How a World-Class School System Wins by Rejecting Testing

World Class School System

This nation rejects all the reforms so popular in the U.S. – standardized testing, charter schools and evaluating teachers on the basis of student testing.

Yet, this same nation’s schools come closest to achieving America’s ideal — equality in educational opportunity for all its students. Ironically, it borrowed its system from an American, philosopher John Dewey.

The country is Finland. Its goal is to develop each Finnish child into a creative thinking, active individual, not a high test score achiever. The strategy it employs to achieve this goal is cooperation, not competition.

5 Fundamental Principles

The Finnish system is based on these five fundamental principles: (1. Respect for the teaching profession; (2. Free education for all; (3. Educational competition is downplayed; (4. Prevent students from failing; and (5. Foster self-reliance.

Finnish preschool programs are also free, although they are not compulsory. Ninety-eight percent of children are enrolled in them. Compulsory education begins at age seven. Students are never labeled as “failing,” nor are they held back. They are never tracked by ability. After nine years, the students must choose whether to enroll in academic or vocational high school. Some 42 percent choose the latter every year. Graduation rate is 92 percent compared to 80 percent in America.

Learning from the World’s Best

Historically, America has modeled its school reform on other countries. Education leaders in the nineteenth century looked to the Prussian system. In the 1960s, the model became the United Kingdom’s progressive schools. American leaders in the 1980s were attributing Japanese economic success to its schools. Now America’s top educators are starting to look at Finland. And for many good reasons.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses the math, science, and reading literacy of 15-year-olds in all 34 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in the world, honors Finland for having one of the world’s best-performing school systems.

Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, writes that the educational results achieved by Finland over the past 40 years are important because “it gives hope to those who are losing their faith in public education.” During that 40 year period, Finland centered on improving its teaching force, limiting student testing to a minimum, putting trust and responsibility ahead of accountability, and conceding leadership to educational professionals.

Finnish students don’t take any standardized tests until the end of their high school careers. Every nine-year comprehensive school is standardized test-free. Children are encouraged “to know, to create, and to sustain curiosity,” Mr. Sahlberg writes. Freed from the American testing obsession, he says, educators have time to plan and discuss students and the program designed to address not just the academic needs of the children in their classrooms, but their social, emotional, and physical requirements as well.

The Heart of the Finnish Program: Teacher Prep

Only eight elite academies provide the rigorous teacher preparation required, and only one out of ten applicants is accepted. These eight universities provide the only path to licensing. All future teachers learn to teach all kinds of students, regardless of special needs or disabilities. Each future teacher must earn both an undergraduate degree and a master’s in education. As a result, teaching is a prestigious profession in Finland.

Teachers are free to decide what and how to teach. And they decide how to measure and analyze the progress of their students.

True, Finland is governed very differently than the United States. It has a strong social welfare safety net. High taxes pay the costs to maintain it. Fewer than 4 percent of Finnish children live in poverty versus more than 20 percent in the U.S. Finnish children receive free comprehensive health services and a free lunch every day. As stated above, higher education is tuition-free.

All these services are soundly rejected by the same American politicians and businesspeople who lead the reform movement in the U.S. They promote standardized testing, privatization, curriculum standardization, and test-based accountability (giving merit pay for high test scores, closing schools with low scores, and firing teachers for the low scores of their students).

There is no evidence to support the notion that any country in the world has ever eliminated poverty or improved its schools by firing teachers or by delegating public school management to private owners. Nor does any research exist to support these strategies.

How are no-excuses school reform and the Race to the Top working so far? Ask your child’s teachers.