Friday, October 18, 2013

Is Finland the best education role model for the USA?

In the USA, there are many people who believe that our education system is "broken" and that it needs to be totally revamped.  While I disagree that it is 100% messed up, it definitely could be improved.  Many people in the USA are throwing their two cents into the discussion on how to improve education, and one popular theme is "copy what Finland is doing because they are good at it".  However, while I believe Finland has a good education system for the US to emulate, I do not think it is the best (I am here because they have an excellent education system AND are very environmentally conscious, see this earlier post for a further explanation of my reasoning).

In the most recent PISA ranking results [1], Finland came in behind Shanghai and Korea; why are we "settling" to study the bronze medalists?  Is it the fact that we are surprised by Finland's achievement and not surprised by their education systems that involve lots of study?  Is it because we think it will be easier to copy a culture we think is similar to our own?  Based on the rhetoric I have seen, I would guess it is (mostly) this last one.  But this ignores a big question - Is Finnish culture indeed similar to our own?

So, is Finnish culture similar to American?  I think we jumped to that conclusion based on the fact that the both countries are predominantly "white".  There many obvious and deep-seated differences.  The one that gets mentioned most often in the US is that Finland is far more racially and socioeconomically homogenous than the US.  Values differ greatly as well - in Finland it is political suicide to suggest repeal of socialized healthcare, while in the USA current events show that we (some of us at least) would rather have no government at all than a capitalist healthcare system that attempts to cover everyone.  Finland is perhaps the most gender-equal country in the world; it was the first European country where women could vote (allowed in 1904) and the first in the world to have women in Parliament, which happened in the FIRST election (1907) - 19 out of 200 members were women [2].  By contrast, US Congress did not have 19 women (total between both houses) until 1959-61, but that was out of 536 total members [3]! The foundation of the Finnish education system is the belief in providing equally good education for all, which to me seems inextricably linked to the equality that is clearly a key part of the whole culture.  We cannot truly emulate Finnish education unless we embrace the underlying culture that has created it, which seems rather unlikely to happen.

Of Finland's 12 presidents, 1 has already been a woman.  Tarja Halonen was Finland's 11th president from 2000-1012 and is pictured here with our 44th president, who still is not a woman.  Image from Atlantic Finland Society website
It seems clear that the USA will not be able to fully emulate the system of education in Finland when its values and history are so different, at least not without somehow instituting a major cultural change.  So what can we learn from Finland?  What country should we try to base our education on?

I think the best place to emulate might be - dare I say it - Canada.  Take another look at the PISA rankings.  They are currently #6, well above our showing at #17, and not too far off Finland's #3.  They share a lot more than just a border with the USA - history of immigration, diverse society, and division into states (provinces, technically).  Could we perhaps look to them for guidance?  I do not know enough about their culture, but I would hazard a guess that it is a lot more similar to the USA than Finland is.

1 - OECD; 2009 PISA Results;
2 - Wikipedia; Women's Suffrage in Finland;
3 - Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics, Historical Information About Women in Congress;

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