Friday, December 16, 2011

Finnish school system ticks all the right boxes

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?'
By Jenny Anderson

Out of a class of 15, two hands went up - one a little reluctantly.

'In my country, that would be 25 per cent of people,' he said.

'And,' he added, thrusting his hand in the air with enthusiasm, 'it would be more like this.'

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 subsidised master's programme for schoolteachers.

'It's more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine,' he said.

He 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.

Take last week. On Monday, Dr Sahlberg was the keynote speaker at an education conference in Chicago. On Tuesday, he had to return to Helsinki for an Independence Day party held by Finland's president - a coveted invitation to an event that much of the country watches on television.

On Wednesday, it was Washington, to a party for the release of his latest book, Finnish Lessons: What Can The World Learn From Educational Change In Finland?, that drew staff members from the White House and Congress.

Thursday brought him to the Upper West Side, for a day-long visit to Dwight School, a for-profit school that prides itself on internationalism.

Ever since Finland - a nation of about 5.5 million that does not start formal education until age seven and scorns homework and testing until well into the teenage years - was placed at the top of a well-respected international test in 2001 in maths, science and reading, it has been an object of fascination among American educators and policymakers.

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

The Finnish Embassy in Washington hosts brunch seminars with titles like 'Why are Finnish kids so smart?', and organises trips to Finland for education journalists eager to see for themselves.

In Helsinki, the Education Ministry has had 100 official delegations from about 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 homogeneous population - 5 per cent 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.

Mr Patrick Bassett, head of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, and a fan of what Finland has been doing, said one of the things he learnt on his own pilgrimage to the country was that the average resident checks out 17 books a year from the library.

'There are things they do right,' said Prof Mark Schneider, vice-president of the American Institutes for Research, 'but I'm not sure how many lessons we get are portable.'

Dr Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Finlandophilia was 'totally deified' and 'blown out of proportion'.

But Prof Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, said Finland could be an excellent model for individual states, noting that it is about the size of Kentucky.

'The fact that we have more race, ethnicity and economic heterogeneity, and we have this huge problem of poverty, should not mean we don't want qualified teachers. The strategies become even more important,' she said.

'Thirty years ago, Finland's education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.'

Both Prof Darling-Hammond and Dr Sahlberg said a turning point was a government decision in the 1970s to require all teachers to have master's degrees - and to pay for their acquisition. The starting salary for school teachers in Finland, 96 per cent of whom are unionised, was about US$29,000 (S$38,000) in 2008, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared to about US$36,000 in the US.

More bear than tiger, Finland scorns almost all standardised testing before age 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children's right to be children for them to start school any sooner than 7am, Dr Sahlberg said during his day at Dwight.

He spoke to seniors taking a Theory of Knowledge class, then met administrators and faculty members.

'The first six years of education are not about academic success,' he said. 'We don't measure children at all. It's about being ready to learn and finding your passion.'

Dr Sahlberg, 52, an Education Ministry official and a former maths teacher, is the author of 15 books. He said he wrote the latest one, which sold out its first print run in a week, in response to the overwhelming interest in his country's educational system.

It was not meant to claim that Finland's way was the best way, he said, and he was quick to caution against countries trying to import ideas a la carte and then expecting results.

'Don't try to apply anything,' he told the Dwight teachers. 'It won't work because education is a very complex system.'

Besides high-quality teachers, he pointed to Finland's Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story.

He emphasised that Finland's success is one of basic education, from age seven until 16, at which point 95 per cent of the country go on to vocational or academic high schools.

'The primary aim of education is to serve as an equalising instrument for society,' he said.

Dr Sahlberg said another reason the system had succeeded was that 'only dead fish follow the stream' - a Finnish expression.

Finland is going against the tide of the 'global education reform movement', which is based on core subjects, competition, standardisation, test-based accountability, control.

'Education policies (in the US) are always written to be 'the best' or 'the top this or that',' he said. 'We're not like that. We want to be better than the Swedes. That's enough for us.'