"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Finns Finish First Without High Stakes Testing

The Finns gave up on high-stakes testing 30 years ago. HT to Monty Neill:

The Middle East's Leading English Language Daily

Sunday, 26, November, 2006 (06, Dhul Qa`dah, 1427)

Why Finnish Educational System Is the World’s No. 1
Jonathan Power, jonatpower@aol.com —

Two hours drive due north from Helsinki lies the Artic Circle. But in this town of 120,000 people one not only feels the bitter cold but also the white heat of the technological revolution.

Here are the principal research and development offices of Nokia. There are 800 other high tech companies, some overflowing their expertise into neighboring Russia where they see the future “beckoning”, in the words of Pertti Huuskonen, the boss of Technopolis, which is just building a big facility close to St. Petersburg airport. There are probably more Ph.D.s per square meter in this compact old paper-milling town than anywhere else on earth.

This astonishing intellectual creation can be laid at the feet of the Finnish educational system, considered by all who survey it, including the OECD, as possessing the best school system in the world. Finland is also reckoned to be in the top three of the world’s most competitive countries.

Why? Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen reduces the explanation to one pithy observation. “The teachers are respected; high talent is attracted into teaching; it is considered to be one of the most important professions”, he told me.

But how did Finland get to such a happy state of being? Tapani Ruokanen, editor of Finland’s leading news weekly, Suomen Kuvalehti, argues that it goes back to 18th Century when the Lutheran bishops wouldn’t allow anyone to marry unless they could read the Bible. Then in the 19th Century there were a series a strong revivalists movements, which led to the creation of a flurry of newspapers and magazines.

The big departure that everyone refers back to was the decision by a Social Democratic government in the 1970s to turn what was then an elitist system into a comprehensive one. Before then the working class could only progress into the upper schools if they won a scholarship that covered their fees. But for the last thirty-five years the schools have been open to all, free and unstreamed.

Marie-Laure Foulon, the Stockholm correspondent of Le Figaro who has just published a book, “Le Rebond du Modèle Scandinavia” (The Rebound of the Scandinavian Model), argues that the critical ingredient in the 1970’s reform was “to decide it was better to push up the bottom level to the middle than to push the middle to the top.” She says that Finland’s success shows that a system based on equal opportunity is superior to one like the French, “with excellence at the top and mediocrity at the bottom.” She adds, “the top will go to the top anyway.” She tells of interviewing the head of the Finnish stock exchange who told her that although at the time when he was at school he felt he was not being stretched, he realizes because of the comprehensive system he now knows his peers better and that has enabled him to be a more effective businessman. “It appears”, she concludes, “that equality in education creates productivity, even if it doesn’t always create excellence.”

Day to day, the Finnish government keeps the pressure on, indeed to such a degree that the pupils complain of a lack of fun at school, a problem that the minister of education, Antti Kalliomäki, tells me is being worked on with new proposals to extend the short school day that often ends at 2 p.m. for another couple of hours where pupils can play sport and do their hobbies before they return home. Nevertheless, compared with say French or British children, the children should feel themselves lucky — there are no nationwide exams or big final tests. It is a system of continuous assessment by a mixture of monthly tests and teacher evaluations.

Much of success of the educational system lies in a detailed application to the problems that can arise in all educational systems — from making sure that all children get fed by providing free meals at school to subsidized travel. Likewise no student, however badly behaved, need fear expulsion. The school is simply responsible for getting on top of whatever behavior problems emerge.

Only 15 percent of those who apply to be teachers are accepted, even though pay levels are about average for Europe. No teacher can teach at any level without a master’s degree. Once in a job, teachers are encouraged to keep abreast of the academic literature so that educational decisions are based on rational argument, not just everyday intuition. Moreover, they are constantly being sent on courses during their long holidays to upgrade their knowledge and skills.

In short, the Finns work at it and, unencumbered by a class-stratified educational system, they have shown that equality is a plus, not a hindrance to fast progress.

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