Benson shares education lessons from Finland
|State Representative Jen Benson speaks about her trip to Finland to observe the educational system and why it is so successful. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)
Speaking in Harvard on Dec. 13, State Rep. Jen Benson expressed pride in Massachusetts' top ranking by the National Assessment of Education Progress, often called "the nation's report card." But it is not enough for Massachusetts to be an educational leader in the United States, Benson warned.
"We have to be globally competitive," she said.
Benson got her start in public office with the Lunenburg School Committee and currently serves on the state legislature's Joint Committee on Education. So when she had an opportunity to travel with a group of educators to Finland, which regularly scores at or near the top on international educational comparisons, she was eager to go. About 30 educators took part in the eight-day trip, which included visits to two schools and discussions with educational policymakers.
Finland has frequently ranked first or second in reading, math, and science, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment. On the same tests, the United States has generally scored near the middle of the pack. (Not all nations take part, and ranks differ from one subject area to another.)
Benson admitted that she had gone on the trip with some "preconceived ideas" and that she had hoped to find "a silver bullet" that would lead to dramatic improvements in American schools. Instead, she found that many factors contributed to Finland's educational success.
Finland has the advantage of a small, homogeneous population, Benson said, with a shared language. In fact, it has two shared languages, as all students learn both Finnish and Swedish, she said.
Although diversity has increased in Finland recently, schools there do not face nearly as many language differences among their students as many urban schools do in the United States.
On the other hand, Finland also has some special difficulties in education, Benson explained. With about the same number of people as Massachusetts but an area roughly as big as New Mexico, Finland is the most sparsely populated country in the European Union. Providing education for the widely scattered households in the rural areas is both challenging and expensive, Benson said.
According to Benson, Finland decided during the 1970s that educated people were going to be the country's primary resource, given that the country had few natural resources on which to build its economy. The policy of "a knowledge-based economy" has had consistent support from all political parties since then, she said. As a result, schools focus strictly on academic education, with no sports or extracurricular activities. Those interests are left to clubs outside of school.
Asked if Finland had a longer school year or longer school days than Massachusetts, Benson said those factors were about the same in each country.
Among the features that Benson said impressed her about the Finnish educational system were the high educational standards for all teachers, beginning with the five-year master's program required for teachers in the universal pre-schools for children from ages one to six. Only the top 10 percent of high-school graduates qualify for admission to teacher training at university, Benson said, making education a prestigious career.
All education is free and fully funded by the state, from pre-school through university, Benson said. Teachers' contracts and salary scale are set at the national level, she said, but there is considerable local autonomy for curriculum. When Benson asked to see the curriculum framework for the country, she said she was surprised to be handed a thin paper pamphlet only about 20 pages long.
"They have much less complexity and bureaucracy around the schools than we do," Benson said.
Principals have primary authority over each school, with no superintendents in the system. Nor are teachers evaluated, although first-year teachers work with a co-teacher.
Benson's talk took place at the Harvard Public Library. It drew several educators from Littleton, Sudbury, Acton-Boxborough, and Harvard, though overall attendance was low.
Friday, January 04, 2013 at 5:46 AM
"As a result, schools focus strictly on academic education, with no sports or extracurricular activities." --- Imagine that!! Schools, of all places, focusing on education! Aaaand..... no sports! my god!! what IS this world coming to?!
BTW,.... while our children are 'exposed' to Swedish in their education,... I would like to point out that finnish speaking students are not actively 'learning' in swedish and viceversa, the swedish speaking children 'learn' finnish but they are not doing their 'learning' IN finnish. There is a slight allusion here that the children are babbling freely in both languages, which is not the case unless they are coming from that sort of home environment.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 2:06 AM
There has always been and still is sports in Finnish schools and some extracurricular activities but not in an extent as it is in Us. Sports is a part of the required lessons where kids learn to swim, ski etc.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 2:41 AM
When the widely scattered households in the rural areas were mentioned along with the free education from pre-school through university it is also remarkable that the students get free state funded lift from their home to the school and back if they live approx. 3 miles or more away from the school.
And it's usually not a school bus from a bus stop but a black Mercedes-Benz, Lexus or Audi taxicab fetching kids from their homes. And I'm not kidding!
The free transportation is available during pre-school and the first nine years of school, the older students at polytechnic or university must pay their own transportation.
Also the hot meals at pre-schools and for the first nine years are free and funded by the state.
Afterall transportation or meals for students in universities and polytechnic/vocational schools are not funded by the state, the older students can apply a scholarship from the state, usually 100-500 euros per month for these expenses. If they need money for the rent or other living during their studies, they can apply for a state student loan which they get in low rate and can pay it back when they get a job afterwards. So there is no need for parents to save money for their kids education.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 2:42 AM
As an Finnish teacher unionist I want to day that Finland is also co operatiivinen society.
In Finland teachers union has a strong role in Education development and that is one key for this Education success. When all partners work openly together also the results are bests.
OAJ,Finnish teacher union is strong and almost all teachers are members of the union.So also all decisionmakers have to listen and work with union.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 3:50 AM
I am a finnish teacher and I wanted to add, that we DO have sports, music, art and handicraft -education for all students and it is compulsory. In curriculum there are about 2 lessons/week each.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 4:39 AM
In Finland we have to learn swedish because we have 700 years of common history with Sweden. Finland was a part of Sweden and unfortunately Swedish king did have to cede Finland to Tsar that swedish thought was a catastrophe in those days. They never got it back. Finland has more in common with Sweden than with any other country in the world that is often forgotten. Swedish speaking minority in Finland helped a lot to build up finnish independency that is often forgotten. Those years were dangerous years to Finland when bolshevik revolution took it first steps in Russia that changed the whole world and aristocracy were swept away. France did it first. All begun from there. Nowadays russian have a tendency to be wistful about tsar russians luxury lifestyle in my opinion.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 5:10 AM
It is not strictly speaking accurate that there are no sports or other extracurricular activities. During the first 9 grades (years) there are voluntary and involuntary study hours available for e.g sports, arts and music. However, the emphasis is strongly on the academic subjects with these other areas receiving perhaps 5-10% of the study time. They serve seen chiefly as a 'break' from the academic subjects.
The children who want to focus on these areas do it chiefly outside the school structure (e.g. sport clubs) at least during the first 9 grades. For the high school there are available, at least in some larger cities, specialised high schools (e.g. sports, arts/music) which offer more opportunities within the curriculum.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 6:23 AM
They have sports, art and music in schooh in Finland.
I used to live in Kansas- Missouri for 20 years, and then our son didn't learn anything in school in USA, we desided to move to my home Finland. We are very happy for the schoolsystem here, and our son learns.
Sports is not in high value in school, where real learning is valued and the time is used.For us, and finnish in general learning math and history, Physics, kemistry etc, is important.
Sports being only two hours a week is plenty, when we have clubs and organizations to take care of further sports activities for children.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 6:30 AM
"Only the top 10 percent of high-school graduates qualify for admission to teacher training at university, Benson said, making education a prestigious career."
10 % of APPLICANTS to the university teacher training programme are admitted.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 6:56 AM
Finland's education system was copied in the 70's from East Germany. That's why it's socially equal system.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 7:35 AM
Finnish Education system IS NOT COPIED from formrr DDR. The ideas and targets of the system were already planned at 1940 - 1950 but the reform started in the begin of 1970.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 9:13 AM
Americans use term 'sports' in a different context. Finnish schools do not offer 'sports' in their schools. They do, however, offer 'P.E' or Physical Education, (=liikunta) in their schools. 'Sports' in the U.S refers to extracurrillar sports. My kids participate in P.E (pakollinen 'liikunta') AND sports (play sports for their school team- voluntary, practices after school). Therefore, the article correctly describes the Finnish system. Sports was discussed in this article probably to differentiate the investment choices the two countries have made. Finland made a decision in the 70's to spend solely on academics. A ton of money here is spent on athletic facilities. For example, my kids' school has tennis courts, 4 turf soccer fields, 9000 capacity outdoor stadium, 9000 capacity indoor gym, etc. etc...money that could have been used to hire more teachers etc. At the same time, it is a huge part of kids' social life here; going to play/cheer for your school keeps the teens busy and out of trouble and out of hanging out at street corners. Terveisia Suomeen (just realized: 23.5 yrs in Finland, 23.5 yrs in the US :))
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 9:15 AM
The "shared" languages are not shared in practice.
Over 90% of the population have Finnish as their mother tongue. There is a population of just under 300 000 (about 5%) of Finns who have declared their mother tongue as Swedish. Most of them master the Finnish language also since they live in a country where they are surrounded by the language, so they are not able to avoid it in their everyday life. Aland (islands) is the only exception to this, as only Swedish is used there. The mandatory Finnish was abolished from schools recently in Aland. So, no sharing of languages in Aland.
However in mainland Finland there is a mandatory requirement for all Finnish speaking people to learn Swedish from elementary level to university level. This holds true regardless of the area of study.
There is no sharing of both languages as Finnish speaking people can't use Swedish with Swedish speaking Finns, as they master also Finnish, so Finnish only is used for practical reasons. Also the fact that the Swedish speaking Finns are geographically concentrated in a few places in Finland and the ratio of Finnish and Swedish speakers (17:1) means that one can hardly speak about shared languages. There are simply too few Swedish speakers in Finland!
This means that Swedish speakers "share" Finnish and Swedish, but Finnish speakers only speak Finnish in Finland. Having Swedish as a mandatory subject for the Finnish speaking majority in Finland is not sharing languages, it's something else...
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 11:41 AM
"first-year teachers work with a co-teacher."
Does this really happen? I haven't ever heard about such practice. Some of my children's teachers have been freshly graduated but I have never seen their co-teacher.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 11:51 AM
Free education at all levels is nof really "free", because of very high taxation. For example I myself pay income 45% of my yearly income (200.000 €/year). In fact all Finnish middle class people with also lower income level pay very high taxes. In addiion high taxes (VAT, car tax, energy taxes etc. ) in all consumer goods and services make the average material standard of living lower than in most other European rival countries. Every coin has two sides.
Sunday, January 06, 2013 at 1:50 PM
I am happy to have the opportunity to tell my opinion about education in America. Living and studying in America for 20 years, gladly I can tell you, that you are absolutely in the right country to learn something very valuable what our grand mothers, and -fathers worked very hard for. I give you few tips, and it is up to you to use it in your education system. By you being here in Finland, tells me that you are serious enough on this matter. In order to have a better system in education in America, you must be very pure in thinking education, and leave business out of it.
Keep your eyes and ears open ten times more.
Monday, January 07, 2013 at 1:50 PM
I am more than happy to pay my high taxes. It is a necessity and for the majority of Finns the services the taxes pay for are a priority. Among those services is the education system, providing a basis for wellfare for all citizens, not only for the one's that can afford it. For the biggest key to the overall educational success of Finland is equality. That's how you get the best overall results.
Monday, January 07, 2013 at 4:42 PM
One big thing in Finland is free meals at school and that's not junk food as hamburgers, french fries or pizza but real food.
Foreign TV programmes (movies, TV series etc.) are not dubbed. There is subtitles so children have to learn read fast. And althougt children don't read anymore so much books they read lot of subtitles. Our language is sensible in that sence that we pronounce like we write it. It's easy to learn read and write. Pre-school is just from age 6 and school from age 7.
Biggest thing is that poor families children have same possibilities for education that rich families. Important is what you have in your head - not how much money your father have in his pocket.
Friday, January 11, 2013 at 10:56 AM
Well, That was fun! ;P I need to go find a another pot to stir!
Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 10:08 AM
Is there someone that can help me? Do Fins select learnerleaders in schools, and if they do, from what age? In South Africa they called it "Prefekte" or "learnercouncil" and they select them in Grade 6(age 12/13).
Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 1:48 PM
There are no councils in Finnish school where pupils select their representatives.