Why We Should Still Care About Finland

In the often heated debates about how to improve education in this country, it is not uncommon for someone to look for salvation to Finland:  its early intervention supports, its high barriers to entering the teaching profession, its lack of standardized tests, and of course its consistently high performance on international benchmarking assessments.  Such praise is often closely followed by swift and predictable criticism, with skeptics pointing out that it is practically impossible to compare the U.S. and Finnish systems.  For example, they rightly observe, Finland is smaller (serving 600,000 students, compared to 1.1 million in New York City alone); it is more homogenous (with only 5 percent of its population foreign born); and it has less poverty (with a child poverty rate five times less than the U.S.). 

The critics are right that we cannot transpose Finnish infrastructure on to a U.S. system neither organized nor inclined to receive it.  With lower taxes in the U.S., and little appetite for higher taxes even on the wealthy, we lack the financial resources to fully fund early childhood education or subsidize higher education.  With a highly decentralized education system in the U.S., where states and districts make key and sometimes contradictory policy decisions, we are unlikely to agree on uniformly high barriers to entering the teaching profession.  And while there is ongoing debate about the scope a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (most recently christened the No Child Left Behind Act) will take, one thing all sides seem to agree on is the need to preserve NCLB’s annual testing requirement.

But just because the U.S. and Finland are unique systems operating in unique political contexts, making one-to-one comparisons impossible, we should not dismiss out of hand holistic pictures of systems-at-work.  And among successful school systems, Finland’s has been uniquely and thoroughly documented.  Perhaps the most prolific and well-known documenter of the Finnish system is also one of its biggest boosters.  Pasi Sahlberg, a former Ministry of Education official and currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is an enthusiastic evangelist for the Finnish Way, and his book Finnish Lessons has just been published in a revised second edition.  Readers of the book likely understand that Sahlberg is hardly a disinterested observer.  Nevertheless, the book – complemented by Sahlberg’s numerous op-eds and lectures – is an essential tool for people who wish to understand the history and construction of the Finnish system.  Non-insider accounts of Finland’s education system also abound and include Linda Darling-Hammond’s 2010 book The Flat World and Education, as well as reports from McKinsey & Company and the OECD

Detailed system-focused accounts like those of Finland are valuable for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers alike.  I can think of at least three reasons why we should pay attention to studies like these.

  1. System-level studies acknowledge and try to explain the ecology surrounding schools, rather that trying to control for it.  As anyone who has worked in education can attest, education systems are profoundly complex enterprises.  We cannot hope to understand them or what might make them better if we do not consider the system as a whole and the way its many components interact with each other in sometimes unpredictable ways – from the ways classrooms are organized to the ways teachers are prepared and supported to the sociopolitical context in which schools and districts are embedded and the social supports offered to students and families.  Just as a study that focuses solely on, say, literacy development or moral awareness cannot possibly capture the full richness of human development, a study that focuses solely on teacher preparation or high school graduation rates cannot capture the many nuances of a school system.  Understanding the context in which teachers are prepared or in which students graduate (or don’t) from high school matters, because without it we risk blindly transferring “best practices” without understanding the range of factors that may have made them successful. 
  2. As part of this ecological approach, system-level studies also account for the history of the system and its relationship to the surrounding sociopolitical context Such an approach is valuable because entire systems do change – sometimes dramatically – over time.  Finland was not always the Finland boasted about today.  Neither were Singapore or South Korea, two other vaunted school systems that have made monumental and transformational shifts in their approaches and infrastructure over the last 30-40 years.  Systems can also change in the opposite direction.  As Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz observe, the United States at the beginning of the 20th century was by all measures of the time leading the world in educational access and outcomes.  The measures have changed, but few observers would agree that the U.S. is still atop the world in any educational outcome of interest.  To better understand and begin to explain why these changes occur, a holistic and nuanced documentation of the educational system and its relationship to the sociopolitical systems in which it is nested is needed.
  3. We need models of systems that work.  Just because we cannot transfer the Finnish system (or parts of the system) wholesale to the U.S. does not mean that exemplary systems have nothing to teach us.  Teachers often seek out model teachers to observe.  Indeed, they are encouraged to do so – and not because we think they should copy a model teacher’s script word-for-word and deliver it verbatim to their own classroom, but because we think that observing model teachers at work will help novice teachers reflect on their own practice and think about what, if anything, can be adapted for use in their own classroom.  So it is at the system-level, too.  System-level leaders and policymakers can and should look to model practice and think about what, if anything, they can learn.  Besides, I think that if the U.S. were still sitting atop international rankings we would welcome educators from around the world who came knocking on our doors and told us they wanted to learn from us.  Come to think of it:  that’s more or less what Finnish leaders say they did.

Finally, because education systems are so complex, we also need to resist the temptation to take one narrow slice of these portraits and see it as a panacea to all of our system’s woes.  The Finland story is so well publicized, and so it is especially easy for the education glitterati to bend the Finnish narrative to suit their own agendas.  For example, Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee, who agree on very little, both find aspects of the Finnish system worthy of emulation.  Ravitch finds much to envy about Finland, including its fully public system which she sees as evidence that success can happen without privatization or charter schools.  Michelle Rhee, in her campaign-style autobiography, identifies her attempts to eliminate job protections and link performance pay to teacher evaluations as a way “to help create an environment where teachers can thrive as they do in Finland” (p. 208).  I do appreciate that both Rhee and Ravitch are reading and thinking about Sahlberg’s account.  Next, I would like to see them – and all of us – try to craft an account of our own system to match his.  What story would we tell?  What would it say about us – what we have to teach and what we have to learn?

I am not suggesting that systems research is the best way or even the only way to improve education at scale, but I am saying that systems research done well is a valuable and vital tool for understanding the complex landscape of education policy, practice, and reform.  Instead of focusing precious energy on critiquing the method or reinterpreting its results, we should set about learning from it.  We are not Finland.  We will never be Finland.  But we can and should learn from Finland, which is why we should care about what they do and how they do it.