+ Are Finns the Smartest Students in the World?

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By one international measure, Finnish students are among the smartest in the world.

High schoolers rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night.  They have no school uniforms, no tardy bells, no classes for the gifted, no school uniforms, no honor societies.   There is little standardized testing, and few parents agonize over college.  Kids don’t start school until age 7.

Ellen Gamerman, in the Wall Street Journal,  says Finnish students earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries.  American teens finished among the world’s C students even as US educators piled on more homework, standards and rules.

The Finns, like their American counterparts, also waste hours online, dye their hair, are sarcastic and listen to hip-hop .

But by ninth grade, they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — and on track to becoming the world’s most productive workers.

International triennial tests are sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group funded by 30 countries that monitors social and economic trends.

In the most recent test, which focused on science, Finland’s students placed first in science.  They placed near the top in math and reading.  Results were released late in 2007.

Andreas Schleicher, who directs the OECD’s test known as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), says these scores place Finland first overall, with the US in the middle of the pack in math and science.  The US reading scores were tossed because of a glitch.

About 400,000 students around the world answered multiple-choice questions and essays on the test, which measured critical thinking and application of knowledge.  (A typical subject: “Discuss the artistic value of graffiti”.)

In recent years this academic prowess in Finland has lured educators from more than 50 countries ,including an official from the US Department of Education, to learn the country’s secret.

The secret seems to be well-trained teachers and responsible children.  Early on, kids do a lot without parents hovering.  And teachers create lessons to fit their students.

“We don’t have oil or other riches,” says Hannele Frantsi, a school principal.  “Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have.”

The Norssi School in Jyvaskyla, a city in central Finland, is run like a teaching hospital, with about 800 teacher trainees a year.  Graduate students work with kids, while instructors evaluate from the sidelines.

Teachers must hold master’s degrees, and the profession is highly competitive: more than 40 people may apply for a single job.  Salaries are similar to those in the US, but Finnish teachers usually have more freedom.

Teachers in Finland pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards.  “In most countries, education feels like a car factory,” says Schleicher, of the Paris-based OECD.  “In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs.”

A possible explanation for the Finns’ success is a love of reading.  Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book.  Some libraries are attached to shopping malls.  A book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck.

Finland shares its language with no other country.  Even the most popular English-language books don’t get translated into Finnish until long after they are published.  This caused lots of anxiety among schoolchildren, sometimes: they wanted to read the latest Harry Potter before the film came out.

In November, 2007, a US delegation visited: officials from the Department of Education, the National Education Association and the American Association of School Librarians.  What they found was teachers with whiteboards and overhead projectors instead of PowerPoint.

Keith Kreuger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, was less impressed by the technology than by the good teaching.  “You kind of wonder how could our country get to that?” he says.

A Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen, who spent a year at a high school in Michigan, says the strict American rules didn’t translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students.  She would ask students whether they did their homework, she says.  They would reply, “Nah.  So what did you do last night?” 

She recalls that history tests were often multiple choice; the rare essay question allowed very little space in which to write.  She says in-class projects were largely “glue this to the poster for an hour.”  Her Finnish high school forced her to repeat the year when she returned.

It appears that despite the apparent simplicity of the Finnish system, it would be hard to replicate in the US.  Finland has a largely homogeneous population; teachers have few students who don’t speak Finnish.  In the US, nearly 8% of students are learning English.

There are fewer disparities in education and income levels among Finns.

Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades: 53% go to high school, and the rest enter vocational school.  (All 15-year-olds took the PISA test.)  Finland has a high-school dropout rate of 4% (10% at vocational schools) compared to 25% in the US.

There are financial differences.  Each school year, the US spends an average of $8,700 per student; the Finns spend $7,500.  Finland’s high-tax system provides roughly equal per-pupil funding, unlike the disparities, for example, between Beverly Hills public schools and schools in poorer districts.  The gap between Finland’s best- and worst-performing schools was the smallest of any country in the PISA testing.  (The US ranks about average.)

Finnish students have little concern about getting into the best university, and no worries about paying for it.  College is free.  There is some competition for college based on academic specialities, such as medical school, for example.  But none have the elite status of a Harvard. 

And so Finnish children have a less pressured childhood.  It is also a fact that Finns don’t begin school until they are 7, a year later than most US first-graders.  And once they get there, the children are more self-reliant, walking to school on their own, selecting their own food items, carrying their own trays, walking around in their socks, and freely using the unfiltered Internet in libraries.

Finns enjoy one of the highest standards of living.  They do, however, worry about falling behind in the global economy; electronics and telecommunications are their mainstays, along with forest products and mining industries. 

And so people are beginning to talk about fast-tracking the brightest students, as the US does, and creating gifted programs aimed at producing go-getters.  One principal says he is becoming more and more aware of “American-style parents.”  

the sole source of this post is Ellen Gamerman’s Wall Street Journal article on 2/29/08.  www.wsj.com

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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