Forty years ago, Finland was a small, homogeneous country with mediocre public schools. Today, Finland still is small and, although it has grown more diverse, still is much more homogeneous than countries such as the United States.
But no one calls Finland's public schools mediocre anymore.
In 2000, the Finns surprised the world when their 15-year-olds scored at the top of a closely watched international exam called the PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. Finland has stayed near the top since, while the U.S. scores around the middle.
Pasi Sahlberg, an official with Finland's Ministry of Education and Culture, recently spoke in Seattle to share the story of Finland's success, and what states like Washington can learn from it.
Sahlberg's message, although he is too polite to put it so bluntly: Stop testing so much. Trust teachers more. Give less homework. Shorten the school day.
Finland, in other words, has become an education star by doing the opposite of what's happening in many U.S. schools and school districts.
Critics often dismiss Finland's success as irrelevant, saying the country is too small and too different for its policies to work here.
But Sahlberg, once a junior-high math and science teacher, thinks Finland's experiences can inform and perhaps inspire other countries to consider new ways of achieving their educational goals. In the U.S., he pointed out, education is handled by states, most of which aren't much bigger or smaller than Finland, which has a population of about 5.5 million.
Sahlberg has given similar talks all over the U.S. in the past few years, especially following the publication of his book "Finnish Lessons," which tells the story of Finland's success.
In a room filled with teachers, principals, professors, school-board members and policy makers, Sahlberg joked about the Finns' reputation for being a quiet, humble people. When Finland hit the top of the PISA, he said, the biggest disbelievers were Finns.
More seriously, he said, Finland never set out to create the world's top school system. Instead, he said, the country decided in the 1970s that it wanted to ensure that a student's success didn't depend on family background.
To achieve that goal, Finland relied on cooperation among teachers and schools, rather than on competition.
Rather than judging teachers and schools based on test scores, he said, Finland puts trust in its teachers and principals. Teachers develop the curriculum in Finland, and design their own tests. There are no national tests, except one at the end of high school.
That's just the start. Along with a shorter school day, Finnish students don't even start school until they are 7 years old. Many primary schools have a policy against giving homework.
Not that everyone should simply copy Finland, he said.
"I'm not here to tell you that if you just do what Finland is doing, you will be just fine. It doesn't work like that."
But Finland, he said, succeeded in part by adapting ideas from the U.S. and other countries. And those countries, he said, can learn from Finland, too.
Linda Shaw at email@example.com.
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