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What is Finland doing correctly and how do we benchmark them?

In the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment tests Examination given by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Finland consistently does well. In fact, in math, science, problem solving and reading comprehension, Finland’s 15-year-olds came out at or near the top in international tests given in 2000, 2003 and 2006. Finland beat the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. How has this small nation been able to do that and what can we learn from them? Let’s look at some of the data:

By the time Finland’s children complete the ninth grade, they speak three languages. They have studied algebra, geometry and statistics since the first grade. And they beat the pants off students from just about everywhere else in the world.

Even the least among Finnish students – the lowest 10 percent – beat their peers everywhere else.

What has enabled Finland to succeed?

•They established a single, national curriculum for all schools. No matter where you live in this small county, you get the same quality education.

•They expect good results from all students and providing extra teaching resources to get those results. Finland emphasizes creative problem-solving skills. Once students are familiar with the concepts of math, for example, they are expected to solve problems in front of the rest of the class. The goal of math education, in fact, is to equip students with both skills and logic so they can take responsibility for lifetime learning. Students having problems with the studies get special attention from tutors and remedial educators from the first until the last day of their education. Educators spend the most time and money on students in the seventh through ninth grades, because that’s where they see students having the most trouble with keeping academics a priority.

•They give well-trained teachers respect and freedom to teach. All of Finland’s teachers must have master’s degrees. Only one in 10 applicants seeking to major in education are accepted at Finland’s universities.

Finland has a much smaller and much more homogenous school population. Finland is also absorbing more immigrants. The Finns also realize that a decline in living standards is based on a poorly educated population. Even in the worst economic times, Finland has maintained spending for education in order to enhance its economic future. The system has critics, many of whom complain that Finland doesn’t do enough in the early years for its brightest students. And once they graduate from comprehensive school at the age of 15 or 16, some 14 percent of the boys drop out before completing upper secondary school – the 10th through 12th grades. Universities conduct tough entrance examinations, and nearly 70 percent of university students are female.

Reformers were convinced that Finland needed to stop putting students into different career tracks so early. By the end of the sixth grade, students and parents had to decide whether to take classes aimed at attending a university or a vocational school. The vocational track offered much easier math and science courses. The tracking system was changed in 1985. Students still choose whether to go into university or vocational prep schools, but not until they have completed ninth grade.

Source: Dallas newspaper, February 10, 2009

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