Saturday, March 13, 2010

Here are Dana Goldstein’s comments:


You ask a bunch of questions today about Finland which I can answer, having traveled there in December 2008 with a group of education writers eager to learn about their system.


1. Private schools are very, very rare in Finland. There are religious-oriented schools available, but they are also part of the public system and government-funded. In fact, every Finnish child must take required classes on Christianity in every school--it's part of the national curriculum. As the country's Muslim population grows, this will likely become more controversial. When I was there just before Christmas '08, I watched a class of young Muslim girls sit through an entire lesson Christmas songs, with no mention at all from teacher that Christmas is not the holiday everyone celebrates.


2. That said, there is choice built into the system. At the secondary level (high school), kids can choose from one of two tracks, which are represented at separate schools: academic (which prepares you for liberal arts university or polytechnic university) or vocational (which prepares you either for the job market or for something akin to our community college system, called polytechnic colleges). There is competition to get into highly regarded high schools and schools' test scores are available to parents. The vocational colleges are very specialized--you can study cosmetology or restaurant management. These are kids 15-18. Would Americans be comfortable with driving teens toward a career at that early age and admitting they will never go on to academic higher ed? I doubt it.


3. Finnish teachers have a very strong union that has influence over politics and even runs its own candidates from time to time. Majority of Finnish workers, even professionals, are unionized. There is teacher tenure very similar to our system, and principals complain that they can only fire teachers for problems like alcoholism. It's a lot like the complaints you'd hear here except their schools are the best in the world.


4. There IS merit pay in Finland (salary bonuses and other incentives), but it is school-wide, not based on individual teachers and the scores of their individual students. At one school I visited, the entire teaching staff had gone on a summer vacation to Italy because they had done so well on the previous year's testing!


Hope this answers some of your questions, and feel free to share this with your readers. My piece on the Finnish education system is here and the teachers, principals, and students I met there is here:

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