Finland has slipped down PISA league tables since 2000. This shows the much-lauded Finnish system has failed. That’s the conclusion of Gabriel Sahlgren, research director at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CMRE), in Real Finnish Lessons
published by the Centre for Policy Studies.
It’s true Finland dropped to 12th place in Maths out of 65 countries and jurisdictions* taking PISA tests in 2012, but the country is still top of the European league in Reading (6th globally) and Science (5th globally), so talk of Finland’s demise is perhaps premature
Sahlgren argues Finland’s earlier success was down to traditional teaching which occurred before Finland’s ‘lack of accountability and the high level of autonomy for schools’ took hold together with socioeconomic and historical factors.
There is a high level of autonomy for Finnish teachers. And autonomy, as the OECD found, is a component found in systems successful in PISA tests. But it’s untrue to say Finnish schools aren’t accountable. True, there is no inspectorate, but accountability is ‘bottom up’ as OECD made clear in Finland: Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results
. Oddly, this analysis of Finland’s success isn’t cited in Sahlgren’s monologue.
Sahlgren is clear about what causes educational success. It’s traditional, knowledge-based education and independent schools. ‘Pupil-led’ methods are anathema, he claims. The term ‘pupil-led’ is often used to describe pupil-centred, or ‘child-centred’, methods which put the child at the centre of education. It implies anarchy where the pupil decides what s/he wishes to learn. That is, of course, a parody of child-centred education. If the child isn’t at the centre of education, then what, or who, is? Society? Employers? Parents? Governments?
The presence of independent schools raises standards, Sahlgren writes. He cites West and Woessmann Every Catholic in a Catholic School: Historical Resistance to State Schooling
) which used PISA 2003 (and a limited number of countries – 29 of the 40 which took part) to claim 'larger shares of privately operated schools lead to better student achievement in mathematics'. But PISA 2003
actually contradicted their conclusion:
“…these [international] comparisons show that the association between a school being private and its students doing well is at best tenuous. Thus, any policy to enhance overall performance only by moving funding from public to private institutions is subject to considerable uncertainty.”
This has been confirmed by subsequent PISA reports – policies which increase choice and competition between types of schools don’t raise standards as claimed. And in 2009, the OECD found that globally, state-run schools (known as public schools in OECD jargon) outperform independent schools when social-economic background is taken into account.
If slipping down a few ranks in PISA tables shows Finland’s education system is not working, as Sahlgren claims, then what does plummeting down the league signify?
Sweden, once much-praised by Michael Gove and others for its free schools, and the USA, whose charter schools inspired the Coalition, have both sunk in PISA rankings. Sweden’s performance has fallen so badly its 15 year-olds score significantly below the OECD average. According to Sahlgren’s logic, the education systems in these countries, with their emphasis on competition and choice, have also failed.
Judging school systems by how well countries climb PISA’s greasy pole is, in any case, flawed. As Pasi Sahlberg says in his critique
of Sahlgren’s report:
‘…to focus only on test results as a proof of success …is to define successful education too narrowly. The quality of an education system is about more than high academic test scores.’
The myth 'Choice, competition and markets are the route to educational success' is exploded in our book School Myths. And the Evidence That Blows Them Apart
. An extract from the chapter is here
*Jurisdictions are districts within a country. Shanghai, for example, is a jurisdiction, as is Hong Kong.
PISA is the Programme for International Student Assessment which takes place every three years. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development oversee PISA tests.