July-August 2012 Issue
June 27, 2012

What can we learn from Finland?

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, second from left, speaks with Half Hollow Hills TA members. Miller Photography.

Judging by a panel discussion of educators on Long Island, we have a lot to learn from Finland, which is ranked number one in education by the United Nations. For starters, the school system relies very little on standardized tests, revolves around collaboration and trusts teachers to do their jobs.

More than 450 educators and parents attended a community screening of "The Finland Phenomenon" at Half Hollow Hills High School. Sponsored by the Half Hollow Hills TA and the Suffolk's Edge Teacher Center, the event was followed by a provocative panel discussion including AFT President Randi Weingarten, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, Long Island educators and two national scholars.

The film offered an inside look into a country where students are rarely tested, nearly 30 percent receive some sort of special help and students are taught to think for themselves and work cooperatively. The Finnish school system starts students later and allows them to choose between a general and vocational upper secondary track.

Educators have a strong union, earn competitive pay and are treated as professionals. While 50 percent of new teachers in the United States leave the profession, most Finnish teachers remain in their careers until retirement.

"Finland has deliberately rejected the prevailing standardization movement," said panelist Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University. "While nations around the world introduced heavy standardized testing regimes in the 1990s, the Finnish National Board of Education concluded that such tests would consume too much instructional time; cost too much to proctor and grade; and generate undue stress in the system."

In stark contrast to Finland, our nation — and especially New York — has become increasingly fixated on standardized testing and test-driven accountability, Iannuzzi said. NYSUT has long been concerned about the time spent on testing,

the quality of assessments and the negative effect the testing system is having on teachers and students. Delegates at NYSUT's RA overwhelmingly approved a comprehensive resolution, "Student Assessment: Getting it Right," that was developed several months before all the controversy surrounding this year's grades 3-8 testing.

Weingarten noted Finland takes a collaborative approach, involving teachers in decision-making and giving them the freedom to do their jobs. "Establishing trust and collaboration doesn't cost a bloody cent," Weingarten said.

Iannuzzi said the forum was a great example of bringing together educators and parents to talk about positive ways to improve education. "That's how you build a relationship," he said.

"We wanted to bring people together to talk about positive moves that could really make a difference, like smaller classes and better training," said Half Hollow Hills TA President Richard Haase. "The first step is engaging people."