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Finland has an education system the US should envy – and learn from

A new book has attracted much interest in Washington DC, especially on Capitol Hill, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?. The book arrives after Finland scored first in science and second in reading and math on the standardized test administered by the Program for International Student Assessment.

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Conducted among industrialized nations every three years, American students finished 25th in maths, 17th in science, and 12th in reading on the latest PISA assessment. Obviously, this nation’s international educational attainment is discouraging for our prospects in our global economy.

What stands out to me is that Finnish students take only one mandatory standardized test at age 16. Finland has the same teachers as New York City, but only 600,000 students compared to 1.1m in the Big Apple. Finnish teachers’ starting salaries are lower than in the US, but high-school teachers with 15 years’ experience make 102% of other college graduates. In the US, the figure is 62%.

Some of Finland’s students’ outcomes should be especially interesting to US policymakers. Fully 93% of Finns graduate from high school – 17.5 points higher than American students. And 66% of Finns are accepted to college, a higher rate than the US and every European nation. Strikingly, the achievement gap between the weakest and strongest students academically is the smallest in the world.

What might really interest some politicians is that Finland spends about 30% less per student to achieve these far-superior educational outcomes. For those who argue that a much smaller, less diverse country like Finland can’t easily be compared to the US, there is an inconvenient fact: Finland performs much better educationally when compared to similar Scandinavian nations with similar demographics. Plainly, something is right in the “Land of a thousand lakes.”

Fortunately, US education policy is evolving in the face of our relative global underperformance. The federal policy continues to move away from the rigid certainties of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind legislation. The NCLB law set a hopelessly unrealistic target for 100% student proficiency in every school by 2014. That won’t be achieved.

Currently, 32 states and the District of Columbia have successfully applied for waivers from NCLB. To secure this flexibility, states had to have the US Department of Education approve credible plans to raise standards, strengthen accountability and undertake reforms to improve teacher effectiveness. Localizing education reform in this way should more effectively combine ambition and realism.

Additionally, President Obama’s Race to the Top program provides federal incentives for states to reform their public education offerings. These education reforms include lifting caps on public charter schools, innovative policies to turn around failing schools, and improving teacher and principal effectiveness.

As an educator who opened one of the first public charter schools in Washington DC in 1998 — at the height of the crisis of our unreformed public education system — I’ve always had a different take on reform than the NCLB dogma. I could see that the predominantly disadvantaged students whose status quo was failing would need more than standardized tests to ensure school success, Sci Burg.

We decided to create a school that would help students develop the habits, knowledge, and skills required in this new century, rather than limiting our students to learning reading and math, the subjects that students are most often tested on. We require our pre-K through sixth-grade students to speak, read, write and think in two languages — either French and English or Spanish and English.

Our educational program invests in children early to prepare them for the next step in their academic careers and beyond into the world of work. We want them to gain the following: an understanding of how to use technology to enhance learning; an appreciation for, and facility in, the arts; scientific curiosity; an appreciation and knowledge of their cultures and those of others; and the capacity to think critically.

We are proud of our alumni, including those who have earned Posse Scholarships (college scholarships for students who exhibit strong leadership and academic potential), those who are enrolled in prestigious colleges, and those who are flourishing at high-performing high schools Capital City and Washington Latin.

We’re not in Finland yet, but we are making progress. Our students — 69% of whom are economically disadvantaged — can perform at the highest level academically. Traditional standardized tests fail to assess our academically rich program adequately. Yet, our scholars outperform their traditional public school peers by 16% and charter peers by nine points.

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