American School Systems

Blair Hochstetler, Staff Reporter

Chicago school reforms and Chicago teacher union protests are something we habitants of Northwest Indiana know all too well.  It’s something we have seen on the news for years, seen on our own streets.  Some of us went to schools that now do not exist and have beloved old teachers that are now out of a job.  The calls for national education reform have been nearly constant for quite a while and there seems to be yearly education system crashes and catastrophes in America.  So, what is there to do about it?  For starters, we can take a look at the world’s top school system: Finland.  That’s right, it’s not an Asian country, like most of us would assume.  Even China has begun to take pointers from the Finnish education experts.

Forty years ago, Finland instituted drastic nationwide education reform.  They changed their whole system and paved the way for the most unorthodox education pathway.  The differences between the American system and the Finnish system are abundant and extreme.  In four decades, though, Finland has reached their goal, and the goal that Americans also aspire to attain: a cheap, successful, and top-of-the-notch school program.  So, what exactly makes Finnish schools so heretical to the supposedly “tried-and-true” American (and mostly international) education way?

For starters, let’s take a look at the teachers of Finland.  First of all, Finnish teachers are effectively given the same social status as doctors and lawyers.  They are treated with the utmost respect and admiration.  In America, the teacher position is a lot of times taken for granted in the way that wonderful teachers are not recognized for their contribution to the world. And pretty much anyone can become a teacher–or at the least, a substitute teacher.  Finnish teachers are chosen from the top 10% of college graduates and go through rigorous training and evaluation before they are sent into the actual position.  They must have at least a master’s degree in order to teach any grade.

Also, the teachers’ union in Finland is a very important part of the education system as a whole.  They help make decisions and their input is considered to be paramount.  This contrasts with the American view of all unions, especially the teachers’ union.  Unions in America are treated like a type of plague.  Said Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s Minister of Education in an interview with education journal The Hechinger Report, “It’s a totally different situation in Finland. For me, as Minister of Education, our teachers’ union has been one of the main partners because we have the same goal: we all want to ensure that the quality of education is good, and we are working very much together with the union.”

The teachers in Finland have about the same salary initially that teachers in America receive, although after around 15 years of teaching, they will make 102% of what other college graduates make.  American teachers at this time will make 62%.  They do not receive merit pay, and if a teacher is struggling, they are put through more training and given more attention until they reach their full expectations.  Because teachers are among the smartest in the country, they are trusted and will not simply be fired upon doing poorly.  It is mandated that every teacher take two hours a week for “professional development” for their entire career, so they continue to improve.  Finally, they are given autonomy in their classroom curriculum.  The national syllabus is merely a broad, general outline.

The life of the students is also unique.  They do not start school until they are seven years old.  They are taught in an independent, creative, and free environment.  Though all students are given special attention where needed, students of all academic levels are taught by the same teacher, in the same classroom.  There are no “honors” classes, there are no “slow” classes.  The difference between low scoring and high scoring students in Finland is the lowest in the entire world.  Also, the children are not measured in any way for the first six years of schooling, and all of them only take one standardized test in their entire school career, when they are 16.  They do not get assigned homework until they are well into their teens, and even then it is kept to a minimum because mastery is considered to be reached in the classroom.  Incredibly, they have 75 minutes of recess time per day compared to the average 27 minutes of American recess.

Finnish students ranked at or near the top in science, math, and reading according to the previous PISA survey which is conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  The study compares 15 year olds’ scores in these three subjects from different countries every three years.  America has consistently been at the middle, yet no reform has come.

Furthermore, 93% of Finnish students graduate their version of high school.  Sixty-six percent go on to college, compared to the 68% in America, but 43% of Finnish kids go to vocational schools.  That means that nearly none straightforwardly jump into the labor workforce or take little part-time jobs.  They learn a type of skill and utilize it in a career, not merely a job.

Lastly, there is a large difference between the Finnish schools themselves and other countries’ schools.  First of all is the fact about Finnish reform that American education experts like to ignore when attempting to model our system from theirs: there are no private schools in Finland.  As of right now, it is prohibited to charge a tuition fee from elementary school to college. All schools are 100% state funded, and the government is able to spend 30% less per student than America.  American schools are funded chaotically; with private schools, for-profit schools, and even in public schools where the funds come from many different places.  This can result in sticky situations and cause some schools to naturally be more resourced than others based on its location, funders, etc. With all Finnish schools bringing in the same amount of assets, there are no “prestigious schools”.  Every school has equal resources, equally prepared teachers, and equal reputations.

This equity policy is established in other ways and began as the principle of the reform 40 years past.  There are no school rankings or teacher rankings, no reward for being better than the other.  It is frowned upon in Finland to have this type of attitude.  Competition is disgraced.  Finnish schools have extracurricular sports, but no teams and no tournaments.  It is taught that if someone is below you in ranking in any way, you should (no matter what your age) assist them in reaching their full potential, not revel in your success at their failure.

Though the Finland way of education and American education ideals differ greatly, it’s not to say that America can’t implement some Finnish-inspired reforms.  America is desperate for reform in many places, especially education.  People come to America for opportunity, but unless you are the 1% who can afford the very best of the best, you are put down on the totem pole.  Yes, if a person strives to succeed, they should be able to do so in the harshest and hardest conditions.  That does not mean that we can’t give children growing up in the shadows of America’s greatest cities, like Chicago, a better and more fair chance at triumph and a very good education foundation.  Drastic change in Finland transformed their nation.  There’s no reason why it can’t transform ours.