The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating story in today's Weekend Journal section on the Finnish education system, and "What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?"
This strange little Nordic country, whose language is very different from neighboring Norway and Sweden (or anywhere else for that matter), has posted scores at the very top of international skills comparisons. The Program for International Assessment (PISA), which tested 15-year-olds, placed Finns at the top of the heap in science. Only Taiwanese students did better in math; only the South Koreans did better in reading. American students didn't come close to their Finnish counterparts in understanding these concepts. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal tells the story of a Finnish senior, Elina Lamponen, who studied abroad at Colon High School in Michigan. When she came back to Finland, she had to repeat the grade.
International comparisons aren't particularly useful if all they inspire you to do is beat yourself up. The best thing to do is to figure out what other countries do well, and then figure out if these best practices can be implemented elsewhere. We've looked at Singapore math on this blog. What about Finnish math, science and reading? The Wall Street Journal attempts to answer these questions.
Unfortunately, The Wall Street Journal notes several times in the article that there are no gifted classes in Finland. This is misleading. There aren't "pull-out" type classes featuring Robin Hood, bugs, Egyptology, the culture of Japan, etc. But according to this report of gifted education in Europe, Finnish parents have the right to enroll their children in school early if they want. Many of the elementary schools are ungraded, which allows children to accelerate.
The WSJ offers a few other ideas about Finnish educational success. One is that kids learn to read very early because American television and movies tend to have Finnish subtitles, rather than dubbing. If you want to know what's going on, you have to learn to read. Few American kids feel so motivated.
The students are relatively homogeneous, both in terms of race and economic status (there's not much of a Finnish underclass). Some people cite the relatively relaxed educational environment as a plus. Students and teachers may call each other by their first names. There aren't a lot of rules. There also aren't any truly elite universities, so the competition to get into a good school isn't so intense (if there are any Finnish readers of this blog, I'd love to hear if that's true).
But here's what I think is the key point, from the WSJ and my other reading: The education culture in Finland is one of excellence and intense individualization. Finnish teachers are expected to customize lessons for students. As the WSJ quotes one education expert saying, "In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs." And they are good entrepreneurs. In Finland, teachers are trained extensively. They must have master's degrees, and 40 people apply for every job. They earn about the same as their American counterparts. But, through treating teachers like professionals, and only choosing the best, Finland has managed to get an excellent teaching corps capable of individualizing lessons for slow learners and quick learners alike.
Another note: Finland spends less per student than the U.S. does.
Unfortunately, I worry that people reading the WSJ article and looking to take away ideas for educational improvement in the US will only seize on the "no gifted classes" idea. That would be a shame. In an environment where the teachers are uniformly excellent, where individual lessons are customized and where acceleration is possible, you don't necessarily need specific gifted classes. But I don't see many American education reform efforts combining all these elements yet.