Finland is an education superpower whose students outperform those in the U.S. and dozens of other countries. But it wasn’t always that way. Here’s the secret to their incredibly successful education reform-it starts with their teachers, says Amanda Ripley in her book The Smartest Kids in the World.
Finland, it turns out, had its own No Child Left Behind moment, one that today will sound familiar to teachers in the United States and many other countries. In the 1970s, Finnish teachers had to keep diaries recording what they taught each hour. National school inspectors made regular visits to make sure teachers were following an exhaustive, seven-hundred-page centralized curriculum. Central authorities approved textbooks. Teachers could not be trusted to make their own decisions.
During the same time period, the Finnish government did something else, too—something that has never happened in the United States or most other countries. The Finns rebooted their teacher- training colleges, forcing them to become much more selective and rigorous. As part of a broader reform of higher education, the government shuttered the smaller schools and moved teacher preparation into the more respected universities. It was a bold reform, and not without controversy. Opponents argued that the new system was elitist and would, as one editorial warned, “block the road to our rural youth when their inner calling beckons them to a [teaching] career.” Some university leaders objected, too, fearing that the inclusion of such preprofessional, practical training might dilute academic standards for the rest of the departments and lower their institutions’ prestige. Interestingly, these same arguments were also made in the United States whenever anyone tried to make teacher training more selective.
Still, Finland was desperate to modernize, and the country’s leaders agreed that education was the only thing that could save their country from being left behind. The more I read the history and talked to Finns who understood it, the more I admired the common sense running through the story. The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously. So, that’s what they did. It was a radically obvious strategy that few countries have attempted.
Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, something magnificent happened. Finland evolved to an entirely new state, unrealized in almost any country in the world. It happened slowly, and partly by accident, but it explained more about Finland’s success than almost anything else.
With the new, higher standards and more rigorous teacher training in place, Finland’s top-down, No-Child-Left-Behind-style mandates became unnecessary. More than that, they were a burden, preventing teachers and schools from reaching a higher level of excellence. So Finland began dismantling its most oppressive regulations, piece by piece, as if removing the scaffolding from a fine sculpture.
The government abolished school inspections. It didn’t need them anymore. Now that teachers had been carefully chosen and trained, they were trusted to help develop a national core curriculum, to run their own classrooms, and to choose their own textbooks. They were trained the way teachers should be trained and treated the way teachers should be treated.
In the early 1990s, an economic crisis accelerated this evolution, ironically enough. Because of a deep recession, Finland’s local authorities needed to slash spending. Education budgets had to be cut 15 to 20 percent. The only way local officials would agree to deep cuts was if they got something in return. So, national leaders agreed to grant even more autonomy to the locals, more than most other countries had ever dared to do. This liberation worked only because of all the changes that had come before. By then, the Finns had engineered a robust system with highly educated, well-trained teachers and relatively coherent (and high) standards. Once that system was in place, the accountability checks and balances were superfluous. School leaders and teachers were free to write their own lesson plans, engineer experiments within their schools to find out what worked, and generally design a more creative system than any centralized authority ever could.
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