Friday, January 28, 2011

What Finland and Asia tell us about real education reform

There has been much publicity in recent years about how for more than a decade, Finnish students have excelled in the international comparisons called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), exams given each three years in reading, math, and science to samples of 15-year-olds globally. In the current issue of the New Republic, Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, explains what Finland did to turn around its education system, starting in the 1970's:

Finland’s schools weren’t always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master’s program.
They also banned all standardized testing, as they figured out this takes too much time and too much money out of learning; and now they only give standardized exams to statistical samples of students to diagnose and assess school progress.

According to Abrams, the "only point at which all Finnish students take standardized exams is as high school seniors if they wish to go to university." The Finns "trust teachers" and allow them to "design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide."

Abrams is writing a book on school reform for Harvard University Press and has researched the Finnish educational system extensively. I contacted him by email to thank him for his article, and this is what he told me about class size:
  • Average class size in 1st and 2nd grades is 19; in grades 3 through 9, it is 21.
  • These reductions in class size were won by Finland's teachers' union (Opestusalan Ammattijarjesto, or OAJ) as a concession from the government when education authorities nullified tracking. In 1972, authorities postponed tracking from fifth grade to seventh. In 1985, authorities postponed tracking from seventh grade to tenth. The response from the OAJ was acceptance of the termination of tracking as wise but only if class sizes were reduced, as it would be too difficult for teachers to teach heterogeneous groups if classes remained large.
  • In addition to science classes, all classes that involve any machinery or lab equipment are capped at 16. This includes cooking (which all seventh-graders are required to take), textiles (or sewing), carpentry, and metal shop.
Abrams' article concludes:
The Finns have made clear that, in any country, no matter its size or composition, there is much wisdom to minimizing testing and instead investing in broader curricula, smaller classes, and better training, pay, and treatment of teachers. The United States should take heed.
Also, see this recent interview with Pasi Sahlberg, another expert on the Finnish educational system. Sahlberg was asked about the current push towards test-based teacher evaluation systems in our country:
If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away. Finns don’t believe you can reliably measure the essence of learning. You know, one big difference in thinking about education and the whole discourse is that in the U.S. it’s based on a belief in competition. In my country, we are in education because we believe in cooperation and sharing. Cooperation is a core starting point for growth.

Recently, McKinsey consultants estimated that if the achievement levels of American students matched those in Finland, our economy would be 9 to 16 percent larger - with the nation's GDP enlarged by $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion.

And yet what lesson have the Obama administration and its allies in the DC think thanks and corporate and foundation world taken from the PISA results? That there needs to be
even more high-stakes testing, based on uniform core standards, that teachers should be evaluated and laid off primarily on the basis of their student test scores, and that it's fine if class sizes are increased.

In a speech, Duncan recently said that "Many high-performing education systems, especially in Asia," Duncan says, "have substantially larger classes than the United States."

What he did not mention is that Finland based its success largely upon smaller class sizes; nor the way in which many
experts in Asian education recognize the heavy costs of their test-based accountability systems, and the way in which their schools undermine the ability ofstudents to develop as creative and innovate thinkers -- which their future economic growth will depend upon.

As Jiang Xueqin, the director of the International Division of Peking University High School, wrote in the Wall St. Journal:

According to research on education, using tests to structure schooling is a mistake. Students lose their innate inquisitiveness and imagination, and become insecure and amoral in the pursuit of high scores. Even Shanghai educators admit they're merely producing competent mediocrity. ...This is seen as a deep crisis... A consensus is growing that instead of vaulting the country past the West, China's schools are holding it back.
Nor do Duncan and his allies discuss the fact that many Asian education experts are calling for the need to reduce class size in their own countries. For example, a study from the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation revealed that South Korean students are highly disengaged from their classes compared to those in other nations. Their students also scored the lowest in respect or tolerance for others. The answer, according to the authors of the study? "To ...raise their interest in class, much improvement needs to be made including reducing the number of students per class.”

Many of the ideas of the Obama administration are based on a competitive business model, first developed by the right wing of the Republican party, leading conservative commentator George Will to call Arne Duncan
and his policies "the Obama administration's redeeming feature."

The fear that many of us have is that these corporate-style concepts will be even more firmly imposed on schools, by means of a bipartisan consensus of the administration and the GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

In the current issue of Education Week, Amy Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College, bemoans the destructive group think reflected in this prevailing notion of education reform. She points out how it is "often difficult to distinguish Republicans from Democrats on key education issues, " and that:

"the most agreed-upon solutions—testing, privatization, deregulation, stringent accountability systems, and placement of blame on unions for all that is wrong—are doing more harm than good. Achievement overall has not improved, and the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged has widened..."
She points out how states now spend five to six times the funds on testing than before NCLB -- with more than 90% of this going to private testing companies.

Yet she also holds out hope, based upon the fact that parents are increasingly pushing back against these misguided, market-driven notions, and mentions the leadership of Chicago's
PURE, headed by Julie Woestehoff, one of the founding members of Parents Across America.

It's time that parents provided that third force, to put forward ea positive and progressive vision of education reform, based on small classes, experienced teachers, a well-rounded curriculum, and evaluation systems that go beyond test scores. Check out what Parents Across America believe will improve our schools here and join us.


Ian Chia (from Being Prudence) said...

I have a friend who lives in Finland in Espoo.

A very humble little city, in a very humble little country.

I've been asking my friend about Finland's education system, and he idly mentioned that his 8 year old daughter was busy one day at "architecture club". I was curious, so I asked him more about it. This is what he said:


("Mary") started at the achitecture club - it is actually called architecture school (for children) - when she was 6. They had a parents day before Christmas and I, with other parents, did santa hats with just cocktail sticks and sticky candy. It did had a cardboard base so it did not get stuck in your hair. They go to museums and exhibitons and discuss architecture. Last week they designed an apartment with a real architecture software. The teacher is an architect.

We have several non-STEM all-ART clubs for her during the week so she gets to interact with other students and teachers and not just our homeschool. She is in a drama club where they reherse a play and present it to parents, the teacher is professional actress. Then there is a crafts club where they sew and do other things. And also music and dance classes. ("Mary") plays drums."

///////////// some more

I did not realize that this could be so unique in the World:

Ian Chia (from Being Prudence) said...

They have a lot of information about them in English. Notice in the front page that they do seem to have also activities in London:

See the santa hats made of cocktail sticks in the picture from the Finnish Institute in London.

It is hard to tell about what is going on in Finland in regards to education because I have no idea which things are unique. I assumed that of course there are architecture schools for children in every major city in the World. It is actually not easy to comprehend the opposite option that there would be none.

By the way the "sweet architecture" is karkkitehtuuri in Finnsh. Karkki = candy and arkkitehtuuri = architecture. But is is much more than that, as you can see in the site. In the higher grades they design whole cities. And build models of them.

///////////// some more

I think what everybody outside Finland always misses when looking at the PISA results is the fact that elementary students have no pressure in Finnish schools. It is easy and free to get to a university. And the goverment will pay you for studying. Your admission is not even based on how you do at school because some universities have their own entrance exams. I was a good student at school only in a few subjects but I was interested in programming and good at math. My university had an entrance mathematics exam. I was in top 2 % and got in (it was a popular subject back then).

You don't have to build a resume and have a lot of activities to impress potential universities. It would be illegal for the universities to even ask about those things. You are free to enjoy school and then you can enjoy university also. There is talk here in Finland that some people enjoy it a little too much. With free education some people study several subjects for several years with no effort to graduate ever. I think that is actually an asset but the system has been made more strict so it is not possible to spend your whole life as a student any more.

University education (like lectures) is free for anybody to attend. You can just walk into a university and listen to any lecture you want. And I could also still, any time I want, continue my PhD studies.


Things that the Finnish take for granted as everyday occurrence are staggering to those in the US or Australia, where I am based.

- Ian

Unknown said...

Thank you for this. I will be sharing this with everyone I can.

Again, thank you for such a brilliant post.