Monday, June 09, 2008

Education in Finland

The Economist's correspondent took a trip to Sweden and Finland to look at their education systems--the latter country's education system is the world's highest-ranked. The correspondent leaves, noting that he approves more, in principle, of Sweden's system--which gives parents more rights vis-a-vis the state, and has competition between different schools and methods (despite not allowing grades)--yet it's Finland's system that gets the best results.

And why does Finland's system get such great outcomes? According to him, it's these three things:
  1. Teaching is a highly respected profession. Only 10% of those who want to be teachers are accepted.
  2. Teacher training lasts five years and ongoing teacher training is considerable.
  3. Students respect the teachers, pay attention and work hard. ("When I asked Finns whether there were some families who despised education and resented schools, they seemed puzzled by the question.")
On the one hand, it's simple: make teaching a profession that will draw the brightest and hardest-working, train teachers well and retain them, and have orderly and respectful schools that dedicate students to hard work. On the other hand, it's pretty difficult... after all, we just have to entirely change societal priorities and attitudes. But I think 2 definitely leads to 1 (lots of training = more people motivated to pursue the profession and more specialized = better incentives for retention), and 1 and 2 definitely lead to 3 (good teachers inspire respect from their students and know how to get results from them), though they certainly aren't the only causal factors.

The correspondent notes that lots of Finnish students are in "special education", especially for behavioral factors. I think my class last year would have achieved 25% more without one or two particular students who, in turn, merited more specialized attention to get on track as well.

On a favorite Republican talking point, it's hard to get rid of bad teachers in Finland: "In Kulosaari, the head teacher, Anneli Rautiainen, said alcoholic teachers in Finland are moved between classes and sometimes even between schools, so that they don't do too much damage to any one child's education." Perhaps firing flexibility isn't the #1 factor. After all, you can get rid of bad teachers, but you've gotta have someone to replace them...

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