Nice guys “Finnish” last?

Imagine a school system that defies every school reform being touted in the United States.

What would such a system look like?

How successful could it be?

What if instead of excellence, the system’s main goal is equity? The families of poor children receive intensive social and financial support from birth on so that they don’t come to school lagging in the skills they need for academic achievement.

All children, regardless of how much money their parents make or where they live, receive free lunch at school and have access to health care, mental health services and individualized guidance counseling. All schools are public schools; private schools are non-existent. No schools (not even universities) are allowed to charge tuition.

Because the focus is on making all schools equal, schools are not compared with each other and rankings and lists of best schools don’t exist. School choice isn’t an option…  nor is it asked for.

Instead of being staffed with novice teachers straight out of college with a bachelor’s degree or Teach for America corps members with limited training, all schools hire teachers with advanced master’s degrees. All teachers belong to a strong national union, unlike in the United States where many states disallow collective bargaining or unions and school districts work at odds.

Curricular goals are broad and sketched out rather than cloaked in details – and teachers are responsible for deciding what and how to teach. A comprehensive common core curriculum written and promoted by standardized test makers is unthinkable.

Instead of a schedule of standardized tests to ensure accountability, students take no standardized tests – none – except for a single final exam at the end of high school. Teachers alone decide how to measure student achievement, making and implementing their own classroom tests and report cards.

Professional development consists of teachers collaborating with each other rather than school districts mandating extra training. Most importantly, instead of the American hand-wringing over student performance on international achievement tests, the parents in such a school system hear consistently good news about how their children outperform the rest of the world.

Could such a school system actually exist?

It does – in Finland.

As it has for the past decade, Finland scores at or near the top of international tests on reading and math, prompting many school reformers to seek out Finnish education experts such as Pasi Sahlberg, whose latest book, “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? attempts to account for Finland’s success.

Since the 1970s, Finns have seen their school system make a dramatic turnaround from poor to one of the best in the world – and not because they did any of the school reforms being tried in the United States.

According to Sahlberg, Americans believe the only way to track student success is with frequent tests, that schools have to have accountability for bad teachers and merit pay for good teachers, that competition and the private sector engagement (as well as school choice) make schools better. All are ideas rejected by the Finnish education system.

When Finns wanted to lift their education system out of the doldrums, they placed their lever in a very different place than Americans have. Rather than focus on how to change schools, Finns decided to change their society…  or at least to compensate for the inequities of income and opportunities that left some Finnish children behind.

Rather than blaming teachers or holding them accountable for student performance, Finns decided to make teaching a profession that the best and brightest college graduates sought out…  by offering prestige and money but also the sort of autonomy and responsibility that attract creative, intelligent people to the profession.

“There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” Sahlberg said recently in a speech at Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

Finland is, of course, different from the U.S. in ways that make comparisons tricky. Much smaller, less diverse, and with a much lower poverty rate, Finland is also committed to the sorts of social supports that conservative Americans decry.

A more useful comparison might be between Finland and Norway, another small country with a similar population, but one which is following American-style school reforms. How do Norwegian students measure up? Mediocre performance on the same international tests the Finns are excelling in.

If American reformers are determined to use Finnish schools as a benchmark of student achievement, then they can’t ignore the reasons for that success.

Wanting Finnish results while dismissing Finnish methods is a surefire way to continue to lose that numbers game.