I’ve always been amused by the comparisons of the US Educational system with that of Finland. For starters, Finland has about 5.5 million people, about the same as Cook County IL — and a glance at Wikipedia notes that Finland is the most sparsely populated country in the EU, so it likely has less density than most US suburbs (never mind cities). And even Cook County is probably less homogenous and has far greater economic diversity as Finland has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.
But I confess: I don’t have first-hand knowledge of Finland. Luckily there is Rick Hess: has flip-flops, will travel. He chronicles a recent trip to Finland thus:
I came away from Finland mostly reminded why I have so little faith in the whole breathless industry of international comparisons. The difficulty with reifying international test score comparisons is that they suffer from the same banal problems that bedevil simple NCLB-style comparisons. PISA and TIMSS results say nothing about the value schools are adding; they merely provide simple cross-sectional snapshots of achievement. […]
Anyway, I came away less convinced than ever that Finnish test scores are inarguably a product of educational brilliance. There are a whole bunch of cultural distinctions that might lead to big differences in youth behavior and test score outcomes–even before we get to talking about schools.
In other words, many of the same people who claim that SES factors limit the ability of American schools to improve outcomes for low-income population point to Finland as potential model — when Finland has virtually none of the social factors or characteristics that mark urban school districts. Oh, and Hess points out:
Donald Duck comics were banned in Finland because Donald Duck doesn’t wear pants. Meanwhile, in the U.S., when chemistry gets a little slow, we’ve got students “sexting” pantless photos of themselves–and principals hesitant to do too much about it.
Culture matters, SES matters, and it’s pure herring (sorry) to believe solutions for urban school systems will come from places that have little to nothing in common on both accounts.
Finland is a nice place to visit, but I would not want our urban public schools to live there.