In the current ed reform debate, it is increasingly common to hear calls for the U.S. to emulate Finland’s high-achieving public education system. Finland has no regular standardized testing and no core curriculum, yet they consistently have impressive results on international assessments; it follows, then, that we should avoid those reforms in the U.S. Though convenient, the comparison is flawed.
Don’t get me wrong–Finland is a lovely country. When I visited last summer I was extremely impressed by the pleasant citizenry, wonderful scenery, well-organized cities, and good food. (Though the language is not very friendly to English speakers. And the beer left something to be desired.) But it is a very different country than the U.S., and so we should be wary of simply importing their educational system as readily as some of their other exports. Their model is appropriate for their country, not for ours. A few key differences:
1) Well-being of children from birth is central to their welfare state. All kids have healthcare and access to full-day daycare and preschool, ensuring that all kids come in prepared for the first day of primary school.
2) School funding. All schools in Finland are funded at the same per-pupil rate. There is no such thing as a “rich” or “poor” school district. The budget crises that we are witnessing in places like Philadelphia simply do not happen.
3) Education as a human right. Education is free for Finnish citizens through college, and college students even receive a stipend. As a result, a quality, long-term education for everyone is part of the Finnish culture.
4) Respect and prestige of the teaching profession. Teachers are highly respected, and accordingly becoming a teacher is a difficult, rigorous, and competitive process: only 1 in 10 are accepted to primary school teaching programs. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S., where education is routinely ranked as one of the easiest, least selective college majors. It follows that teachers are more consistently smart, talented, and competent, making the best of their impressive autonomy.
I’m not saying that Finland’s model is not one to which we should aspire. I, for one, would love to see the U.S. replicate Finland in the ways mentioned above. But, given present differences in demographics, funding, value on education, and perception of teachers–all of which are important factors in educational success–it is not reasonable to simply suggest that we bring the Finnish system here. All teachers know that different kids from different circumstances have different needs. Why wouldn’t the same be true for countries?