No Education Silver Bullet

Last spring, Timo Jaatinen, a Finnish high school teacher living in Virginia, was surfing Internet job boards looking for a position in his home country. After a few phone interviews, Jaatinen was offered a spot as an English and Swedish teacher at Alppila Upper Secondary School in Helsinki, a popular general education high school with a reputation for attracting students interested in the arts.

"The principal said, 'This job is yours,'" remembered Jaatinen, one of those young, dynamic teachers who you'd guess teenagers instinctively respect. "And then she said, 'Do you want to go to Rome?'"

Jaatinen was lucky. Alppila had scored well on the city of Helsinki's educational benchmarks for the 2007-2008 school year, and all the school's teachers were rewarded with modest salary bonuses and a free Italian vacation, to which new teachers were also invited. Jaatinen headed back to Finland to begin his new job and claim his trip.

That's right: Merit pay exists in Finland. So does school choice; only the most academically-inclined Finnish 15-year-olds continue their education in general (as opposed to vocational) upper secondary schools, which compete with one another for the students with the highest grade point averages.

But Finland is also home to strong, politically powerful teachers' unions. And tenure. And principals who complain tenure makes it too difficult to fire bad teachers. Alcoholism is one of the few offenses that allows primary school principal Timo Heikkinen to axe a teacher, he said, and only after providing the employee with counseling and negotiating with his or her union. Sound familiar?

Ever since 2000, when Finland first scored No. 1 in the world on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Program for International Student Assessments, American education reformers across the political spectrum have lauded the Finns' investments in parental leave, early childhood education, and national curriculum standards. Education liberals point to the value the Finnish system places on teacher autonomy, while conservatives and libertarians laud Finland's ability to coax excellent achievement out of students despite large class sizes and relatively few hours in the classroom.

The truth of the matter is far more complicated. A close look at the "No. 1 education system in the world" does more to quiet than to fan the flames of the education reform debates that divide the Democratic Party and that are sure to discomfit Barack Obama's incoming secretary of education, Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan.

For one thing, the politics of education in Finland couldn't be more different than our own. Even Finland's conservative political parties support more funding for schools and higher living subsidies for college students. College in Finland is not only completely free, but the government actually pays individuals several hundred Euros each month just for continuing their education. There is a push to instate some sort of tuition, but only for students who hail from outside of the European Union, such as the Chinese students eagerly taking a place in Finland's rural engineering programs. In Finland, there is a strong sense that for those able to perform at the college level, university is a right, not an invitation to a crippling debt burden.

That's not to say Finland's education system is perfect. Government research suggests a disturbing achievement gap similar to what educators are battling in the United States, with very few immigrant children making it into universities or polytechnic institutions, which are somewhat akin to the American community college system. In the past 10 years, the country's immigrant population has doubled, and in Helsinki, 12 percent of school children come from immigrant families. In some inner-city schools, non-native Finns make up 60 percent of the student population.

Traditionally, many immigrants in Finland hailed from Russia and Estonia, but with growing refugee communities from Somalia, Turkey, and Iraq (thanks to America's war there), race and religion are becoming bigger issues. When I visited Helsinki last week as part of a group of American education writers hosted by the Finnish government, I sat in on a special-needs nursery school class with just two students. One little girl was of Turkish descent, the other Somali. Yet the lesson plan revolved entirely around Christmas rituals and songs. Later in the week, while visiting a first-grade classroom, we Americans were greeted with a cheery "Merry Christmas!" in excellent English. The children were charming, but when it comes to the demands of multiculturalism, Finland has a lot to learn.

The tiny nation also has its fair share of contentious education debates, especially since two school shootings shook the country's confidence. Finland's political class is now split between determinists who believe more teenagers should be directed toward vocational secondary school, and traditionalists who maintain that a broad liberal arts education is the best qualification for work in the knowledge economy. In the United States, No Child Left Behind sets basic academic proficiency and college preparedness as the goals of all students. "Vocational education" has become somewhat of a dirty phrase, the accusation being that its supporters must, like "bell curve" theorist Charles Murray, believe some students are innately unable to learn.

But if American 15-year-olds could achieve the same high levels of literacy and basic math proficiency that Finnish 15-year-olds do, it wouldn't be unwise to consider the merits of more workforce-oriented education. We visited a fascinating vocational education program in Helsinki -- a hairdressing and cosmetology school with programs for both teenagers and adults, including a beauty-therapy class for recent immigrants learning to speak Finnish. The school has cross-enrollment with a traditional high school, so students can leave open the option of continuing their academic studies.

Yet if there's one factor that seems to explain Finland's excellent education system, it is teacher training. Only 10 percent to 12 percent of college students who apply to Finnish teacher-education programs are accepted, and unlike in the United States, they tend to come from the top of their class. Every primary and secondary school teacher in the country holds a master's degree, and nursery school teachers must have a bachelor's degree.

What accounts for the prestige of the teaching profession in Finland? Every Finn has a pet theory, but my guess is that the historic lack of steep income inequality has something to do with it. Teachers in Finland make about what American teachers do, which is, of course, less than the income of Finnish doctors and lawyers. But there is not as large of a disparity between the salaries of various white-collar professionals in Finland as there is in the United States. That is changing, though, as Finland embraces more neo-liberal economic policies and its private sector expands. And with growing immigration and inequality, Finnish teachers in the coming decades will have to deal with more social and behavioral problems at school, just as American teachers do. It will be interesting to see whether the teaching profession retains its prestige under changing circumstances.

The point of studying other nations' school systems is not to find the silver bullet but to realize that there isn't one. In the United States, the education debate has been framed as a zero-sum game. We've been told again and again that we need to make hard choices between labor protections and doing what is best for children. But a good education system can include merit pay, as well as strong unions and tenure. It can have relatively short school days and large classes but also national curriculum guidelines. Teachers can have autonomy in lesson planning while simultaneously being held to high professional standards. Universal day care and pre-school on one end of the education spectrum can be matched by a commitment to vocational preparedness on the other.

The truth is that if the United States committed politically and socially, at the national level, to taking education seriously -- as the Finns do -- the universe of possibilities would open up wider than most of us can imagine. That is a long-range project but one whose goal should remain in the back of education reformers' minds, even as they fight out the day-to-day political battles sure to come.

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