The Bulletin

How Finland Became an Education Leader

Wednesday, June 2012

By David Sirota for salon.com

How has one industrialized country created one of the world's most successful education systems in a way that is completely hostile to testing? That's the question asked―and answered―in a new documentary called "The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System."

Examining the nation with one of the most comparatively successful education systems on the planet, the film contradicts a test-driven, teacher-demonizing orthodoxy of education "reform" that dominates America's political debate.

Harvard professor, Tony Wagner, explains how Finland, the nation, achieved extraordinary successes by de-emphasizing testing.

On my KKZN-AM760 radio show, I talked to Harvard researcher Tony Wagner, who narrates the film and who is the author of the 2008 book "The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need And What We Can Do About It." Because the interview became the basis for so much feedback, I wanted to publish this abridged transcript of our larger discussion. You can listen to the full interview here.

DS: What has Finland achieved, and what's the history behind its improved education system?

In the early 1970s, Finland had an underperforming education system and a pretty poor agrarian economy based on one product -- trees, and they were chopping them down at a rapid rate that wasn't going to get them very far. So they knew they had to completely revamp their education system in order to create a true knowledge-based economy.

So they began in the 1970s by completely transforming the preparation and selection of future teachers. That was a very important fundamental reform because it enabled them to have a much higher level of professionalism among teachers. Every teacher got a masters degree, and every teacher got the very same high quality level of preparation.

So what has happened since is that teaching has become the most highly esteemed profession. Not the highest paid, but the most highly esteemed. Only one out of every 10 people who apply to become teachers will ultimately make it to the classroom. The consequence has been that Finland's performance on international assessments, called PISA, have consistently outranked every other western country, and really there are only a handful of eastern countries that are educating with the same results.

This is what Finland has done that's different―they've defined what is excellent teaching...and they have a standard for that. Second, they've defined what is most important to learn, and it's not a memorization-based curriculum, but a thinking-based curriculum.


So, Finland basically focuses on teachers and not on domestic testing.
Those PISA tests that you cite are international assessments.

That's absolutely right. There is no domestic testing except a very quiet auditing program to test demographic samples of kids; not for accountability, not for public consumption, and not for comparison across schools. The fascinating thing is that because they have created such a high level of professionalism, they can trust their teachers. Their motto is "Trust Through Professionalism." The difference between the highest performing school in Finland and the lowest performing school in Finland is less than four percent, and that's without any testing at all.

DS: This is the antithesis of what we're hearing about in the United States in terms of so-called education "reform." When you hear the debate in the United States over education, the idea is that we need to demonize teachers and that the real way to fix our education system is to simply test the hell out of kids. Why do you think there is such a difference between the attitudes of our two countries?

First of all I want to point out that Finland is rated among the highest in the world in innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity. It's not your grandfather's socialist country in any sense of the word....

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