Social equity identified as key to school success


Social equity identified as key to school success

A Finnish expert cites aspects of his nation’s schools that the U.S. could follow

By Susan Essoyan

Finland, better known for its saunas and cellphones, has become a model of educational success during the past decade because its students keep placing at the top of international charts.

The Finns managed to transform their school system from mediocre to top-notch, without batteries of standardized tests, long school days or competition among schools.

Ironically the secret to Finland’s recent success traces back to the United States, renowned Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg said Thursday evening in a public lecture at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu.

“It was an American idea in the beginning, coming from (Thomas) Jefferson: equality of educational opportunity,” Sahlberg said. “But we took it seriously. … The dream was to have a good school for every child. We never gave up.”

Sahlberg is director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki and advises education policymakers around the world. Author of the best-selling book “Finnish Lessons,” he will become a visiting professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in January. Sahlberg was invited to Honolulu by the University of Hawaii and the Consulate of Finland as a distinguished visiting scholar.

In his talk at Kapolei, Sahlberg was quick to point out that there are vast differences between Finland and the United States, and “what works in Finland doesn’t necessarily work someplace else.” But he maintains the two countries can learn from and be inspired by each other.

In the 1970s, the Finnish school system was marked by inequity, with students tracked based on family background, Sahlberg said. Its test scores fell below international averages in math and science. Today, Finland vies for first place among countries such as South Korea, Canada and Japan.

Over the past few decades, Finland reoriented its schools to give all children a fine education, no matter their background or where they lived. It focused on equity, he said, and excellence followed.

Teachers don’t even give grades until kids reach fifth grade to avoid “unhealthy competition,” he said. Collaboration is prized.

“Children should be learning because they want to learn and understand more,” Sahlberg said. “The more you standardize, the less room there will be for creativity and risk taking.”

Finnish students take no standardized tests before age 16, although a national sample of 15-year-olds is allowed to take part in international benchmark exams. The school curriculum balances academics, arts and music, with lots of time for play. After ninth grade, students choose either an academic high school or vocational school.

Sahlberg’s lecture included slides showing that the more unequal the distribution of wealth in a country, the lower the test scores tend to be. The United States has high inequality and relatively low academic performance, while the reverse is true for Finland.

“You are one of the most unequal countries in the developed world,” Sahlberg said. “There is a big gap between those who have and don’t have. Finland, we are on the other side. Our educational performance is higher than average and we are one of the most equal. Somehow the equity and excellence go hand in hand.”

Since 2003, Finland’s 15-year-olds have placed first or second in reading, math and scientific literacy on the Programme for International Student Assessment, administered every three years in member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The 2012 results are due out next month.

In the most recent results available, the United States placed 14th in reading, 25th in math and 17th in science, while Finland placed second, second and first, respectively, among OECD countries in 2009.

“We never aimed to be the best in the world in education,” Sahlberg said. “The best way to get there is not to invest all your resources in standards and assessments and technology. You have to take equity more seriously. … Making your society more equal would probably make it easier to enhance your educational performance.”

Other elements:

» Finnish children don’t start formal school until age 7, extended parental leave is encouraged and day care is available to all.

» Schools provide comprehensive health services and nutritious lunches.

» Education is free from preschool through university.

» Teaching is a respected profession. The system controls for quality at the front end, with a competitive career track that requires intense training and master’s degrees even for elementary school teachers.

» Schools and teachers have autonomy.

“We try to trust our teachers and our schools, just like we trust our dentists and doctors,” Sahlberg said.

He credited the United States as the source for much of the instructional approach, innovation and school improvement ideas used by Finnish teachers in their classrooms.

“If you want to see how American ideas work in practice, come to Finland,” he said with a grin. “You are doing wonderful things in your public school system. The issues are not educational. They are issues of poverty and lack of equity and fairness in the system.”

As Finland transformed its school system, it moved from being a relatively poor, agrarian nation to one that stands out in the global economy, with companies such as Nokia, the mobile phone maker. The Nordic country ranks No. 1 for technological advancement on the 2013 World Economic Forum Readiness Index; the United States is No. 9.

On the Global Innovation Index, the United States places fifth while Finland is sixth. In child well-being, Finland places fourth while the United States ranks 26th, according to UNICEF.

Several teachers interviewed after Sahlberg’s lecture said his points resonated with them, that spending so much time and money on testing, evaluation of teachers and students, and paperwork detracts from caring for children, teaching and learning.

“We are working really hard for the students and I know they are doing the best they can,” said Teressa Shimizu, a career and technical education teacher at Farrington High School. “I think we are focusing on the wrong areas, and he had some really good insights. I wish the governor and the superintendent and the Board of Education were here.”