The Children Must Play
BY SAMUEL E. ABRAMS
January 28, 2011
What the United States could learn from Finland about education reform.
While observing recess outside the Kallahti Comprehensive School on the eastern edge of Helsinki on a chilly day in April 2009, I asked Principal Timo Heikkinen if students go out when it's very cold. Heikkinen said they do. I then asked Heikkinen if they go out when it's very, very cold. Heikkinen smiled and said, "If minus 15 [Celsius] and windy, maybe not, but otherwise, yes. The children can't learn if they don't play. The children must play."
In his State of the Union address, President Obama outlined his plans for reforming U.S. public education, including distributing competitive grants, raising test scores, and holding teachers accountable for student achievement. But there is much Finland can teach America's reformers, and the rest of the world, about what outside of testing and rigid modes of management and assessment can make a nation's schools truly excellent.
Finland's schools weren't always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master's program.
Today, teaching is such a desirable profession that only one in ten applicants to the country's eight master's programs in education is accepted. In the United States, on the other hand, college graduates may become teachers without earning a master's. What's more, Finnish teachers earn very competitive salaries: High school teachers with 15 years of experience make 102 percent of what their fellow university graduates do. In the United States, by contrast, they earn just 65 percent.
Though, unlike U.S. education reformers, Finnish authorities haven't outsourced school management to for-profit or non-profit organizations, implemented merit pay, or ranked teachers and schools according to test results, they've made excellent use of business strategies. They've won the war for talent by making teaching so appealing. In choosing principals, superintendents, and policymakers from inside the education world rather than looking outside it, Finnish authorities have likewise taken a page from the corporate playbook: Great organizations, as the business historian Alfred Chandler documented, cultivate talent from within. Of the many officials I interviewed at the Finnish Ministry of Education, the National Board of Education, the Education Evaluation Council, and the Helsinki Department of Education, all had been teachers for at least four years.
The Finnish approach to pedagogy is also distinct. In grades seven through nine, for instance, classes in science -- the subject in which Finnish students have done especially well on PISA -- are capped at 16 so students may do labs each lesson. And students in grades one through nine spend from four to eleven periods each week taking classes in art, music, cooking, carpentry, metalwork, and textiles. These classes provide natural venues for learning math and science, nurture critical cooperative skills, and implicitly cultivate respect for people who make their living working with their hands.
Samuel E. Abrams is a visiting scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University, and he is writing a book on school reform