With the publication of Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons, the education reform debate in the U.S. is moving into a second round of Finnish envy—the first being the corporate reformers' distorted claims about international comparisons and the new being calls to examine the full and complex picture of why Finland has achieved both social and education reform that has pushed them to the forefront of education quality.
This second round, however, appears to be exposing a nonpartisan failure among all concerned with public education moreso than the needed turn away from corporate education agendas and toward democratic ideals seeking social justice and human agency.
Education Week recently reprinted Erin Richards' piece (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) addressing Finland's education system, titled, "Better Teachers, Common Curriculum Are Hallmarks of Finnish Schools." While such coverage should signal the shift needed in discourse about international comparisons and what the U.S. should gain from Finland's social and educational commitments, the headline alone shows that we persist in seeing not what the evidence shows, but what we already assume about schools and reform.
Solutions Must Be Based on Identified Problems, Not Corporate Agendas
Once we take the time to read Richards' article, we discover that the EdWeek headline frames the Finish school system within the two current corporate mantras about reform—teacher quality and common standards—that simply are not represented in the social and educational commitments found in Finland.
Unlike the historical and persistent bureaucratic and corporate paradigms for running and reforming schools (and the parallel failure to address social reform that would result in stronger educational outcomes), Finland, in fact, reveals patterns completely antithetical to the headline:
• Finland has a social commitment to low childhood and social poverty that is contrasted by the relatively high childhood poverty rate in the U.S. as well as the U.S. failure to recognize the power of social programs to address income equity.
• Finland has a social and educational commitment to teacher autonomy and professionalism that is contrasted by a growing move in the U.S. to reduce teaching to a service industry and to de-professionalize teaching by implementing scripted curriculum and test-based accountability.
• Finland has rejected detailed and scripted national curriculum guides, punitive standardized testing, and relentless ranking and stratifying of students—all of which are central to the corporate agenda now being proposed and perpetuated all across the political spectrum and media.
• Finland embraces in the wider society and the schools commitments to social justice and kindness, while leaders, the media, and the public in the U.S. speak almost exclusively about the role of schools to create a workforce.
Still, however, looking at the continual misrepresentation of Finland misses the key part of addressing education reform in the U.S.: Just what are the essential problems we are trying to address and what are our goals once we address those hurdles?
Reaching back to the roots of universal public education in the fledgling U.S. democracy, we must recall that education was promoted as essential to the growth of democracy—not the consumer economy. As well, nearly two and a half centuries later, we must recognize the role of education to insure individual empowerment and autonomy to all people regardless of the accident of any person's birth.
Instead, public schools have gradually and then increasingly over the past three decades become the tool of the state, a state nearly entirely merged with corporate America. We are close to having completely abdicated our public schools and our democratic state and federal governments due to the power of corporate America to turn their staggering and imbalanced wealth into proxies for votes: The 1% has a stockpile of wealth that frames all social discourse, sways all political campaigns, and seeks to claim all public institutions (including schools) in order to maintain the status quo of inequity that is the domain of that 1%.
The education problem is actually that our schools are powerful reflections of our society. Schools are not the mechanism of reform that they could be—or that many of the corporate reformers claim they want (which, of course, they don't since schools as revolutionary would overturn their status).
Our public schools reflect our corrosive inequity; our manic obsession with measuring, labeling, and ranking; our cultural commitment to humans as worker; and our blind faith in rugged individualism.
None of these can be found in the Finnish cultural ethos or school system.
In a rare moment of confronting and rejecting the blinders worn by most media in the U.S., Judith Warner has offered a foundational conclusion that could serve to give us enough pause to change our direction as a society and as educational reformers:
"Thinking structurally about social ills, rejecting excessive individualism for community-based, it-takes-a-village-style responsibility, has been out of favor in America for a long time. In education reform, what’s been in style instead is vilifying teachers and their unions. For some schools, making the grade has meant cooking the books to show results. Let’s hope that the time to reform this business-modeled mindset has finally come."