A different education
There are lessons for India here. Finland sits consistently at the top of the PISA rankings whereas India is at the rank bottom. Here are important highlights from NYRB:
First, Finland has one of the highest-performing school systems in the world, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses reading, mathematical literacy, and scientific literacy of fifteen-year-old students in all thirty-four nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United States. Unlike our domestic tests, there are no consequences attached to the tests administered by the PISA. No individual or school learns its score. No one is rewarded or punished because of these tests. No one can prepare for them, nor is there any incentive to cheat.
Second, from an American perspective, Finland is an alternative universe. It rejects all of the “reforms” currently popular in the United States, such as testing, charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, competition, and evaluating teachers in relation to the test scores of their students.
Third, among the OECD nations, Finnish schools have the least variation in quality, meaning that they come closest to achieving equality of educational opportunity—an American ideal.
Fourth, Finland borrowed many of its most valued ideas from the United States, such as equality of educational opportunity, individualized instruction, portfolio assessment, and cooperative learning. Most of its borrowing derives from the work of the philosopher John Dewey.
US policymakers have turned to market-based solutions such as “tougher competition, more data, abolishing teacher unions, opening more charter schools, or employing corporate-world management models.” By contrast, Finland has spent the past forty years developing a different education system, one that is focused on improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals.
To an American observer, the most remarkable fact about Finnish education is that students do not take any standardized tests until the end of high school. They do take tests, but the tests are drawn up by their own teachers, not by a multinational testing corporation. The Finnish nine-year comprehensive school is a “standardized testing-free zone,” where children are encouraged “to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity.”
Sahlberg recognizes that Finland stands outside what he refers to as the “Global Education Reform Movement,” to which he appends the apt acronym “GERM.” GERM, he notes, is a virus that has infected not only the United States, but the United Kingdom, Australia, and many other nations. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program are examples of the global education reform movement. Both promote standardized testing as the most reliable measure of success for students, teachers, and schools; privatization in the form of schools being transferred to private management; standardization of curriculum; and test-based accountability such as merit pay for high scores, closing schools with low scores, and firing educators for low scores.
In contrast, the central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish education is cooperation, not competition.
Language magazine reports:
The second International Summit on the Teaching Profession opened today in New York. The summit is a two-day conference with representatives from 23 countries and regions who have high performing education systems. The summit will address issues such as teaching training, professional development, and 21st century skills.
The summit is hosted by the OECD, the U.S. Department of Education, and Education International (EI). A number of delegations are confirmed to attend, including representatives from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong SAR, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the People’s Republic of China, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, opened the summit with a set of opening remarks.
“High performing countries have more collaboration, more high quality professional development for teachers, and do a better job of recruiting teachers and retaining them,” said Duncan. “Other nations not only out educate us, but also out prepare and out respect us.”
Above all else, the Finnish educational model reminds us that the greatest asset for learning outcomes is teachers. Until and unless the U.S. populates its schools with teachers who we can claim are our best and brightest, and who are well trained in content areas, and until and unless we give these valued professionals the responsibility and trust they deserve to carry out their noble profession and assess their students based not on national, standardized bubble tests, but rather on the teachers’ own meaningful assessments of their students’ skills, knowledge and critical thinking capacities, we should not expect to see our standing among the world’s schools increase very much.
Finding such teachers won’t be easy if we continue to demand twice the time Finnish teachers put in for the same pay; if we continue to undermine teachers’ intelligence and professionalism by dumbing down their curricula and forcing them to teach to standardized bubble tests, leaving them little autonomy in their teaching; if we persist in denigrating their profession and reducing the benefits that supplement their modest salaries; and if we fail to educate them well enough so that they, in turn, can educate the next generation in a changing, complex world.