Friday, March 7, 2008

The Finnish Miracle

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Finnish teenagers are the “among the smartest in the world.” Interestingly, high schools in Finland do not have honor societies, valedictorians, school uniforms, or gifted classes. Students complete about a half hour of homework per night and there is little standardized testing.

57 countries were tested in an international measure and U.S. teens were rated as “C students.” This, given the current national focus on standardized testing and rigorous standards. In addition, U.S. high school students have hours of homework, especially if the children are labeled as gifted. On a personal note, I see gifted children in the U.S. as a standardized test “cash cow” for schools. They are the work horses that help pull schools’ average test scores up. In Finland, however, there are no gifted programs, and advanced children seem to cope and thrive just fine. For example, the WSJ reported that “Fanny earns straight A’s…and sometimes doodles in her journal while waiting for others to catch up.” Furthermore, Fanny states, “It’s fun to have time to relax a little in the middle of class.” I don’t think “relaxing” occurs very often in U.S. gifted classrooms.

Finnish high school students are “way ahead” in math, science, and reading, and adult Finns are among the world’s most productive workers. Yet there doesn’t seem to be strong social differences between Finnish and U.S. teens – in general, both groups spend hours online, “rebel” through dress and hair styles, and listen to hip-hop and rap.

So why is this? One reason might be the value Finnish culture places on its’ teachers. The teaching profession is highly competitive in Finland and Finnish teachers must hold master’s degrees. Teacher training also appears to differ (from the U.S.). The high school described in the WSJ piece is run “like a teaching hospital.” Interestingly, Finnish teachers are paid about the same as U.S. teachers. However, Finnish teachers purportedly have more academic freedom. Finland has national standards, but the teachers are allowed to “customize” lessons as they see fit.

The most likely reason for the Finns’ success, however, is the homogeneity of the population in terms of language and social class. Very few students do not speak Finnish and there are few disparities in income level among Finns. Furthermore, the Finns spend less per pupil than the U.S., but Finland has a “high-tax government” that ensures that schools receive roughly equal funding (unlike the U.S.). The gap between Finland’s low and high performing schools is the smallest of any country on the international measure. Finally, college is free in Finland. The fortunate Finns enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.

An interesting side note is that Finnish children begin formal education at the age of 7. This agrees with what the LLT (language literacy technology) PhD students have learned in our psychology of reading class. According to the WSJ article, Finnish children seem to be “less pressured” by their parents and more independent. In contrast, U.S. parents worry about academic preschools for their 3- and 4-year olds and play Baby Einstein videos for their infants and toddlers.


1 comment:

Krystle Larioza said...

It makes perfect sense that a group of students who come from the same economic and cultural background would have similar educational outcomes. What’s interesting about this article is that it points out the fact that even the educational system itself is homogenized; students are not individually glorified or honored for the personal differences. This may be evidence that when students start out on the same playing field and continue to say on that same playing field throughout their time going through the system, they have more of an equal chance as their peers to succeed. Giving students individual merit makes those individuals become more self-confident (and sometimes even more arrogant or smug) than their peers; conversely, their peers who do not receive such recognition may have a tendency to feel more doubtful about themselves. It is interesting how as a group, Finnish students are higher ranking than students from the U.S., since it seems like there are more highly achieving people from the U.S. However, the U.S. is probably much more stratified within itself, with several people underachieving as well.