CaliFinlandia

February
2012
Phil Smith, Executive Committee At-Large Representative

In the current budgetary and economic climate, the California Community College System is being pushed to change more than ever before. Proposals from a diverse set of constituencies and interest groups are so frequent and numerous that faculty are hard-pressed to respond to these proposed reforms, much less develop a proactive vision of where we want to go. Yet without such a vision for the future, disparate forces could easily pull us apart. Although it is possible to fashion a proactive, strategic direction de novo, a little research about what has worked in other places can often provide inspiration. I would like to humbly suggest that we look toward Finland.

Recently, an article titled “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success” has been making the rounds in education circles. The article examines the spectacular performance of the Finnish school system and the causes of its success. Finland, a small country that had a somewhat mediocre educational system until the early 1970s, has over the last quarter century transformed itself into something of an educational superpower. Finnish students now score at the top or near the top in international comparisons of achievement in literacy, mathematics, and science. Even more interesting, Finland managed this strong showing by following a model quite different from K-12 educational “superpowers” like Singapore, South Korea, and China and starkly different from high-stakes testing, somewhat punitive accountability model of the United States for K-12 schools.

The Finns achieved such student success by pretty much ignoring almost every major educational fad favored by Western democracies. One example of such Western viewpoints is the recurrent idea of applying business models, even manufacturing models, to schools in order to make them more productive and efficient. This trend reached its nadir in the United States in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act, with its annual assessment testing and accountability reporting. The Finns essentially eschew all such high stakes testing, the only exception being a National Matriculation Examination taken at the end of their equivalent to high school. The idea of two weeks of achievement testing for all students annually is pretty much unthinkable in Finland. Instead of standardized tests, Finnish teachers measure progress and plan educational interventions the old-fashioned way, using self-created tests and report cards. Such practices might seem quaint to Americans, but they reflect an educational philosophy that acknowledges students as they are rather than focusing on where testing norms say they should be. It is a philosophy that trusts those closest to students, classroom teachers, to know which assessment and interventions promote effective learning.

Interestingly, some close parallels already exist between the Finnish school system and the California Community College System. Like the Finns, but unlike our K-12 counterparts, California community colleges have been able to stave off external pressures for standardized testing. Like primary and secondary teachers in Finland, community college faculty take students as they come to us, design appropriate educational experiences for them, and evaluate student progress as a part of our professional responsibility. Just as Finnish educators have job protections through their unions, California community college faculty working conditions are also protected by collective bargaining contracts. And like the Finnish educational system, California community colleges have set high minimal standards for new colleagues who plan to teach at our colleges.

Given that the California Community College System shares so many commonalities with the Finnish system already, perhaps we can use the philosophical underpinnings of Finland’s national school system to help us form and clarify our vision of the California community college. The Finnish educational system seems to rest on three major policy directions: developing and maintaining trust between citizens—including parents—and teachers, ensuring equal opportunity for all students without regard to geography or walk of life, and acknowledging that students come to school with a range of talents, abilities, and needs. These three areas might be a useful starting point for developing a proactive vision for California community colleges.

Trust

Finns place a great deal of trust in their teachers and the educational profession. But trust did not happen immediately; trust between educators and citizens was earned over time. The literature suggests that increasing trust developed as the profession of teaching became more selective. Finland made and makes a conscious effort to look for, recruit, and educate those with the highest teaching aptitude and talent. Only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted into Finland’s university teacher education programs. Over time, professional selectivity promoted greater trust. After all, why go to the trouble of hiring the best and most talented and then micromanage their work? This is true in America as well. Professions such as law and medicine set extremely high standards, and they are accorded high status.

While it is true that some faculty positions at our colleges are highly competitive with hundreds of applicants for a single position, is that the norm across the entire California Community College System? Are there steps that we as community college faculty can take to hire the most talented? What would those processes and institutions look like?

Equal Opportunity

Prior to 1970, educational opportunities for students in Finland depended on where they lived. Rural areas were underserved. One of the primary goals of Finland’s compulsory system of education was to give all students an equal opportunity to learn; whether someone gets an education or not should not depend on what section of the country the person is born in. Similarly, the Finns consciously adopted a system that provides equal opportunities for students regardless of walk of life, economic situation, and immigrant or non-immigrant status. Americans attending presentations about Finland’s system are often surprised to hear that Finland has no private schools, but the rationale is clear given their commitment to equal opportunity. Indeed, educational reformers in Finland were much more interested in promoting educational equity than they were educational excellence. An intriguing hypothesis emerges from their efforts. Perhaps excellence is an effect of educational equity rather than something that can be achieved independently.

California community colleges have long been positioned as the higher education safety net for the state. As open-access institutions, we have not refused and do not refuse anyone; however, have we provided equal opportunity to educational services and programs to all Californians? Are some regions of the state being underserved? Are California’s different populations getting the educational services that they need from our colleges? What would a California community college equal opportunity look like?

Individuality

In Finland, educators focus on student learning at the level of the individual; they resist using standardized norms to make pronouncements about what students know. An excessive focus on where students should be, in Finnish educators’ eyes, would prevent teachers from focusing on what students do know and obfuscate the next step in their development. In contrast, with the emphasis on testing that exists in the United States, our principals, teachers, and students commonly feel considerable anxiety to exceed the norm for the test, and the consequences of not doing well as a group are high for all involved. Interestingly, in international comparisons of math students, Finnish students report the least anxiety about the subject, perhaps because their teachers view their incoming knowledge as a starting point, not a deficit.

Historically, California community colleges have, in fact, acknowledged that students come to us with different knowledge sets and abilities. For example, across the system, we have extensive basic skills programs, both credit and noncredit. Placement tests are used to sort students into the right classes. But can California community colleges do more to track and support individual progress? Finnish schools incorporate a significant amount of guidance to facilitate students’ educational decisions, and faculty as professionals take a team approach when an intervention is needed. What are some ways that California community colleges could monitor student progress? What types of advice and guidance are needed to promote individual intellectual development and when do they make the most sense to be offered?

The underlying philosophy that guided the California Educational Master Plan and AB 1725 in creating the current California Community College System seems remarkably similar to that which now guides the Finnish system. Today, as California community colleges find themselves asked by external stakeholders to explain, justify, and defend the choices they make with respect to the education of students, the time is opportune for faculty to consider a successful, well-documented educational model from another country. This article’s bibliography includes several pertinent articles related to the Finnish educational success story. Such research regarding the Finnish model might help the Academic Senate and other faculty groups fashion a vision for California community colleges that promotes greater trust of the teaching provision, provides equal opportunities to all students, and acknowledges that each individual has his her unique set of talents and needs.

Bibliography

Anderson, J. (2011, December 12). From Finland, an intriguing school-reform model. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/education/from-finland-an-intriguing-school-reform-model.html

Partanen, A. (2011, December 29). What Americans keep ignoring about Finland’s school success. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

Sahlberg, P. (2007, March). Education policies for raising students learning: the Finnish approach. Journal of Education Policy 22(2), 147-171.

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