Finnish Lines

By James Merriman

Tennyson has his Ulysses say at one point, “I am become a name,” signaling his ascent from mere mortal to legend.  Something like that is happening to good old Finland, now a land of educational legend thanks to its stellar standing in international achievement comparisons. Except it has become a talking point.

As Diane, Randi, and company frequently remind us, Finland is a place where every teacher is unionized, students and teachers aren’t judged by student test results, and charter schools aren’t even in the picture.

That’s all well and good, but I’m confused. If Finland were an urban public school district or charter school in America, its relatively low poverty and high homogeneity, would make it quite an outlier. (Maybe not Scarsdale compared to Harlem, but more like Winnekta vs. Wichita.) So, too, would the scholastic achievement of its teachers, and the selectivity of the universities in which they did their training. Wouldn’t we be hearing then that its performance is therefore irrelevant?

Personally, I actually agree with charter critics when they insist on controlling for demographics when we compare academic outcomes between and among schools and sectors. Finn-mania makes me wonder if the charter critics believe it themselves.

(Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans is thinking about the real question: how to create Finn-America?)

Posted on Oct 6, 2011 @ 3:27pm

One thought on “Finnish Lines

  1. Jon Bacal

    Jim,

    Thanks for spotlighting Neerav’s excellent “Finn-America” post. The most vocal Finn-fans like Randi seem to avoid mentioning Finland’s Arizona-like level of school autonomy/de-regulation: school leaders (with their own school-level governing boards) select their own staff and program and make their own rules, with minimal bureaucracy from above.* Independently-run public schools staffed by brainy educators, getting world-class results. Hmm. (Sounds like dangerous privatization of public education. And possibly elitist). Also, highly scalable.

    *See Robert Kaiser’s 2005 Washington Post “Finland Diary” series:
    http://blog.washingtonpost.com/finlanddiary/archives.htm

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