What Finland Shows China, U.S.
Image Credit: Flickr / Näystin

What Finland Shows China, U.S.


In his new book Class Warfare, Steven Brill profiles the American public education reform movement, which is promoting charter schools, standardized testing, and performance-based pay. This reform movement includes: Yale-educated Dan Levin, co-founder of Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, which specializes in getting poor minority children to do well on tests to get into college; Cornell-educated Michelle Rhee, who as Washington DC education czar, is alleged to have tried to “bribe” teachers to quit the union and to have offered them cash to try to encourage them to boost their students’ test scores; Harvard-educated Barack Obama who is forcing state governments to emphasize standardized testing if they are to obtain federal education dollars.   

Because the education reform movement combines the determination of Ivy League-educated educators, the power of Ivy League-educated politicians, and the money of Ivy League-educated financiers, “accountability” in the form of standardized testing will increasingly become the raison d’etre for U.S. public education.

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Just as the United States is learning from China, the reverse is true as well.  Recently, the non-profit Washington-based Institute for International Education (IIE) reported that there are now 158,000 Chinese students on the American college campus, and a popular trend is for Chinese students to attend American private high schools.  Middle class Chinese parents are increasingly aware of the gaokao’s limitations, creating a market for elite private schools based on the U.S. model.

Over the next 5 to 10 years, the education landscapes of the United States and China will likely converge:  standardized testing for the majority of students, elite private schools for the wealthy.  This education trend is merely a reflection and a reinforcement of the vast socio-economic inequality in these two societies, and the unwillingness or inability of both governments to address this problem. 

But instead of emulating the worst tendencies in each other, the U.S. and China would benefit from studying Finland’s education system.  Writing in the Atlantic, New York-based Finnish journalist Anu Partanen argues that Finland’s education achievements derive from its focus on compassion and equality, not on competition and excellence.  She criticizes America’s system of private schools, its use of standardized testing to sort students, and the trend towards “accountability,” and thus the Ivy League values of competition, testing, and elitism. 

The reformers believe that standardized testing will bring rationality, accountability, and meritocracy to public education – to use short-term rewards to motivate students to learn better, and teachers to teach better.  Many Ivy Leaguers became so because they’re motivated by short-term rewards, and so they naturally believe that everyone is motivated to perform their best if offered short-term rewards. 

But the existing evidence argues against this. In their book Sway, Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman tell the story of Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a public school that was Finnish in its mission and values. The school had high standards and few rules; most students thrived intellectually and creatively, while a minority skipped class. To induce those slackers to stop being so, the school instituted a pilot program in which teachers would be paid bonuses if their students completed the course.  At the end of the school year, the course completion percentage jumped, and the teachers were paid their bonuses. Yet another success story of Ivy League thinking, right?

Not quite. Upon closer inspection, administrators discovered that the low-performing students, despite completing their courses, continued to skip classes, and their grades had declined dramatically.

Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman explain how Community High’s dedicated teachers became less so:

“Once the pilot study was introduced, in order to secure their bonuses the teachers began concentrating their efforts on enticing students to show up who would otherwise have cut class…All of a sudden the teachers had a bonus carrot dangling in front of them. Instead of focusing on teaching their students, they began chasing after their reward. To keep the students coming back to class they ‘included activities such as more field trips and in-class parties’ – probably not what they had in mind when they entered the profession.”

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink, citing copious scientific research, lists the seven consequences of using carrots and sticks to motivate:

1.         They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.

2.         They can diminish performance.

3.         They can crush creativity.

4.         They can crowd out good behavior.

5.         They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.

6.         They can become addictive.

7.         They can foster short-term thinking.

The Finnish model works not because Finnish teachers are rewarded and punished depending on performance, but because they are trusted and respected. In his book Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  argues that for an individual to excel in his work he needs mastery, autonomy, and purpose.  And it’s because Finnish teachers are experienced, have control over their classroom, and aim to develop the uniqueness of each of their students that Finnish education is considered the best in the world, and helps contribute to Finland being to one of the best places to live in the world.

That’s yet another life lesson that the Ivy League just can’t teach. 

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