Finnish Fantasies

I can talk about this now. It's been a few weeks.

It was just a little PTSD, just a titch.

pasi-sahlbergPasi Sahlberg came to town to talk about public education in Finland. The Finnish education scholar was hosted by Raise Your Hand at the end of April.

I mean, that's what they call him, a "scholar."

Actually? I think he's high. He's a peddler of unicorns, crazy talk, and pot.


How else can you explain what he says?

How else can he come into our city and tell us what he thinks we need to do for our public school system? As if it has even a ghost of a shadow of a chance of a possibility of ever happening?

I'm telling you the man's got to be high.

So who is he anyway, this Pasi Sahlberg? And why should we give a rat's patootie about what he says?

Pasi Sahlberg is an educator and an education policy expert from Finland. Finland is where the public school test scores on the most important international public school tests (the PISA) have risen from critically low to close to the top of the world in the last thirty years. Up around the level of China and South Korea. Sahlberg wrote a book about this transformation, Finnish Lessons (2011), and now he travels the world talking about Finland and peddling his own special brand of education fantasy.

I know. I know. We should listen to a dude whose nation's educational success really has undergone a radical transformation. Whose test scores are miles above ours! Whose 15 year olds function nearly at the level of teens from South Korea, where they go to school twice a day (but kids, remember, school's illegal after 10 p.m.!), or China, where kids spend so much of their education taking tests that the government itself has initiated a national anti-testing agenda.

Sahlberg talked about Finland's education trajectory over the last few decades, told some charming stories about his little kid, and outlined what he thinks his country can teach our country. His list of priorities was short and to the point, and frankly, seemed entirely irrelevant to education excellence. I'll report them here so you can decide yourself whether or not this drug-addled vision has any use for us at all.

First emphasis in Finland's schools.


What? Come on! It's the global competition, people! There is no more time for this "play" nonsense! How does he justify this? Like so:

Perhaps the most surprising part of the Finnish educational philosophy is the central role of play in children’s lives, both in and out of school. Formal learning doesn’t start before the first grade when children are seven years old. Before that, children spend their time in play to develop a sense of independence and responsibility, and to learn about themselves and others. In the early years of elementary education, children furthermore learn to read and do math through various forms of play, music, and drama.

Imagine--little kids allowed to be little kids--and someone thinks there is educational value to this! And can't you just picture--learning the basics in elementary school through "play, music, and drama." Apparently they're embarrassingly retro in Finland and haven't realized that to get anywhere with little kids these days, you have to "ditch the crayons" and remove kitchens, dolls, and paints because "Kindergarten is the new first grade." They haven't realized that standardized testing can realistically start with preschoolers--I mean, how else are preschoolers going to get ready for when the academic boom  is lowered in Kindergarten? It's never too early to get started on success and excellence, right? That's how we do it here, Finland Man.

Well apparently even he realizes how it sounds:

In the global perspective, the Finnish education system seems to be a paradox. When much of the rest of the world is implementing more oversight of schools to assure teachers meet specific goals, lengthening the school day, toughening academic standards, and increasing homework, Finnish children continue to enjoy a relatively short school day, a broad curriculum, and a light homework load. In addition, Finnish children do not attend private tutoring sessions or spend any time preparing for standardized tests, as so many of their peers around the world must.

The Finns feel that children need a lot of time to gain the greatest benefits from play--up to ten years. And it takes a lot of time per day: "The average Finnish student has 75 minutes a day of recess compared to the mere 27 most US kids get. And not only that, teachers give the kids a 15 minute break after every lesson. Students in Finland are encouraged to play outside, even when it’s freezing out."

What in the world are they "learning" from it? "As children spend more and more time at play, they sharpen their capacity to imagine, improvise, and collaborate." Sahlberg says the payoff for children is that they learn "to use their minds to create new ideas."

Come to think of it, this is just the sort of thing you'd think a nation of entrepreneurs, job creators, and business visionaries might actually want in students. Right? Wait. I....uh...nevermind. Let's move on to the next element of education that's important to Finns.  

Gender Equality.

Stop it, Pasi Sahlberg! What does this have to do with anything? You think our scores are going to go up if we do--I mean, if we have--I mean, if we get--I mean, if we seek--I mean, if we...try to...figure out...gender equality in this country?

Oh yes, yes he does think this.

Better gender equality helps in building consensus and thereby adopting education and social policies that invest more heavily on wellbeing and holistic development of children at home and in school. 

You got to give them this, anyway. Those Finns. Women make up 43% of the Parliament and 47% of government ministers. (Actually, many of them are teachers.)

Sahlberg feels that incorporating all those women in government has had an impact on children in 3 ways--excellent free prenatal and infant care plus 12 months paid leave for mothers (or fathers); a solid early childhood development and care system including free play-based preschool for all; and a strong focus on child well-being during the school years, including health care, special education intervention, and free hot meals for all students. In other words, a heavy presence of women in government has raised the profile of children. All that government-provided care supposedly helps ensure happy successful students. But duh, Pasi Sahlberg, this is a free country and not a stinking socialist one, dude.

Last thing.

Equity in education=Excellence in education.

You're not going to believe this one.

Finland has only equitably funded public schools. It has no private schools. None. All lower education is free--and so is higher education! Finland supposedly made the decision, forty years ago, that the only way to crawl out of their economic and educational hole was to invest in education. And by this they did not mean, find private wealth to fund sporadic initiatives here and there, they did not mean fabulously rich tech-lebrities swooping in to save the day (or, well, not). They meant that Finnish culture and society and government would support, uphold, and fund--entirely--an excellent, equal education for all.

That means they don't have schools that look like this:

gale school

(that's Gale School in Rogers Park, currently in operation) vs. schools that look like this:


(that's the newly renovated Jones College Prep in South Loop, which if you recall has the one of the biggest TIF funds in the city).

I don't know what Pasi Sahlberg thinks, but if you ask me, that fantastic renovation of Jones speaks for itself. Anyway it's probably the fault of the teachers at Gale, or maybe that power-grabbing money-grubbing CTU, that their school is such a crappy mess.

So no. No, Pasi Sahlberg--he doesn't live in reality. Not in our reality anwyay. His three claims about Finland and its schools are ridiculous pipe dreams that we'll never incorporate here! Because we don't want to create innovators, we don't believe children should should have equal access to health care and services, and we think competition between schools, districts, and states is a much better model than "education equity"--which, by the way, doesn't even allow for vouchers, charters, and privatization.

It was traumatizing listening to this guy talk. And despite the fact that he was peddling pure fantasy, there was just a little something about it that made me think I might want to live in that fantasy too.

But then I snapped out of it.

Because I live in Chicago. In Illinois. In the United States of America. We love our testing, we hate our taxes, and we think a tiny handful of rich corporatists should profit immensely off our children. That's the way we roll, and it's no fantasy.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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