Photo credit: Jan Leineberg (Public Domain)
Photo credit: Jan Leineberg (Public Domain)
Photo credit: Jan Leineberg (Public Domain)

America’s education reform efforts are going the wrong direction with an out-of-control testing culture, poor academic standards seen in the Common Core and a push for kids to go to school at earlier ages.  I recently read an op/ed by Pasi Sahlberg.  Sahlberg is visiting professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and former director general in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.  He discusses why Finnish schools are worthy of emulation.  Finland has been a leading nation on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) for reading, math and science.

Sahlberg brings up some differences between the Finnish education system and the education system seen in most states.  I looked at these through the lens of education reform ideas batted around in Iowa and elsewhere.

These distinctions I found fascinating.

  • Finnish children don’t start school until they are 7-years-old.  In Iowa and elsewhere we are pushing early education with most children starting school at 5-years-old and many children starting when they are 4-years-old with preschool and there is a major push to make preschool universal and I wouldn’t be surprised down the road if there is a push to make in compulsory.
  • They have less homework than many of their international peers.  This varies by local school districts, but there is a trend for more and more homework for students, even elementary students.  Common Core-aligned math homework has exasperated this for some.
  • They only take one standardized test that is given in the final year of high school.  Yes you read that right.  That is exactly the opposite of what we seen in our high-stakes testing and accountability push among most Governors.  Students already take a lot of assessments and we’re doubling down on that.  Here is a snapshot of what we do in Iowa.  Some states do even more.

Sahlberg also noted that socioeconomic factors make less of impact on a student’s performance in Finland that what is seen here.

He writes:

There are three things that have positively affected the quality of Finnish schools that are absent in American schools. First, Finland has built a school system that has over time strengthened educational equity. This means early childhood education for all children, funding all schools so they can better serve those with special educational needs, access to health and well-being services for all children in all schools, and a national curriculum that insists that schools focus on the whole child rather than narrow academic achievement.

Second, teachers in Finland have time to work together with their colleagues during the school day. According to the most recent data provided by the OECD the average teaching load of junior high school teachers in Finland is about half what it is in the United States. That enables teachers to build professional networks, share ideas and best practices. This is an important condition to enhancing teaching quality.

Finally, play constitutes a significant part of individual growth and learning in Finnish schools. Every class must be followed by a 15-minute recess break so children can spend time outside on their own activities. Schooldays are also shorter in Finland than in the United States, and primary schools keep the homework load to a minimum so students have time for their own hobbies and friends when school is over.

Also I’d like to note that Common Core advocates totally ignored the fact that Finland has a pretty simple set of academic standards… which goes to the point I have stated over and over again that Common Core is not evidence-based.  There is not any evidence that suggests centralizing education around a set of standards will raise student achievement.  Sahlberg doesn’t list that as one of the factors in the Finnish school system success.

There are obviously cultural differences, political differences, etc. at play so we can go too far with our conclusions.  That is something Sahlberg doesn’t really mention.  Here are some takeaways.

  • Test less, play more.  We put children under so much pressure.  We need to remember they are children and developmentally they need play.  Axing recess is asinine.  Overloading children with homework also diminishes the time they have for play (not to mention their families).  It also makes them hate school.
  • Longer school days are not the answer.
  • Stop pushing for kids to be sent to school at an earlier age.  This requires a cultural shift here however.  Parents must stop pawning their responsibility to educate their children onto the school  Parents read to your kids.  Have them read to you.  Teach them their ABCs.  Parents should be doing the early childhood education.  It may require some sacrifice, but it is worth it.  Some parents also need to stop relying on school as babysitting (but that is an entirely different article).
  • Teacher prep… Teachers should have time to do lesson prep during the school day.  If teachers were able to collaborate more that would probably alleviate the need for “mentor teachers” (something Iowa has implemented). If we cram a teacher’s day full that they have to do lesson prep on their own time (been there, done that) it will reduce the quality and frankly burns teachers out.

Sahlberg brings up some great points that are worthy of discussion as state legislatures discuss education reform.

2 comments
  1. Shane – I was wondering if the teachers in Finland belong to a union and if this affects the educational outcome.

  2. Well, it sounds like Finland teaches the same way we used to teach here in America, when our schools were great…. We didn’t start teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic until a child was seven. We figured the child needed to learn almost everything including quite a bit of algebra and geometry, by the age of fourteen. High school was for some students vocational and for others college prep, even if it was on the same campus.. We had one educated teacher in the classroom and discipline. No interruptions allowed. No teacher’s aides. No parent volunteers. We taught things like basic shop along with many other basics to seventh and eighth graders so they would know something about the real world. For years we gave a test toward the end of first grade to see what a child knew, then again in the 5th grade to see what they had learned. We gave a test to high school juniors only if they planned to attend college. We had recesses and lunch hour play and short school days. No homework. We expected students to learn some things on their own in their spare time, and at church. We did not approach the learning process in any way like we do today. Today, we do have nursery school provided for many people by the government. Many more pay for it. We have all day kindergarten in many places. I don’t think the students involved in these programs are doing better than the ones without….
    It is interesting to look at the history of kindergarten and see it was started by a Christian and then the idea was taken over by secularists.

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