A Different Kind of Lesson from Finland by Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Finland has been lauded for years as this planet’s grand K-12 education success story, deserving of study and emulation by other nations. The buzz began with its impressive Program for International Student Assessment results in 2000, which stayed strong through 2006. Educators hastened to Helsinki from far and wide to sample the secret sauce, hoping they might recreate it back home. And most of them loved the taste, as Finland’s recipe contained many ingredients that educators generally like and shunned those they typically find repugnant. It was all about teachers, professionalism, and equity, rather than jarring notions like standards, choice, assessments, and accountability.

Gradually, however, the sauna cooled a bit. Finland’s PISA scores and rankings slipped in 2009, and again in 2012, followed by a scathing report from the University of Helsinki that led the program’s uber-advocate Pasi Sahlberg to warn that the time had come for Finns “to concede that the signals of change have been discernible already for a while and to open up a national discussion regarding the state and future of the Finnish comprehensive school that rose to international acclaim due to our students’ success in the PISA studies.”

He was right. There had, indeed, been earlier signals: evidence of weak achievement by the country’s small but growing immigrant and minority populations, as well as boys lagging way behind girls.

Finland’s brightest kids weren’t exactly thriving, either. In 2009 and 2012, Finland saw drops in all three subjects—reading, math, and science—among its high-scoring test-takers—those who reached level 5 or 6 on PISA’s six-point scale. In math and reading specifically, these percentages dropped below 2003 levels, marking the country’s worst high-level performance in a more than a decade.

Had the secret sauce lost its kick? Was the world misled from the get-go, at least regarding how well that sauce works for smart kids? Finland makes a point of doing nothing special for them. Rather, its recipe deals with them, as with other kids, via inclusive, child-centered instruction delivered in similar schools by exceptionally well-prepared teachers whose skills are supposed to include differentiating their instruction according to the needs, capacities, and prior achievement of all their pupils.

Differentiated instruction certainly aligns with the Finnish culture and self-concept, and it’s plenty popular among other educators, too, thanks to its obvious allure on grounds of both fairness and individualization. It’s a very big deal among U.S. educators, and we found some of it in all eleven countries that we profile in our recently published book,Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-.... Everywhere we went, we encountered some version of this assertion: “We don’t need to provide special programs or schools for gifted children, because we expect every school and teacher to adapt their instruction to meet the unique educational needs of all children, including the very able.”

But such solemn, wishful affirmations don’t necessarily accord with reality on the ground. Besides Finland’s 50-plus “special” high schools (which a local expert says “can just as well be called schools for the gifted and talented”), we found—especially in metropolitan Helsinki—an underground network of families jockeying to get their little ones into primary and middle schools that have impressive track records of high school and university admission.

Back in the United States, we find a dizzying assortment of gifted and talented programs in many districts, a handful of states that require “gifted” students to be “identified” (though not necessarily “served”), and a small but distinguished array of super high schools such as New York’s Stuyvesant High School and Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. We also found selective-admission high schools and schools-within-schools in every other land that we examined; plus, in some, we found highly structured gifted-education offerings in the middle grades.

Whether it’s explicit and policy-based, as in Singapore, or officially shunned but parent-driven, as in Finland, some souped-up educational opportunities for high-ability children can be spotted in most advanced countries. The problem is that they’re typically more accessible to middle- and upper-middle-class kids than to equally bright children from disadvantaged circumstances.

Students with prosperous, education-savvy parents generally have help in navigating the education system—and the means to extract the best it has to offer. They are willing to move when necessary and supplement regular schools with tutors, summer opportunities, and more. Disadvantaged youngsters, however, depend far more on what the system provides them. The schools that serve students in poverty are also likely to be serving many disadvantaged students with many needs and challenges. These schools are also under policy pressure to get more of their students up to the “proficient” bar, with few resources to spare for fast learners who have already reached it.

In the eleven countries that we studied, we compared the numbers of top- and bottom-quartile students (using a measure of social and economic status formulated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) who made it into the high-scoring ranks on PISA in 2012.

No country has achieved anything like equity on this front, but several nations, often dubbed the “Asian tigers,” get more than 10 percent of their disadvantaged students into the top-scoring levels in math, alongside more than 30 percent of their affluent youngsters. Switzerland does almost as well. By contrast, the data for the United States show fewer than 3 percent of disadvantaged youngsters attaining levels 5 or 6, and just 20 percent of more advantaged kids, the worst ratio in our study. Finland’s ratio is better—less than four-to-one—but only 15 percent of its fifteen-year-olds reach the top ranks.

Why do some countries do better at this? Culture obviously matters, as do attitudes toward education, parent aspirations, and much more. No school system can make the most of every child’s potential without support from elsewhere. But it’s a mistake to place the entire obligation of formal education on teachers’ shoulders and assume that they’ll meet every child’s needs via classroom differentiation. Most teachers find that next to impossible. What’s more, other strategies work better: Acceleration, for instance, is good for smart kids, and a well-designed tracking system is good for high-ability minority youngsters and harms nobody.

The United States and Finland would both be wise to adopt systematic policies designed to improve the education of high-ability learners beginning well before high school. One approach—as we saw in Singapore and Western Australia—is to screen all third or fourth graders for signs of outstanding ability or achievement, then provide enrichment options, even separate classrooms and schools, for the ablest among them. American schools already have achievement data for every child starting in third grade—and universal screening yields a more diverse population of “gifted” students than waiting for teacher recommendations and pushy parents.

Having spotted them, we should do those things that help them, and others, by edging toward mastery-based progress through school. (Why assume that every eleven-year-old belongs in fifth grade and that all fifth graders should learn the same things at the same speed?) Above all, we need a new policy regime that gives teachers and schools ample incentive to press for academic growth in all their students, just as we need a culture that embraces excellence as well as equity and demands that its education system raise the ceiling on achievement even as it also lifts the floor.

Finland might be smart to do something similar.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Brandon Wright

This article appeared on Flypaper and originally appeared in a slightly different form inEducation Week.

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