Finnish Lessons:  What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg

A review by Larry Geni

American education is in trouble, and a multibillion dollar school reform movement is not going to fix it.  So says Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons, a little book that has provoked a tsunami of reaction among the educational cognoscenti. For those who are weary of the divisive, often toxic debate about education in this country, Mr. Sahlberg offers an appealing and inspiring alternative.  He invites us to learn from peruskoulu, the Finnish educational model.  In so doing, he has reignited a groundswell of argument over the muscular, autocratic mode of governmental reform long in vogue in the United States.

Ultimately, anyone who cares about education – that is, anyone who cares about the future of this country – should read this book.  We need to learn from Finland’s experience because, as Mr. Sahlberg says, it “gives hope to those who are losing their faith in public education and whether it can be changed.”  It is precisely that hope that drives this book’s popularity as well as energetic rebuttals from supporters of the status quo.

Mr. Sahlberg is well qualified to describe the story of Finland’s remarkable transformation from a poor, agrarian, largely unschooled country to an educational role model for the world.  That change occurred in a few short decades and during most of that time he has studied and participated in educational reform both inside Finland and internationally.  His experiences range from classroom teaching and teacher training to a position in the Finnish Ministry of Education, and includes extensive research and writing, international keynote speeches, and advising educational policy-makers around the world.  His persuasive book is grounded in research and is filled with clear, highly informative, sometimes jaw-dropping graphs and charts.  He has definitively illustrated the history and mechanics of Finland’s stunning success: his portrait of peruskoulu is compelling.

Finland’s school system burst into public awareness in 2001 as a result of its stunning scores on PISA, an international measure of academic achievement.  In the decade since, educators and policy makers have flocked to Finland to try to understand its success and there has been widespread international coverage of “the Finnish phenomenon” in major media outlets and the blogosphere.

Finnish schools continue to lead the world by most internationally accepted measures of academic achievement.  They have accomplished this without any of the more aggressivetechniques ubiquitous in what Mr. Sahlberg calls the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM for short.  There are no high-stakes tests, no national curriculum to be enforced, no punitive teacher accountability schemes, no competition between charter and public schools.  Compared to students in the U.S., Finnish students spend less time in school, do less homework (typically less than 30 minutes per day), and are supported in ways inconceivable in this country:  fully half of them receive special educational and individualized support and meals are provided to all students.  Yet compared to the U.S., Finnish education costs roughly 30% less per student.  Peruskoulu is remarkably efficient.

While no one can argue with its success, there is certainly room for controversy over peruskoulu’s applicability to America’s school system.  Mr. Sahlberg directly addresses some common attacks on the relevance of his country’s successes; that it is too small, too homogeneous, too foreign to teach us anything.  For instance, he argues thatFinland’s population of 5.5 million is comparable to that of many states, which shape most educational policy in this country.  However, he is also quite clear about what does not translate to the American experience.  Peruskoulu is grounded in the principle of equitable distribution of resources, a natural product of Finland’s “competitive welfare state”, which he describes with great pride.  This approach, of course, is something alien to the way schools are funded in the U.S.   Sahlberg is insistent on this point:  America’s large and growing income inequality directly undermines educational success.

And then there’s the issue of race.  Although there is a growing immigrant population in Finland, almost none of whom speak any of the three official languages, Helsinki is nothing like Detroit or New Orleans.  Given the current bitter, dysfunctional political climate in the U.S., it is unlikely that the deep problems of income inequality will be addressed anytime soon.

In addition to the issue of equity, Mr. Sahlberg emphasizes that a large part of peruskoulu’s success is due to the quality of its teachers, and it is here that the most startling differences exist.  In Finland, teachers are respected as professionals comparable in stature to doctors or lawyers.  Competition for teaching positions is fierce – only the most qualified are accepted – so there is no concern over teacher accountability.  Yet, compared with Americans, Finnish teachers spend roughly half as many hours in the classroom.  They are expected to do educational research throughout their careers, and are given time and resources to do so.  They even collaborate with architects in the design of new schools.

Finnish teachers tend to remain in the profession for life, and are essential participants in driving the evolution of the system.  Unlike American teachers’ unions, which are under attack politically and are widely discredited as impediments to change, union membership in Finland is nearly universal, and unions are at the forefront of change.  From a teacher’s point of view, peruskoulu sounds too good to be true.

Now consider the plight of American teachers.  Recent studies describe a dramatic plunge in morale and job satisfaction for teachers in this country.  Veteran teachers are leaving the profession in droves.  They feel denigrated and beleaguered, and with good reason.  A central tenet of GERM is that improving teaching will improve schools; the corollary is that the problem with schools is bad teaching.  Therefore, teachers are not trusted to design school reform;  it is imposed on them by non-educators.  Their creativity is curtailed by the relentless focus on “teaching to the test”.

Yet despite all this pressure, GERM is not working, even by its own standards.  In his introduction, Andy Hargreaves quotes Einstein’s definition of madness; to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.  As Hargreaves says, “The very reform strategies that have failed dismally over two decades in many Anglo-Saxon nations are being reinvented and re-imposed … with even greater force and determination.”  No wonder we are ready for an uplifting alternative.

It is no doubt a coincidence that 2001 marked both Finland’s emergence as an educational powerhouse and the passage in this country of No Child Left Behind.  The two approaches could hardly be more divergent.  To quote the prominent educator Linda Hammond-Darling, “Finland came from behind to become the world leader in student achievement.  Their strategy is the opposite of what we’re doing in America.”

After a decade of rancorous debate between advocates of the two approaches, Mr. Sahlberg has elevated the argument, grounded it in facts; he has decisively documented the enormous gulf between Finland’s success and the dire consequences of the American approach.  In so doing, he has launched an oversized reaction, both galvanizing calls for a new direction in American school reform and renewing opponents’ claims that the Finnish system has little to teach us.

Perhaps the reasons for Finland’s profound success have nothing to do with its size, its unique history and culture, or its ethnic make-up.  Perhaps peruskoulu succeeds for reasons that are fundamental to all human beings.   The most useful Finnish Lesson may well be this:  true, positive change cannot be punitive or autocratic.  People can be made to change their behavior, but when the force stops, so does the progress.  Lasting, meaningful educational reform must be an evolution grounded in trust, not fear.  It will rise from the good will and dedication of well-trained, supported and respected teachers.