Successful Schools Finally Found – in Finland
When test scores of American students are compared to those in other countries, the USA does poorly. American politicians and school administrators respond by pushing to tighten schools' grip on students' lives. Suggestions to improve our failing schools include: making schools run 12 months a year; forcing children to start school before kindergarten; assigning more hours of homework each night; pressuring parents to keep their children away from TV, the internet, anything other than school work; closing campuses to keep students from spending their lunch time in ways administrators have not approved; cracking down harder on truancy; school uniforms; bans on dancing that is seen as too sexy; more rules and restrictions of every sort. Teachers are pressured to make their classes more "structured," a teacher buzzword that means "micromanage the students." All of this is done in the name of improving education.
But does it work? This strategy of restricting students has gotten us where we are, even as our leaders insist the poor results we get only demonstrate the need for further restriction.
But what about the countries that get high test scores? What strategies are they using?
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tested 15-year-olds in 57 nations. The country that earned the highest scores overall was Finland, placing near the top in both reading and math, and at the very top in science. Serious educators from around the world are flocking to Finland to learn from the best.
And what do they find? The Feb 29, 2008 Wall Street Journal ran an article describing the Finnish school system well. Open campuses. No tardy bells. Classes where students are free to sleep or read or doodle when they feel like it. Teachers and students addressing each other by first name. No more than a half-hour of homework each night. (No, not a half-hour for each subject, a half-hour total.) Children do not even enter the school system until the age of seven. When children do come to school, they are not subjected to "structured" assignments but are given room to make some of their own decisions. As the Journal puts it, "Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering."
Because homework requirements in Finland are reasonable, students actually do their homework. Because teachers are students' friends instead of their enemies, students listen to their teachers. Because school is a comfortable environment, students need not escape mentally by tuning out. Because classes are worthwhile and enjoyable, students feel less desire to disrupt class with misbehavior. Because students have more leisure time, they read things they enjoy instead of pretending to read things they hate.
Finnish students have the same entertaining distractions found in the US: TV, music, the internet (left unfiltered in Finnish schools). But Finland has proven that good schools can compete successfully for students' time and attention.
Finland spends less money per pupil on their schools than does the United States. But Finnish schools are designed to serve students. They educate while American schools waste students' time and succeed only in gratifying those adults who cannot stand to see youth enjoy a moment of fun.
When schools give students respect, freedom, and dignity, and leave them more leisure time, students learn more. If American politicians and school administrators really cared about education, this is the model they would follow.