Monday, February 23, 2015

Should America Be Learning Lessons from Finland's School System, and If So, Why Laud It?

When one talks about Finland in a public policy context, it's usually lumped together with "the Nordic countries." However, there is one topic that everyone seems to swoon over Finland, and that is their K-12 school system. Libby Nelson over at the Left-leaning Vox just wrote a piece on "9 reasons Finland's schools are so much better than America's." Not only do people idealize it, but they go as far as saying that America should learn some lessons from Finland's successes. I'm all for learning from other peoples' successes.

My first question, however, is can we import Finland's success to the United States. The trick with comparative politics is that no two countries are alike. Most cross-country comparisons, like that between the United States and Finland, are non-analogous. Nelson actually touches upon this at the end of her article. For one, Finland is more homogenous than the United States, whether that is in racial, cultural, or linguistic terms. What makes it easier for the government to implement such an education system is economies of scale. Finland is a small, homogenous country with 5.4 million people. The United States has over 300 million people with quite the diversity. There is simply a diseconomies of scale that such a larger country has to contend with that Finland would never have to deal with on its worst days.

But let's argue that the United States and Finland are similar enough, partially because they're both Western democracies with low corruption and relatively stable currencies. Do we still want to be emulating the Finnish model? Well, that depends. On the latest rounds (2012) of the Programme for Student International Assessment (PISA), which is an international standardized test, Finland's ranking dropped from 2nd to 12th. Using a single standardized test in isolation as a sole proxy for educational success seemed odd, but maybe that's just me.

Some people might have objections to standardized testing as a proxy in the first place, which brings us to one of Finland's atypical features: no national standardized testing. It's beyond the scope of this blog entry to analyze the merits of standardized testing, but there are those who use Finland as a case study as to why America should not have standardize testing. I'd be willing to bet that teachers unions would buy into the "let's pay the teachers more to boost student performance" argument, but the problem with that is Finnish teachers are paid less than American teachers on average, even when adjusted for purchasing power parity. What I could glean from that is that teacher salary is not an important factor in teacher productivity, which is what the Finnish Minister of Education points out. For Finns, people become teachers for the career satisfaction and prestige that comes along with teaching. If United States teachers have some of the highest salaries in the world, yet cannot produce the desired results, it would be safe to assume that something else is in play. If you want to attribute it to greater spending on schools, that theory goes out the window because the Finnish government spends thirty percent less per student than in the United States, yet creates better results.

Perhaps it's the workload. When looking at teaching hours, Finnish teachers teach an average of 589 hours per year, which is 100 hours less than the OECD average, and teach four classes a day. There can be something said for teacher productivity, specifically with a declining marginal productivity when teachers become overworked, which arguably happens in the United States. There is also a matter of curriculum composition. Finland experienced an education reform overhaul in the 1970s, which included the abolishment of a 700-page national curriculum, devolution of schooling to local authorities, and creating a system in which all students were treated well. Teachers and principals are responsible for the accountability of the schools, not a Department of Education. Also, homework load is not strenuous in Finland--usually an hour a day. Finland also has a smaller average class size than in the United States, which means that the students can better receive more personalized attention from their teachers. And there's also the interesting fact that compulsory schooling doesn't even begin until age 7 for Finnish children.

There is also a cultural difference in terms of how teachers are viewed in Finnish society versus that in the United States. In terms of social prestige, Finnish teachers are right up there with medical doctors, and unfortunately, the same cannot be said for American teachers who teach K-12. Part of that has to do with the rigorous standards that come with becoming a teacher that simply exist in the United States. The social status of teachers decidedly makes a difference in terms of how unions interact with management. Both Finland and the United States have teacher's unions, but there is a qualitative difference. While 95 percent of Finnish teachers are members of a teacher union, their unionism is not compulsory like it is in the United States. I don't have a problem with voluntary unionism. It's when it becomes the belligerent, compulsory type of unionism in the United States that doesn't allow for teachers to be flexible and experimental in new pedagogical methodologies, like in Finland, that makes me wonder.

Some facets of Finnish education cannot be imported to the United States, but there are certainly facets previously outlined that can be applied to the United States to improve upon its less-than-spectacular performance on K-12 education. I hope that they are applied sooner rather than later so the United States can produce a more educated populace.

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