The United States Is Not Finland, and Other Problems with Claims High Standards Aren’t Working


It’s a pretty obvious statement: The United States is not Finland. But the realities therein – that there are fundamental differences between the U.S. education system and that of Finland and between both countries’ student populations – negate critics’ claims that American schools should give up on their commitment to high standards and high-quality assessments.

Writing in the opinion pages of USA Today, author and Fulbright Scholar William Doyle argues the United States’ “bizarre” and “ineffectual mix of mass standardized testing, de-professionalization of teachers… the elimination of arts and recess, and the botched, now politically toxic Common Core” has led the country the wrong direction.

By contrast, Doyle claims, Finland’s “anti-Common Core” approach puts an emphasis on individuality, play and personalized learning. He concludes that U.S. schools should consider doing the “total opposite” of what they have been over the last several years – which, considering most states have focused on raising academic expectations, must mean going back to old, broken models of education.

However, Doyle’s comparisons to Finnish schools don’t carry much weight. There are big differences between the United States and Finland, including wide gulfs in student demographics and structural and cultural differences in both countries’ education systems. Robert Shumer, an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, has written about why drawing parallels, and conclusions, doesn’t make much sense.

As Shumer points out, the population of the United States is much greater than Finland (318 million versus 5.3 million). And Finland is much more homogenous than the U.S.; three languages are spoken in Finland, compared to more than 300 in the U.S., where almost 17 million people speak a language other than English at home. The majority of America’s public school students are now students of color.

Poverty rates, which have a big impact on students’ educational success, are much higher in the United States than in Finland (21 percent compared to four percent). In some areas of the U.S., the youth population in poverty exceeds 40 percent. And when only U.S. schools with poverty rates of 10 percent or less are considered, the country’s scores on PISA tests were the best in the world.

Finnish communities also treat teachers much differently—a reality witnessed by six State Teachers of the Year during a recent visit. Finnish educators complete rigorous preparation programs, and the application process is very selective. The acceptance rate for the profession is about 10 percent.

Poor-performing teachers in Finland, Shumer notes, are not punished. They receive supports to help them improve. That is a lesson U.S. education systems could heed; a recent RAND study found only 28 percent of math and 31 percent of ELA teachers believe professional development opportunities reflect their needs.

States’ implementation of high education standards that emphasize understanding “marked a huge departure from the old ‘mile-wide, inch-deep’ way of teaching,” three Arizona Teachers of the Year explain. “And those kinds of changes are only effectively achieved through proper support and training. Sadly, many educators never received the resources they needed to make those adjustments.”

Doyle’s argument makes many mischaracterizations about states’ implementation of a rigorous, comparable baseline for student achievement. For one, Doyle suggests high standards preclude students from engaging in recess, play and physical activity. Not so. In fact, researchers generally consider the “play-vs.-academics” debate as a false narrative.

There are all kinds of examples where educators have found ways to integrate play and physical activity into lessons aligned to their state’s standards.

“Within schools, educators are encouraging students to apply skills across subjects and helping to reinforce foundational skills by integrating concepts from one class to the next,” Eric Slifstein, a P.E. teacher in New York wrote last year. “In physical education classes we are able to bolster many concepts through lively, hands-on activities… What’s more, for many students who struggle with concepts on paper, applying them to physical activity often helps make it ‘click.’”

“It is important to understand that the early literacy skills called for by the standards (like knowing the alphabet) can and should be accomplished through joyful, playful rhymes, songs and physical games,” David Liben, a former principal, wrote in the New York Times. “Indeed, the standards define what children should learn, not how to teach it… It would be a shame to discount the Common Core State Standards because of a misinterpretation about its compatibility with play.”

Doyle’s position that the “botched” implementation of high standards is hurting U.S. students is not backed up by evidence. A Harvard University study this year concludes, “In short, the Common Core consortium has achieved one of its key policy objectives: the raising of state proficiency standards throughout much of the United States.”

Common Core was always meant as a floor, not a ceiling, for student achievement. In that regard, the initiative has achieved its purpose. Only one state – Oklahoma – has reverted back to inferior learning goals. Even states that never adopted the Common Core have prioritized raising classroom expectations.

That may be attributable to parents’ strong support for high, comparable education standards and high-quality assessments. About two-thirds of families favor rigorous and consistent academic expectations, no matter what label is attached. And nearly across the board, that’s what states are delivering. They are building on the Common Core framework and continuing to raise the bar, often getting rid of the “Common Core” moniker altogether.

“It’s time to stop fighting about the words ‘Common Core’ and move forward,” Jim Cowen explains. “State leaders have moved past the rhetoric. The Every Student Succeeds Act has once and for all removed any doubt that states have full ownership of their education standards, and they are now developing accountability systems to ensure those systems meet their student needs.”