The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System
May. 2 2011 – 5:27 pm
By E.D. KAIN
The Finland Phenomenon, from documentary filmmaker, Bob Compton, follows Dr. Tony Wagner through Finland’s extraordinary school system. It’s a short, to-the-point documentary, but it had quite an effect on me, if only because it illustrates so succinctly why our recent approach to education reform is so wrong-headed.
In Finland there are no standardized tests. In fact, there is really very little testing at all. Finnish teachers are not monitored or rated based on test scores, and teachers (as well as their students) have a great deal of autonomy. It is a system built on trust, and the film really drives home the notion that trust – rather than faux accountability – leads to real results, leads to teachers and students and members of government all wanting to live up to the trust given to them rather than simply scraping by.
But trust is something that a society has to work at, and that is tied inextricably to demographics, population size, and history. And the United States simply doesn’t compare to Finland on the trust scale:
To be honest, I finished the film feeling a bit angry – angry that for all the talk of school-choice in our current education debate, the choices available to me and to my children (not to mention the countless people far less fortunate than myself) are really false choices. No matter whether you attend a public school or a charter, you are really bound to the modern testing regime. And if you’re poor you are very likely bound to end up in a bad school, unless you are one of the lucky few that manages to get into one of the really stellar charter schools.
The problem, I think, with the current conception of charter schools is that they create even more losers and winners than the status quo. In Finland there is a certain base-level of quality that every school is require to meet. Teachers are treated as professionals and teaching is an exclusive, competitive field. All students have free transportation and free meals.
Every school is staffed by excellent teachers, and teaching is a profession that excellent people want to enter. Teaching is a life-long career, unlike American schools where 50% of teachers drop-out before five years. Finnish teachers follow a basic national curriculum, but are free to develop their own and use their own teaching methods. They also work as mentors with newer and student teachers.
In America, we have nothing even close to this level of commitment to our poorest students. In the modern reform system and in the old status quo, money flows up to the top and rarely trickles back down. This is represented also in our lack of commitment to vocational education. The Finland Phenomenon illustrates the extraordinary effort the Finnish school system has placed in its vocational track. Fully 40% of Finnish students forego the academic track to learn a skill in their high school years. And these are not under-funded shop classes, but rather high-tech, hands-on classrooms taught by industry professionals who are also teaching professionals.
I’d heard of the successes of Finland’s schools before, but this film really highlighted the gap in vision between Finland and the United States. At the same time, it revealed a certain common ground that I think is important. Unlike the strict, uniform approach to education you might find in a country like Japan, Finland emphasizes a more free-wheeling, creative, and self-driven approach to teaching and learning. These are all qualities Americans have in spades. We should capitalize on those qualities, not subvert them by testing everything to death.
If we can draw one lesson from the film, it is that America has the right DNA for a phenomenal education system, we just haven’t tapped into it yet. Finland has, and so can we.