For the past several years the air has been buzzing with international comparisons in education, probably because the U.S. has not stacked up so well against education power-houses like Finland and Korea. Most of this comparison is based on an results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The PISA test measures 15-year-olds’ reading, math, and science literacy across 57 countries every three years, with the most recent being in 2012. Results for the 2012 test will be released this December.

Here is a summary of the 2009 PISA results, which shows why so many Americans are talking about the country’s role in the world relative to our economic competitors (like China), and how we might emulate some best practices from the surprising education super-heroes like Finland. (You can get the full results here).

So, what conclusions can we draw from this data? And  why are we paying so much attention to Finland, rather than the Asian countries who also rank at the top?

According to the Atlantic‘s Anu Partanen’s 2011 article, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success,”

“Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model — long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization — Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland to visit schools and talk with the nation’s education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media marveling at the Finnish miracle.”

Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish expert on education reform, explains some noteworthy differences between the Finnish system and the American system in his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Education Reform in Finland?. Among these differences are:

  • There are no private schools in Finland. None. All schools — from kindergarten through college — are publicly funded and run.
  • Finland has no standardized tests. Other than their National Matriculation Exam, which occurs at the end of high school, teachers are responsible for administering their own assessments in the classroom.
  • The teaching profession is a prestigious one in Finland. All teachers are required to earn a master’s degree from a highly selective program. Instead of many paths of alternative licensure, there is one rigorous path of teacher preparation.
  • There are no lists of best teachers or best schools in Finland; cooperation is emphasized over cooperation.
  • The goal of education reform in Finland has never been excellence. Rather, reforms have strived to achieve equity. Education is seen as a way to level out social inequalities.

Some critics claim that Finland’s relatively homogenous population and lower levels of poverty distort the comparison with U.S. schools. It is true that when we control for poverty we see different results. For instance, U.S. schools where less than 10% of the population lives in poverty outperformed the top nations on the PISA rankings list. However, this just reveals to us that the United States has a serious equity problem on its hands.

In fact, the U.S. had much higher than average variation in reading performance between social groups:

Sahlberg argues that addressing the equity issue means more than hiring good teachers and holding them accountable. In order to increase achievement, the U.S. should focus on poverty-relieving policies that lift children out of the lowest economic classes. According to his blog contribution on the Washington Post online:

“Research on what explains students’ measured performance in school remains mixed. A commonly used conclusion is that 10% to 20% of the variance in measured student achievement belongs to the classroom, i.e., teachers and teaching, and a similar amount is attributable to schools, i.e., school climate, facilities and leadership. In other words, up to two-thirds of what explains student achievement is beyond the control of schools, i.e., family background and motivation to learn.”

He also poses this intriguing hypothesis:

“To finish up, let’s do one theoretical experiment. We transport highly trained Finnish teachers to work in, say, Indiana in the United States (and Indiana teachers would go to Finland). After five years—assuming that the Finnish teachers showed up fluent in English and that education policies in Indiana would continue as planned—we would check whether these teachers have been able to improve test scores in state-mandated student assessments.

I argue that if there were any gains in student achievement they would be marginal. Why? Education policies in Indiana and many other states in the United States create a context for teaching that limits (Finnish) teachers to use their skills, wisdom and shared knowledge for the good of their students’ learning. Actually, I have met some experienced Finnish-trained teachers in the United States who confirm this hypothesis. Based on what I have heard from them, it is also probable that many of those transported Finnish teachers would be already doing something else than teach by the end of their fifth year – quite like their American peers.

Conversely, the teachers from Indiana working in Finland—assuming they showed up fluent in Finnish—stand to flourish on account of the freedom to teach without the constraints of standardized curricula and the pressure of standardized testing; strong leadership from principals who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty.”