The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test has been widely reported of late.  It found that American students once again lag behind their Asian and European peers.  Meanwhile, Pearson PLC, providing publishing and assessment services to schools, corporations and students, has also conducted an assessment.

The Pearson study presents findings from a world-wide quantitative and qualitative analysis.  Titled The Learning Curve, it’s an effort to better understand what makes up successful educational outcomes.

The Finnish were identified as number one.  The U.S. came in at number 17.  Here are some hallmarks of the Finnish model:

• Reading literacy is of upmost importance in Finland.  Formal reading instruction begins at age seven when children enter one of that nation’s comprehensive schools.

• Finland provides each student with an equal education opportunity and removes obstacles to learning.  Any student short on skills receives intensive, sustained help to bring him or her up to speed.

• Students receive extraordinary instruction to develop their mathematical abilities.  Math as well as science curricula emphasize the use and application of knowledge and problem-solving.  This learning continues at all levels and no student finishes school without math and science competencies.

• The comprehensive school is for every child; hence, it adjusts to the needs of each child.  No student is excluded and sent to another school or separate classroom.  The interests and choices of students are also taken into account when schools plan and select curricula, textbooks, learning strategies and methods of assessment.

Teaching there is viewed as a profession comparable to all professions, including medical doctors and lawyers.   Substantial resources are invested into teacher education.  All Finnish teachers complete a Master’s degree, either in education or in a teaching subject, and are viewed as pedagogical experts.  Only 10 percent of the applicants for teacher-education programs are admitted and this fact enrolls only those with determined-to-be potential.

Significant political conflicts and sudden changes are rare in Finland.  However, since 1990, the national curriculum has become more flexible, decentralized, less detailed,  and teacher-centered.

Some argue that Finland’s advantage comes from its relatively homogeneous population.  While that may have some bearing on the Finnish education outcomes, others, with the same kind of demographics, including other Scandinavians, do not do nearly as well by way of international assessments.

Sports in Finnish schools are intramural. They are played for fun and exercise.  The athletically-gifted are neither glorified nor given special treatment-privileges due to their God-given talent.  Every child and youth is recognized as a valuable person and developed accordingly. State funding goes to providing a comprehensive school experience for all.

Finland’s success is not attributed to any revolutionary reforms, unlike the too often flavor-of-the-month, fits-and-starts here, but to a long-term vision of a comprehensive basic school system, now 40 years in the making.  Teachers focus on learning and teaching rather than near single-mindedly preparing students for the next test or exam.

Any overview of Finnish schools finds them all to be well-performing, high quality schools unlike the U.S. where schools in wealthy suburbs are in sharp contrast to those in U.S. inner cities and education investments vary from fair to shamefully poor.  In Finland, every student stays in the same school until he and she reaches 16 and then attends either an academic secondary school or a vocational school.  They don’t drop-out before graduating, leading to lives of joblessness, poverty and crime.

Finnish teachers are given the flexibility and respect to manage their own curricula under a national framework.  Overly-ambitious, inordinately autocratic school heads, like those in many American high schools and central offices, are not present in Finland to bully, overrule and drain the enthusiasm out of classroom teachers.  In the U.S., unfortunately, the case even today, with uneven and inadequate teacher and administrator preparation, along with “Those who can, do, those who can’t teach,” and its principal and superintendent corollaries, still applies much too often.

It has been said that, without intelligent action, exampled in our own case in Oregon, it’s argued, an old-boys, super-costly gathering of political types, long on ego and short on relevant experience, serious in calling themselves the Oregon Education Investment Board (one that’s not even been able to lead to fulfill the requested waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act), led by a governor providing even-wealthier-lives to Intel and Nike executives while bleeding PERS retirees to do it, is an exercise where we keep repeating the same failures over and over.  And expecting thereby, a different outcome.

(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)