from Finland.


From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model

Published: December 12, 2011

Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, had a simple question for the high school seniors he was speaking to one morning last week in Manhattan: "Who here wants to be a teacher?"

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