Competition and Choice Bring Reform, but There’s a Problem

In 1970, less than 10% of Finland’s students graduated from high school. Now most students do, and Finland is one of the highest-scoring countries on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests for l5-year-olds in mathematics, science and reading.

Why the dramatic gains? Finland adopted a series of reforms stressing choice and competition in higher grades and among prospective teachers. They included:

(1) Compulsory schooling through grade 9 and a common curriculum for all, with no accelerated curriculum for
fast learners.

(2) Intensive support for students with special needs.

(3) Choice of an academic or vocational high school after grade 9. Students are entitled to considerable “counseling and career guidance” in grades 7, 8, and 9 to “reduce the risk” that they make “ill-informed decisions.” Although students may have to pay for their books, meals, and transportation, upper secondary school is free.

(4) A highly competitive process for admission to a demanding university-based teacher-training program,
whether for kindergarten, elementary, or secondary teaching.

Statistics Finland 2011 reports that in 2010, about half of the 64,000 students who completed compulsory education, which ends in grade 9, chose to enroll in an upper secondary general (academic) school. About 41% chose to enroll in an upper secondary vocational school. About 9% did not enroll in either type of high school.

In 2010, over 32,000 (mostly if not all from academic high schools) passed the matriculation examination (paid for by student fees), which determines eligibility for admission to a university. About 18% of this group began studies at a university. Another 18% began studies at a polytechnic school (post-secondary schools of applied sciences established in the 1990s). A small percentage chose to go to a vocational high school. Most of this group didn’t get a university placement. According to other sources, it may take several years of trying for many to enter because of the universities’ rigorous entrance examinations. Competition for a place is described as “fierce.”

Although 25% of their studies are in core subjects, very few vocational high school graduates take the matriculation examination. They are assessed differently for admission to the polytechnic schools. About a third of the students at these schools come from vocational high schools. Apparently, most vocational high school graduates go directly into the work force, although many may go on later to post-secondary vocational schools.

Though Finnish educational progress has been major, the reporting and analysis of it, at least in the U.S., has been minor and out of tune. One would never know that choice and competition were key elements in the reforms by reading what teacher educators in the USA laud Finland for. If you doubt this, take a look at the blurbs and two forewords of a significant book on the subject: Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland (Teachers College Press, 2011).

In his foreword, Andy Hargreaves of Boston College’s education school claims that choice and competition are not part of the Finnish education system, just equity and collaboration. Yet, competition clearly drives high-school students seeking admission to a university, or to a teacher preparation program. And choice is pivotal for the motivation to continue education at the upper secondary level.

Our teacher educators like the benefits of Finnish reform: teacher autonomy in grades 1-9, no external tests or test-based accountability, and a collaborative approach at the school level to the curriculum. But they don’t seem to like the conditions that produce these benefits or the motivational power of choice and competition. Sahlberg warns
that Finland’s achievements can’t be easily replicated by other countries, but he doesn’t sufficiently stress how one basic condition–choice–helps to lead, as planned, to the extraordinarily high graduation rates from high school. In
fact, his book ends by denouncing choice and competition, perhaps because he knows that his audience in this country thinks choice means charter schools or vouchers.

There is at least one visible snake in the “Garden of Equity”: emphasis on equality of outcome. It is not clear whether the reformers intended to reduce the mathematical content traditionally taught in 1-9 in order to narrow the
“gaps in achievement” generally expected in the study of math. But the desire for equality of outcome was bound to lead to the “mathematics of daily life” for all rather than to the “structure of mathematics” for those with high interest and aptitude. For two decades, the lack of rigor in the mathematics curriculum in grades 1-9 has produced deficiencies in Finland’s high schools, universities, and polytechnic schools. Yet this topic is not discussed in Sahlberg’s book.

Mathematics instructors have also pointed to an unhealthy relationship between the PISA tests and this weak curriculum in grades 1-9. In a petition originally published in Helsingin Sanomat in February 17, 2005, more than 200 professors and other instructors of mathematics at Finnish universities and polytechnic schools attributed their nation’s strong showing in mathematics on PISA to the
“compatibility” of the content of PISA with recent reforms.

Referring to the extensive TIMSS 1999 survey in which Finnish students were below average in geometry and algebra, they concluded their analysis by saying:

“A proper mathematical basis is needed especially in technical and scientific areas, biology included. The PISA survey tells very little about this basis, which should already be created in comprehensive school. Therefore, it would be absolutely necessary that, in the future, Finland would participate also in international surveys which evaluate mathematical skills essential for further studies.”

It may be the case that Finnish educators chose to participate after 1999 in a test oriented to the kind of mathematics curriculum they had been training new teachers to implement in grades 1-9. (PISA first came out in 2000.) In fact, some mathematics instructors in schools beyond grade 9 think that first place in the PISA mathematics test may be a “Pyrrhic victory.” “Are Finnish basic schools stressing too much numerical problems of the type emphasized in the PISA study, and are other
countries, instead, stressing algebra, thus guaranteeing a better foundation for mathematical studies in upper secondary schools and in universities and polytechnics?”

Puzzlingly, Sahlberg’s book comments only on the opposition of the business community to Finland’s educational reforms. Not a word about the academic opposition,
which is far more serious. Or the inherent contradiction in a country seeking equality in educational outcome by grade 9 but still wanting a knowledge-based economy and its own mathematically sophisticated engineers.

Interestingly, Sahlberg’s book helps to make it clear why the Validation Committee for the Common Core State Standards Initiative included the person in charge of the development of benchmarks on PISA. And why the Obama administration supports standards for college readiness in mathematics that point to little more than Algebra I. Is this how the demographic “gaps” will be closed?

But it isn’t clear why Americans should support Sahlberg’s recommendation that “engagement” and “creativity” should become “pointers of success.” Some education policies in this country have already begun to aim our schools and teachers on the yellow brick road to “creativity,” a goal that can’t be measured or evaluated objectively, in addition to reducing time on academic learning. We need to ask “who does it really benefit?”

Sandra Stotsky is Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, holder of the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality, and author of The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do (June 2012). A longer version of this essay will appear in the Journal of School Choice.


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