It was with the inklings of cynicism that I began reading an article published yesterday in The Atlantic entitled “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.” Written by Anu Partanen, a NY-based Finnish journalist, the article dwells upon and seeks to broaden the Utopian Finnish educational vision over the jagged edges of the decidedly multicultural, dystopian American rendition of education and its disharmony with a vastly stratified demographic. The article paints a very rosy picture of the Finnish school system which has proven to be one of the most “successful” in the world as measured by the PISA Survey which measures academic skills among 15-year-old students worldwide every three years. Partanen commences to list several exemplary practices the Finnish educational system boasts, but which are narrowly possible only in a country of Finland’s monotone demographic.
Partanen’s idyllic Finnish scholastic goals are summed in two paragraphs:
Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
Of course this is irrefutable. Who would argue with such a benevolent approach to educating our precious children?
Finland has instituted several “unorthodox” educational policies which snub much of what passes for standard operating procedure in the United States. Joining Partanen in the optimistic proclamation of the Finnish Way is Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility. He is also author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” which also seeks to cement the supremacy of the Finnish method of educating its youth. The undeniable subtext with both supporters of Finland’s educational system is that its template can be applied in American schools with equally delicious results.
Some interesting “trademarks” of Finnish education:
-There are no private schools. Even the few independent schools are publicly financed. All degrees and certificates are earned in public schools.
-There are no standardized tests. Instead, teachers are given the ability (and freedom) to independently and personally assess the skills of their students by self-created and self-administered tests.
-Teacher accountability is viewed as a Zen-like inherent blessing. From the article:
As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”
-Academic competition is discouraged and not engaged. There are no “best” lists in Finnish education.
-Which leaves us with the residual no-brainer that school choice is not on most Finn’s radar. With such a robust public school system, who cares?
As I read through Partanen’s piece and its ecstatic rejoice of Finnish education and all it could portend for lagging Americans, a mantra kept repeating in my head. Finland = Apples; America = Oranges. Finland is homogeneous. It’s population and density are sparse. In other words, its education system is tailor made for its cultural and social environment. It is a splendid system predicated on trust and responsibility, ethics are easier to come by when everyone looks like you and shares your value system. Yet, Partanen and Sahlberg persist. They address the doubts many realists would raise when confronted with such foreign Pollyanna remedies to what ails our educational system at home. The system that Finland has in place is wonderful for Finland, but shit for us because America is a cultural behemoth rocked and fractured by an overly diverse population of immigrants and exclusive goals and ethics.
Partanen writes, “Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.” I thoroughly disagree with this logic. Immigrants to Finland, due to the nature of its culture and the quality of immigrants (ie, predominantly Russian and Swedish), are more likely to adopt a Finnish value set. Perhaps the immigrants to Finland are less resistant to assuming a new way of life, if indeed, it is that much different. Using the “immigrant” baseline we tend to seriously underestimate the importance of ethnic background as a predictor of values in most modern American immigrant populations…an importance dictated by the continued grasp of most immigrants to the habits and ethics of their homeland made possible in this era of globalism. Consequently, many immigrants into the U.S. are slow to adopt the traits of American culture. In addition, the demographic fragmentation in America is rather extreme; there is no real “American culture.” This is a melting pot, an inharmonious blend, a potpourri of different and clashing heritages and priorities. Especially when it comes to education and child-rearing.
Partanen continues, “Indeed, Finland’s population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state — after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.” Well this presupposes that American state-based educational systems are completely autonomous and independent to do what they feel is in the best interests of their narrow population segments, but this is also misleading because the American educational system has banded to create a coercive national environment that all parents, ie states, are compelled to abide by in order to meet national standards for college entrance. Any assertion that states act in their own best interest in the matter of education misses a complex social dynamic. The broader American educational culture crosses state lines and if any of these 18 states were to implement a Finnish-style education system, it would be direct mutiny to the putative American system and thus condemn all school aged residents in said state to an academic fate that would exclude them from the “club” that upper education in America has become. Many of the magical 18 Finnish-comparable states are too small to have an effect on the rest of the culturally-torn dystopian country. If Maine, the Dakotas, West Virginia, Wyoming or Vermont decide to suddenly adopt the Finnish way, do you think the Tiger Moms from California will really care or rush to cripple their own child’s future college chances? Because of the Grand Canyon-wide range of cultural underachievement on one hand to the cultural overachievement on the other within American shores, the honorable Finnish system (which I praise in abundance) would go the way of American speed limits. Laughable levels of compliance and nearly unanimous defiance.