Finland School System Homework Clipart

Here is something you probably didn’t know about France: its President has the power to abolish homework. In a recent speech at the Sorbonne, François Hollande announced his intention to do this for all primary- and middle-school students. He wants to reform French education in other ways, too: by shortening the school day and diverting more resources to schools in disadvantaged areas. France ranked twenty-fifth in a new evaluation of educational systems by the Economist Intelligence Unit (part of the company that publishes The Economist). To give you an idea how bad that is, the United States, whose citizens are accustomed to being told how poorly educated they are, ranked seventeenth.

The French President’s emancipation proclamation regarding homework may give heart not only to les enfants de la patrie but to the many opponents of homework in this country as well—the parents and the progressive educators who have long insisted that compelling children to draw parallelograms, conjugate irregular verbs, and outline chapters from their textbooks after school hours is (the reasons vary) mindless, unrelated to academic achievement, negatively related to academic achievement, and a major contributor to the great modern evil, stress. M. Hollande, however, is not a progressive educator. He is a socialist. His reason for exercising his powers in this area is to address an inequity. He thinks that homework gives children whose parents are able to help them with it—more educated and affluent parents, presumably—an advantage over children whose parents are not. The President wants to give everyone an equal chance.

Homework is an institution roundly disliked by all who participate in it. Children hate it for healthy and obvious reasons; parents hate it because it makes their children unhappy, but God forbid they should get a check-minus or other less-than-perfect grade on it; and teachers hate it because they have to grade it. Grading homework is teachers’ never-ending homework. Compared to that, Sisyphus lucked out.

Does this mean that we would be better off getting rid of it? Two counts in the standard argument against homework don’t appear to stand up. The first is that homework is busywork, with no effect on academic achievement. According to the leading authority in the field, Harris Cooper, of Duke University, homework correlates positively—although the effect is not large—with success in school. Professor Cooper says that this is more true in middle school and high school than in primary school, since younger children get distracted more easily. He also thinks that there is such a thing as homework overload—he recommends no more than ten minutes per grade a night. But his conclusion that homework matters is based on a synthesis of forty years’ worth of research.

The other unsubstantiated complaint about homework is that it is increasing. In 2003, Brian Gill (then at RAND) and Steven Schlossman (Carnegie Mellon) showed that, except for a post-Sputnik spike in the early nineteen-sixties and a small increase for the youngest kids in the mid-nineteen-eighties, after the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” by the Department of Education, which prescribed more homework, the amount of time American students spend on homework has not changed since the nineteen-forties. And that amount isn’t much. A majority of students, including high-school seniors, spend less than an hour a day during the five-day school week doing homework. Recent data confirm that this is still the case. Homework is not what most kids are doing when they’re not in school.

Like a lot of debates about education, what Cooper calls “the battle over homework” is not really about how to make schools better. It’s about what people want schools to do. The country with the most successful educational system, according to the Economist study, is Finland. Students there are assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven; and the school day is short. It is estimated that Italian children spend a total of three more years in school than Finns do (and Italy ranked twenty-fourth).

The No. 2 country in the world, on the other hand, is South Korea, whose schools are notorious for their backbreaking rigidity. Ninety per cent of primary-school students in South Korea study with private tutors after school, and South Korean teen-agers are reported to be the unhappiest in the developed world. Competition is so fierce that the government has cracked down on what are called private “crammer” schools, making it illegal for them to stay open after 10 P.M. (though some attempt to get around this by disguising themselves as libraries).

Yet both systems are successful, and the reason is that Finnish schools are doing what Finns want them to do, which is to bring everyone up to the same level and instill a commitment to equality, and South Korean schools are doing what South Koreans want, which is to enable hard workers to get ahead. When President Hollande promises to end homework, make the school day shorter, and devote more teachers to disadvantaged areas, he is saying that he wants France to be more like Finland. His reforms will work only if that is, in fact, what the French want.

What do Americans want? Not to be like Finland is a safe guess. Americans have an egalitarian approach to inequality: they want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else. By and large, for most people school is the mechanism for achieving this. Still, Hollande has a point. The dirty little secret of education reform is that one of the greatest predictors of academic success is household income. Even the standardized tests used for college admissions, like the S.A.T.s, are essentially proxies for income: students from better-off backgrounds get higher scores. The educational system is supposed to be an engine of opportunity and social readjustment, but in some ways it operates as a perpetuator of the status quo.

Is homework one of the bad guys? Supporters of homework say that it’s a way of getting parents involved in their children’s education by bringing school into the home, and that has to be a good thing. But it’s also likely (contrary to President Hollande’s assumption) that the people most hostile to homework are affluent parents who want their children to spend their after-school time taking violin lessons and going to Tae Kwon Do classes—activities that are more enriching and (often) more fun than conjugating irregular verbs. Less affluent parents are likely to prefer more homework as a way of keeping their kids off the streets. If we provided after-school music lessons, museum trips, and cool sports programs to poor children, we could abolish homework in a French minute. No one would miss it. ♦

If there's any consensus on education in the US, it could be this: other countries are doing it better. And in the doing-education-better sweepstakes, Finland has long been the cold and snowy standout.

In 2001, the world was stunned when Finland ended up at the top of international rankings after a standardized test administered to students in developed countries. Finland's dominance continued unabated for a decade (although it slipped in 2012). Endless articles, and some books, all have the same basic gist: what can the United States learn from Finland?

Finland might be a popular example because, no matter your general beliefs on education policy, you can find something to back them up. The result turns into a policy wonk buffet — nearly everybody can a policy lesson to learn from Finland's success, or a factor that explains why it isn't replicable in the US. Even if some of those lessons directly contradict each other.

Here are 9 reasons that have been cited to explain Finland's success.

1) Finland's teachers have high status, professional support, and good pay

Becoming a teacher in Finland is hard, but they enjoy more autonomy and professional development. (Shutterstock)

Teachers in Finland with 15 years' experience make about as much as the typical college graduate with a bachelor's degree; in the US, they make less than that. And the workload is also less demanding. Teachers in Finland teach about four hours a day, with another two hours of professional development, and they develop their own curriculum based on a set of national guidelines. The leadership ranks of education are also drawn from former teachers. The result, writes Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish teacher and researcher who has become a one-man promotional machine for the country's schools, is "an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work… Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police."

American teachers unions point to the high status and professional flexibility for Finnish teachers as something they'd like to have themselves. They also often note that nearly all Finnish teachers are unionized and the unions are relatively powerful. They argue that to improve schools, the US should focus on treating teachers the way Finland does — with more professional support and greater respect — rather than using students' standardized test scores to reward and grade teachers, a trend the Obama administration has encouraged.

2) Finland has more selective and rigorous schools of education

One reason teaching in Finland is prestigious is becoming a teacher isn't easy. Finland, like the US, used to have a large number of teachers' colleges. But in the 1970s, Finland dramatically changed how teachers were trained. Teacher education became the responsibility of the country's eight universities, and teachers are required to earn masters' degrees. It takes five years of teacher education to become a teacher, and only about one in 10 applicants to teacher education programs is accepted. Secondary teachers get a master's degree in the content area they're going to be teaching, and all master's degree recipients have to write a research-based dissertation.

This is the other side of the argument about teaching: education reformers in the US argue that Finnish teachers get more respect because they earn it through a rigorous, selective entry process. The policy lesson they draw isn't that teachers should be treated like they are in Finland — it's that the teacher corps in the US needs to be more like Finland's. Groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality argue that teachers' colleges aren't selective or rigorous enough. About half of all new teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates, as measured by SAT or ACT scores, according to a 2010 McKinsey report.

On the other hand, the fact that Finnish teachers are so intensely trained also appeals to opponents of programs like Teach for America. A popular saying among opponents of the two-year program is that there is no "Teach for Finland," because in Finland, teaching is a lifelong career with a long and rigorous training program.

3) Finland doesn't give standardized tests

(Shutterstock)

The most common praise for Finland (pushed by Sahlberg and others) goes something like this: Finland has no national standardized tests and no rewards or punishments for schools that pass or fail them — and yet they still outperform American students on international exams. Students in Finland take one standardized test at the end of high school. The rest of the time, teachers are responsible for setting expectations and evaluating whether students can meet them. The nation doesn't monitor the quality of schools in any way.

Some people argue that the success of Finnish schools without standardized testing means that testing shouldn't be necessary in the United States, either – and that it's possible for the US to improve its educational performance in other ways.

4) Finland emphasizes subjects other than reading and math

Finnish kids get plenty of recess, more than an hour a day; US kids get less than half an hour. Oh, and students do less than an hour of homework per night all the way through the equivalent of American middle school. Arts and crafts are required — both boys and girls learn needlework, embroidery, and metalwork.

It's not clear how much this has to do with the success of the Finnish school system, but Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University, argued in the New Republic that these subjects allow students to apply science and math skills in the real world. They're also an example of what some parents fear has been lost in the US as teachers spend more time preparing students for standardized tests.

5) Finland has a history of tight oversight for schools

Finland doesn't have a national curriculum now, and Finnish education experts brag about how much autonomy teachers get in the classroom. But that wasn't always the case. In the 1960s and 1970s, Finland totally overhauled its education system. The change to teacher training was part of this, but the country also worked with teachers to develop a mandatory national curriculum and there were national inspections to check on student learning. That tight national control remained in place for two decades, until it was eased up in the 1990s — the national curriculum is now described as being more like guidelines than a tight prescription for what teachers should teach in the classroom.

Unlike the lack of testing, this is a Finnish tradition that American supporters of education reform, particularly standards like the Common Core, embrace. They argue that Finland can only give teachers the autonomy they have now because of the generation of tight oversight that preceded it.

6) It's easier to learn to spell in Finland

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This is the most unusual explanation for Finland's success yet. At The Atlantic, Luba Vangelova argues that the difficulties of learning to read and write English are holding American students back because other languages — including Finnish — are more straightforward.

Masha Bell, the vice chair of the English Spelling Society, says that Finnish is phonetically much simpler than English because there aren't dozens of arcane spelling rules and exceptions (i before e except after c, for example) to memorize. Once you know the alphabet and how letter sounds correspond with the written word, learning to read is fairly simple. A study found that in Finnish and other European languages, children can read a list of familiar words after about a year of reading instruction; in English, it took nearly three years.

In other words, Finnish children have an advantage: even though they don't start school until age 7, and even though the Finnish language is very complex for English-speakers to learn, it's relatively easy for native speakers to learn to read and write.

7) Finland has low child poverty and state support for parents

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Finland doesn't spend as much on education as the United States. But that overlooks a vast social safety net for families, particularly low-income families, that doesn't exist here, either. Baby Finns start their life with a "baby box" of supplies from the Finnish government. Child care is heavily subsidized, and most children attend some kind of early childhood education before mandatory schooling starts at age 7.

Finland also has one of the lowest child poverty rates in the world, around 5 percent (it's over 20 percent in the US). Parents get a monthly allowance to help them care for their children — 100 euros for the first child and more for additional children. Matt Bruenig at Demos has an overview of Finland's extensive child welfare programs.

Perhaps as a result, Finland has very small gaps between rich and poor students' test scores; in the US, those divides are much bigger. Schools in Finland also offer other services, like dentistry and psychological counseling, according to the OECD. These "wraparound services" are something that teachers' unions argue the United States needs more of — although the attempt to create Finland-style community schools generally hasn't resulted in higher test scores.

8) Finland's schools aren't better — they're just homogenous

Some people argue that Finland's schools aren't actually better — they're just serving a much smaller, much more homogenous population. Finland is tiny — the entire country has just 5.4 million people, fewer than New York City. About 5 percent of its residents are immigrants, much lower than the United States.

Schools in the US where most children aren't poor are actually better than low-poverty school systems in Finland. But high-poverty schools in the US struggle in part because of a toxic legacy of segregation, unequal funding, and unequal opportunity. "For a lot of kids who don't score well on these tests, you go back six generations and you have people in bondage," Jack Schneider, a historian of education, told Vox in October.

Finland, which essentially reinvented its school system from scratch in the second half of the 20th century, has none of that baggage. In some ways, the United States has two school systems — well-funded, high-performing suburban schools serving the middle class, and struggling urban school systems where students are overwhelmingly poor and from disadvantaged backgrounds. While Finland has a few schools educating low-income immigrants with an excellent track record of success (this Smithsonian article features a visit to one), those schools are fewer and farther between than they are in the US.

9) Finland is culturally different

Another thing Finland has a lot of: saunas. (Shutterstock)

This is another version of the "Finland does better because it's Finland" argument — that Finnish society is just different than American society, and that as a result lessons are harder to translate. Finnish adults are among the most literate in the world, and the country's libraries are treasured institutions. That, as much as an easier language to spell, could explain stellar reading results. Finland also doesn't have a school sports culture like the US's. And children are more independent; helicopter parenting is just not really a thing.

There are other differences that influence social policy, but aren't limited to them. Rick Hess, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is skeptical that Finland can teach the US anything because its society is so different. His list of differences (most tongue-in-cheek) include long winter nights that leave plenty of time for studying and more children in two-parent families.

Finnish test scores dropped in 2012, but the fascination with its education system hasn't faded. The bottom line seems to be that something in Finland is working — but it might be impossible to ever figure out what.

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