Finnish Lessons: Start a Conversation

Rebecca C. Itow and Daniel T. Hickey
In the world of Education, we often talk of holding ourselves and adhering to “high standards,” and in order to ensure we are meeting these high standards, students take carefully written standardized exams at the state and national level. These tests are then used to determine the efficacy of our schools, curriculum, and teachers. Now, with more and more states tying these scores to value-added teaching, these tests are having more impact than ever. But being so tied to the standards can be a detriment to classroom learning and national educational success.
Dr. Pasi Sahlberg of Finland spoke at Indiana University on January 20, 2012 to discuss accounts of Finnish educational excellence in publications like The Atlantic and the New York Times, and promote his new book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? One of his main points was that the constant testing and accountability to which the U.S.'s students and teachers are subjected do not raise scores. He argued that frequent testing lowers scores because teachers must focus on a test that captures numerous little things, rather than delving more deeply into a smaller number of topics.
This point addresses an important discussion that needs to occur: while we push for educational reforms, the reforms are largely the same old ineffective practices with new names. Linda Darling-Hammond makes this point eloquently in The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. States across the nation are adopting the Common Core Standards. These new standards are certainly an improvement over the patchwork quilt of obsessively detailed state standards that they replace. But the manner in which these standards are used to shape practice may be devastating. There are so many standards to be covered within one year of one subject, and within each standard are several skills to be addressed. Perhaps we are asking schools to focus on too much in a short amount of time. Dr. Sahlberg made this point by sharing that Finland teachers focus on a few skills deeply, rather than many skills shallowly, and students are tested once – at the end of their senior year. The result: Finnish students are making top scores on the PISA survey and generally scoring high in most subject areas.
One of the reasons Finland does not put a huge emphasis on standardized testing, Dr. Sahlberg reported, is because while they claim to make education equitable, they really widen the achievement gap. He shared the comic below to illustrate this point:

Now, Dr. Sahlberg was quick to point out that we mustn’t think that we can take Finland’s system, implement it in the U.S., and expect it to suddenly raise achievement. Of course that won’t work. But what we can do is have a conversation about our approach to assessment, how we (appropriately and inappropriately) use the results of the assessments we take, and what we might learn from others who are experiencing success. Having this conversation does not mean that the United States is inadequate – it means we are smart, that we are reflective, and that we realize there is a problem and that we need to fix it.


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