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Post Finland's Success in Education; from Sam Abrams (Columbia U)
Created by John Eipper on 03/16/19 9:07 AM

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Finland's Success in Education; from Sam Abrams (Columbia U) (Henry Levin, USA, 03/16/19 9:07 am)

My colleague Sam Abrams is an expert on Finland with a background in French history and a Finnish wife. He is an expert on educational policy and Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia and the author of a recent book on that topic published by Harvard University Press.

Enclosed is his commentary on Finnish education in response to a number of us:

I was asked by my colleague Henry Levin to chime in.

In the final chapter of a book I wrote about market forces in public education, entitled Education and the Commercial Mindset (Harvard University Press, 2016), I analyzed the Finnish system in detail. Some of this chapter is available online as an excerpt published by Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The reflexive critique of citing Finland as a system to emulate is that the country is homogeneous, egalitarian, and small. Yet the same can be said of the other Nordic nations. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland are likewise homogeneous, egalitarian, and small. Yet Finnish students have scored about 0.5 standard deviations above their Nordic peers on PISA. For example, as I explain in the excerpt, over the first five administrations of PISA, students in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden together averaged a 494 in science. Finnish students averaged a 550. The mean was about 500 for all OECD nations.

Incidentally, US students, as I note, averaged a 496 in science, which should give pause to the alarmists who've been dumping on the quality of US schools since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983.  We have good schools and bad schools and on average produce results akin to those produced by Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

What I found to be basic to understanding the distinction of the Finnish system is twofold: economic necessity and nation-building. In this regard, John Eipper's mention of Finnish "pluck" is quite germane. The Finns have a specific term for such pluck: sisu, which means blind determination (in this regard, a ship in the country's fleet of icebreakers is appropriately named Sisu).

If Finland wanted to join the modern world, it had to invest in education and do so with determination. Under the Swedes from 1323 to 1809 and then the Russians until 1917, Finland emerged only recently from centuries of foreign rule and started out poor and under-developed. In education, Finland was far behind its Nordic neighbors. Denmark introduced compulsory schooling in 1814, Norway in 1827, and Sweden in 1842. Finland did not do so until 1921. While Denmark, Norway, and Sweden had comprehensive social insurance systems by the 1930s, Finland had nothing but workers' accident insurance until 1963. In terms of per-capita GDP, Finns earned only 63 percent as much as their Swedish counterparts in 1950.

Given that Finland is poor in natural resources (with little more than timber), policymakers concluded in the 1960s that they had to develop their human capital, which, in turn, meant vastly improving their schools. In 1972, they determined that all teacher training would take place at research universities and that all teachers from 1979 forward would have a master's degree before taking over a classroom. No other Nordic country requires that teachers have a master's degree. Policymakers in 1972 also introduced a comprehensive approach to schooling in grades 1-9 (called peruskoula), infused with courses in art, music, and crafts. The Swedes had done something similar a decade earlier but failed to follow through on a commitment to reform teacher training.

Policymakers followed up with additional reforms. With the introduction of peruskoula in 1972, policymakers postponed tracking from grade 5 to grade 7. In 1985, tracking was postponed from grade 7 to grade 10. Teachers went on strike, contending that differentiated instruction for large classes was unrealistic and that teacher pay regardless had to climb. The teachers won on both fronts: smaller classes and better pay were both won. Smaller classes, in particular, appear to explain a good deal of the effectiveness of science instruction in Finland: classes are typically capped at 16 students so labs may be conducted with appropriate supervision.

In 1991, the Education Ministry abolished its inspectorate, giving principals and teachers much more autonomy, and nullified the practice of grade retention, deeming it too stigmatizing to be effective.

The abolition of the inspectorate comported with another distinctive aspect of Finnish education. Unlike Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, which administer standardized tests to all students in mother tongue, math, English, and science at regular intervals, Finland tests only 10 percent of ninth-graders in two or three subjects per year and in this manner covers every subject in the curriculum (from mother tongue to civics, geography, music, and culinary arts) over a ten-year period.  Finland also tests a cohort of third-graders in math and later tests the same cohort in sixth, ninth, and twelfth grade.

The Finns find this light approach to testing more effective for several reasons: the tests cost less to administer, consume little time, and cause less stress; and as high-quality tests, they provide policymakers significant feedback. It should be added that the Finns can get away with this light approach to assessment for two reasons: because of their excellent training, teachers internalize national expectations; and because of a battery of matriculation exams seniors must take to enter university, teachers and students alike are guided by national expectations (all students take at least four exams: in Finnish, Swedish, math [level 1 or 2], and either one subject in humanities or science).

The better prep and pay of teachers, the broad curriculum to enfranchise a wide range of students, and the intelligent approach to assessment go a long way in explaining the distinction of Finnish schooling. But it must be understood that teachers in Finland are more than teachers. They're in essence servants of an earnestly patriotic cause.

This is not true in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. After all, Finland, again, is a young nation that emerged only recently from centuries of foreign rule. In addition, Finland suffered terrible losses in World War II: 90,000 killed, many more wounded, 10 percent of its eastern territory lost to the Soviets, 450,000 of its people from that territory forced to resettle, and reparations owed to the Soviets till 1952. While Denmark and Norway suffered as occupied nations and while Sweden suffered as a neutral nation amid a war zone, these countries emerged from the war in far better shape. This cause of nation building has, of course, remained acute with Russia a hostile neighbor.

Given that PISA was first administered in 2000, one could fairly conclude that we can't be very sure that the reforms implemented by the Finns in 1972, 1985, and 1991 made a significant difference. But the OECD provides us with a compelling response to that assertion. In 2012, the OECD began administering PIAAC (the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies). Finns aged 25-34 did far better than their Nordic and US peers in math and reading. However, Finns aged 55-64 did worse. The first cohort benefited from these reforms. The second did not.

JE comments:  A very informative essay from Sam Abrams--my thanks to be Sam (and to Hank Levin for reaching out).  Sam taught me a lot.  For starters, I always "bundled" the Scandinavian nations together when it comes to educational success.  How many of us knew that the Finnish model is significantly more effective than Denmark-Sweden et al?  Finland shows that advances in human capital are not accidental.  They require visionary thinking at the highest levels and meaningful investment. 

Good salaries and small class sizes--Yessir!

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  • Sisu: The Finnish Way (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 03/19/19 4:15 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    The very effective nations-compared WAIS thread on Finland
    (begun, I think, by Tor Guimaraes and others, then wonderfully
    expanded by Cameron Sawyer and others) finally rang a strange
    bell from my childhood, with the valuable culmination as Henry Levin
    brought in expert Sam Abrams on Finnish educational excellence.

    The bell was rung by Sam's mention of sisu, the quintessentially
    Finnish word meaning, as I gather it: you get it done no matter what.
    Somehow as a child watching TV I had been transfixed by a grainy
    documentary about the Winter War of 1939, where Finnish
    underdog courage gave us the term "Molotov cocktail," as used
    against Soviet tanks. On TV, the correspondent telling the story gazed
    grimly at the screen and said something like: "The Finns have a word
    for this--sisu." He said the word meant "guts"--an apt complement to
    Sam Abrams' translation just now: "blind determination." It's an odd
    comment on memory and emotion that such a long-ago commentator's
    remark could so deeply lodge in my mental archives, to label a niche that
    might be called: This is what it's like when you see if you've got what it takes.

    Sisu. I didn't know how to spell it, until now.

    JE comments:  One of the perils of this job--constant distraction by Wikipedia!  The article on Molotov cocktails taught me two things.  First, the Spanish used petrol bombs in the Civil War before they had their now-universal name.  Second, the Finns named their devices in reaction to Soviet claims that they weren't cluster-bombing Finland, but rather dropping food parcels.  The Finns called these lethal packages Molotov breadbaskets.  The cocktails would help to wash them down.


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  • VAT in Finland? (Timothy Brown, USA 03/20/19 2:06 PM)

    A question in regards to our discussion on Finland.

    Does Finland have a VAT as well? During our years in the Netherlands the VAT added 18% to the price of purchases, although it was waived in our case since we had diplomatic credentials. Ditto for France. I don't remember if there was also one in Spain.

    JE comments:   In the EU, the VAT's where it's at.  All nations must imposes a VAT as a condition for membership.  Finland has a VAT of 24%, which is on the high side.  Europe's top dog?  Surprisingly (at least to me), Hungary at 27%.

    Just as our Finland discussion was losing steam, Yahoo! and Huff Post stoked the fires of the sauna.  This just in today:   "Why People in Finland are So Much Happier than Americans":



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