I had the pleasure of meeting with several people from the University of Helsinki. First I want to note that, unlike the U.S. where teacher education programs abound, Finland has just a few teacher education programs, which are highly competitive and difficult to get into. I was impressed by the selectiveness of the schools, and the quality of the students who are admitted. It's no surprise that those students who gain admission and succeed in becoming teachers are highly respected in Finnish society.
Some of the points that stand out most in my mind from my conversations with people at the University have to do with inclusion, equity, high-stakes testing, and immigration.
Three-tier model – Finland’s three-tier inclusion model calls for escalating levels of support to meet the needs of those with special needs. Most students in Finland, at some point in their education, receive special education support, which could range from just a few hours of academic tutoring for a child with mild needs, to consistent academic interventions for a child with moderate needs, to a full-blown individualized learning plan for a child with severe needs. My impression was that these supports are implemented without a whole lot of red tape – i.e., it’s pretty easy for parents to access these supports. Teachers and administrators seemed to be laser-focused about helping the child, and less concerned about compliance and accountability. Resources are deployed to schools accordingly. In many schools, for example, part-time special education teachers who do not teach classrooms of their own are available to provide additional academic support on an ad hoc basis to any students in the school who require it.
Equity - Finland emphasizes equity a great deal. That’s not to say that every school is perfect, but the percentage of inferior schools in Finland is smaller than in most other countries around the world. Finland works hard to maintain a balance that allows parents to feel confident that their local school is as good as any other. In the U.S. there seems to be a much larger disparity between our good schools and our poor or mediocre schools. Our schools need to be more balanced.
High-stakes testing - High-stakes testing basically does not exist in Finland. There is only one high-stakes exam at the end of high school, and a number of low-stakes subject tests that students are required to take in certain subjects. These low-stakes subject tests are generally used to develop “best practices” for schools and teachers; they do not impact the students themselves. Since Finland doesn’t emphasize high-stakes testing, more time can be devoted to actual learning. In the U.S., there has been a lot of debate about the consequences of students losing out on classroom learning time because of test preparation. Maximizing in-class learning time makes sense, and I was impressed by Finland's emphasis on this.
Challenges - Finland has its share of challenges as well, including: (1) Budget - Even in a small country of 5 million people, resources are limited and decisions have to be made about where to give services and where to cut them, which can result in certain demographics being underserved; (2) Staff – Some teachers may have more traditional teaching styles and be less inclined to adopt new learning approaches; (3) Immigration - Immigration in Finland is increasing, and the government is grappling with questions about who to admit into the country and how to educate new immigrants. How the government addresses these issues in the future could have important implications for the Finnish education system.