Can the Finnish model be applied to American education?

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The Smithsonian: Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?

The article describes the “whatever it takes” attitude of the Finnish system, and throws in some mouth watering stats: 62000 teachers with master’s degrees, selected from the top 10% of the nation’s graduates; 30% of kids get extra help; and Finns routinely rank among the best readers, math students, and, of course, electronica DJs in the whole world.

With that context, everything that is wrong with the Smithsonian article– and by extension American education– is in that very first photo. Oh, look, in a country that is 75% Lutheran and 20% unaffiliated, they managed to find a Muslim girl to put in the photo. How cosmopolitan. How downright inclusive.

This whole article is a cheap trick by an American journalist. “They have immigrants, too! Their model can work here!” No it can’t. It won’t even work there.

It’s become a national pastime to look at the institution– schools, government, parents– and see how it has failed you. But it is much more useful to look at it the other way: you got the institutions you asked for, down to the decimal. Are you satisfied with the school your kid goes to or the school you went to? Probably. Are you satisfied with “American education?” No. So why the disparity?

America spends a lot on education, but it doesn’t spend it intelligently because it isn’t interested in outcomes. It doesn’t particularly care about public schools because Americans don’t care about public schools and they sure as hell don’t care about students. They care about their own kids, agreed, but not about the other little bastards.

Part of that is a human characteristic of hating the “other”, or, at least not particularly caring about the other. Does you school have a lot of others (read: minorities)? Then you spend your money not on educating those minorities, but on getting your own kids the hell out. I don’t fault the parents for considering only their kids, but that doesn’t change the result: Americans don’t care about school.

That school in the article is basically a government funded Apple Store. Look at the pictures, tell me I’m wrong.

Which is great, I’ve learned a lot in Apple stores, but it is completely unreproducible in America for a very specific reason: if it gets destroyed; if it fails to create new electronica DJs; then Americans will become furious that they wasted their money on the “others.” Since that will happen, it isn’t going to be tried. Meanwhile, at the elementary school near where I work, classes start 30 minutes later than normal because 40% of the kids have to go to the school nurse to get their morning meds, and no I don’t mean insulin. 40%. There’s your universal healthcare. There’s where your education funds go.

The Smithsonian article also attaches this handy chart to make you angry:

American education has failed. However, if you consider the data as an American failing not of education but of the other, you get this:

81% for whites is still below the Finn’s 93%, but the again the important failing isn’t of education, per se, but of the “other.” I’m not assigning any blame for this failing, just pointing out that the pretense that American education is failing is wrong. The education system is fine most of the time (College is an other matter entirely.) Something else is failing.

The Finnish system works well in Finland because it is ethnically homogeneous. For the tiny minority of immigrants, Finland is able to devote considerable resources in the name of inclusiveness. That may well change when the figure reaches 30%.

The American system is predicated on diversity, it actually says “Diversity” all over the place. I’m not saying it is better or worse, just that it is sufficiently different from Finland that you can’t compare the systems. You can’t reproduce the Finnish system here because, very simply, Americans don’t want it.

America is a melting pot and has its own unique weaknesses and strengths. But assuming the Finnish model is in any way applicable to the U.S. is– to say this in the nicest possible terms– arrogant white people wishing they could redo their childhood and school years at an Apple store. Yeah, well, me too. 

Related posts:

  1. Washington Post Fails at Ranking High Schools
  2. What’s wrong with America– in two pictures
  3. “I don’t fit in with the oafs.” Yes you do.
  4. When the Golden Mean is just plain mean
  5. Academically Adrift in the Free Market

11 Responses to Can the Finnish model be applied to American education?

  1. JohnJ says:

    How did Asians get control of the school system, and why are they so racist?

  2. Noo says:

    “This whole article is a cheap trick by an American journalist.”

    It sure seems so. As a Finn, probably the number one issue that affects the quality of the Finnish educational outcomes is the homogenous population. True.

    If we had the same amount of non-Asian minorities the US has, no amount of effort (or spending) could overcome the difference. Be it culture, genetic differences in IQ between populations, racism, white flight, class differences, or what have you, caucasian and Asian populations have universally better educational outcomes all over the world.

    An un-PC hypothetical. Replace all of America’s NAM’s with, for example, Asians and… your educational problem would be solved.

    “Part of that is a human characteristic of hating the “other”, or, at least not particularly caring about the other.”

    It’s the Monkeysphere, an animal – not just human – characteristic. http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html

    A good point made in the post is also that trust and social cohesiveness goes down when the environment gets more diverse (as per Putnam). Finland can spend a lot in universal healthcare and education because a homogenous population sees every citizen belonging to an extended family of sorts. Add a lot of “the other” and all kinds of (cultural, economical) conflict to the mix, and people will look after only themselves.

    “That school in the article is basically a government funded Apple Store”

    99,99 % of Finnish schools are not remotely like that. But that’s a given, it’s a propaganda piece.

    • Noo says:

      “99,99 % of Finnish schools”

      Actually, Finland has only 3 263 comprehensive schools as of 2007. Adjust accordingly.

      Anyway, it will be interesting too se how the multicultural expreriment will unfold in Sweden, for example, during the coming decades. They have a much larger immigrant population and the neighbourhoods are burning already.

      Finland might follow, but for now we don’t have the same problems with immigration that many other European countries have. But it’s just a matter of starting later and with lower volumes of immigrants.

      It’s conceivable that we (multicultural Europe) will come to resemble the American model in time as well.

    • xiphoidmaneuver says:

      No amount of effort or spending could overcome the difference?

      Noo, I don’t think maximal effort & spending has been tried on a large scale to improve the educational outcomes of NAMs (who less is spent on to begin with).

  3. Comus says:

    A Swedish daily Svenska Dagsbladet (2010) reported of a study of how immigrant students fair in Swedish schools. It did this by first noting that a lot of the difference is explained by where they have been born. Finnish immigrants faired the best, with 82 % receiving grades that would let them enter high school (Swedish average is 89%). For Arabic countries the percent is 54 and for Turkey 47, the last place being occupied by somali refugees with 25 % (altough, when adjusted to children who immigrated before beginning school, the number again rises to 75%).

    And on their last sentence they of course note that such things as the education of parents and their value on the job market was more predictive of the childrens efficacy-level than their country of origin.

    Which leaves the question to stand on integration processes of refugees, the more easier it easy to integrate, the better you’re off.

    I think the inclusion of the “included one” in the pic is not misrepresenting in larger areas, where there are often few children of foreign origin per class.

    Also look into the Kiva anti-bullying-project. It has some epic results, and might explain the atmosphere where it is easier to learn.

    Otherwise, yes, a mac-article for mac-people. My kid is mac. Other’s a pc.

  4. TheDevastator says:

    This could be read as an argument for more diversity, not less. If everyone only wants to spend money on kids that look like them, the answer is to give minorities a lot more money and power.

    • CubaLibre says:

      I was about to post something similar. A diverse population requires a diversity of kinds of education, not an ever-more-consolidated (and, not coincidentally, expensive) system. But the other suffers here, too: why doesn’t my kid have what that kid’s got?

  5. waxbanks says:

    It’s become a national pastime to look at the institution– schools, government, parents– and see how it has failed you. But it is much more useful to look at it the other way: you got the institutions you asked for, down to the decimal. Are you satisfied with the school your kid goes to or the school you went to? Probably. Are you satisfied with “American education?” No. So why the disparity?

    Isn’t it more correct to say that we get the institutions our parents ask for? (Or their parents?)

  6. Torgest says:

    There’s a unexamined premise here: Cultural diversity makes education more difficult. That sounds to me like saying success in the Finnish school system doesn’t count because their classrooms are all blond and blue-eyed Jukka and Pekka, while in the U.S. there’s not just Bob and Julie but also Pablo, Nazreem, and LaQuisha.

    That’s a distinction without a difference. If we were talking about a wide diversity of family income, family education and literacy, language barrier, problems at home, readiness to learn, or even (shoot me) IQ among kids in the same classroom, then it would make sense why that classroom were more challenging. Ethnic background, though? Really? I get that there’s cultural homogeneity in Scandinavia, but unless someone can explain to me why cultural diversity in and of itself is a problem then I consider it a red herring.

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