Education Policy Must Focus on Ensuring Equity

With all the attention Finland has been getting in recent years, you might wonder why we can't just replicate what the Finns are doing and - PRESTO! - fix all the woes of the U.S. education system.

Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lesson: What Can the World Learn About Education Change in Finland?, spends a lot of his time answering questions from eager U.S. education officials about what we can learn from Finland. But in a recent column, Sahlberg points out that there are a number of things that the U.S. simply can't learn and can't replicate from the Finnish model because the we don't have the right mindset about education.

The Finns are focused on ensuring equity across the board, Sahlberg says:

"In the United States, education is mostly viewed as a private effort leading to individual good. The performances of individual students and teachers are therefore in the center of the ongoing school reform debate. By contrast, in Finland, education is viewed primarily as a public effort serving a public purpose. As a consequence, education reforms in Finland are judged more in terms of how equitable the system is for different learners. This helps to explain the difference between the American obsession with standardized testing and the Finnish fixation on each school’s ability to cope with individual differences and social inequality. The former is driven by excellence, the latter by equity.

Quality and equity in education must be conceived as concomitant. Based on its global data, the OECD recently drew precisely this conclusion: “The highest-performing education systems across the OECD countries are those that combine quality with equity.”

Sahlberg lists out the qualities that make Finnish schools the envy of education officials around the world:

  • Fair and equitable funding for all schools irrespective of their location or the wealth of the surrounding community.
  • Laws that ensure the well-being of children through access to childcare, health care and quality early childhood education programs.
  • The knowledge that education is a human right and should therefore be accessible and affordable. (In Finland's case, pre-K through university is free.)

But these policies aren't going to fly with U.S. officials who are too focused on testing and market-based approaches to reform. 'What works' in Finnish schools is a moot point unless the U.S. is ready and willing to completely alter its mindset toward education reform.

You can read Sahlberg's full column here

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