What Norway (not Finland) tells us about schools
This was written by Thomas Hatch, an associate professor of education and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University.
By Thomas Hatch
People often try to use findings from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA international assessments of educational performance to tout particular policies or practices in which “high performing” countries seem to be engaged. Rather than a list of “do now’s” for policymakers, however, I believe that the latest PISA findings, like other forms of international comparison, provide an opportunity to reflect on the values and assumptions that underlie our educational system.
It wasn’t until I lived in Norway (with my wife and daughters in kindergarten, fourth grade and sixth grade) that I took explicit notice of the fact that Norway, with many commonalities with Finland – consistently one of the highest performers on PISA – actually scores about as poorly as the United States How could this be?
When my fourth grader, who didn’t start school until 9 a.m.,got home shortly after 1:30 p.m. (when school got out), I began to see some possible issues... In fact, over the course of that year, I noted many aspects of the Norwegian educational system that might explain those low test scores: a more limited emphasis on early education in comparison to many other countries along with low levels of instructional time, very few tests, little homework, and the lack of any marks, grades or formal feedback before the end of 7th grade.
But as I thought about it, and as I saw how happy my children were going off to school (on their own, on the subway…), I realized that I could use the PISA scores to argue that the Norwegian system wasn’t doing as badly as the U.S. In fact, I started to tell my Norwegian colleagues that they should say that Norway was doing as well as the U.S. (and almost the OECD average) without even trying.
What's more, living in and studying in Norway made it clear that by almost any other measure besides international test scores, the Norwegian educational system is doing quite well: Drop-out rates are lower and college graduation rates are higher than most other countries; more children report they “like” school than almost anywhere else in the world; Norway tops the charts on the “mental health index” and many other aspects of quality of life; and Norway has low unemployment and one of the strongest economies in the world (supported by North Sea oil).
That does not mean the Norwegian educational system is perfect. I, like some Norwegian parents, would like to see a little more academic instruction and a little more accountability.
Overall, however, I came away with a greater appreciation for the way economic, political, geographic, cultural, social, and educational factors come together to shape students’ experiences and development and the experience reinforced the impossibility of singling out any one factor.
Furthermore, my experience in Norway cast into sharp relief the different kinds of values and assumptions that drive our educational systems and contribute to both the strengths and weaknesses. Norway has chosen to emphasize all aspects of children’s development in primary schools, to focus on equity and the development of a national bond among people and to make academic and job preparation a focus of secondary and post-secondary learning.
At the same time, it should be no surprise that kind of system leads to less than stellar test scores. For all its critics, even higher performing countries continue to regard the U.S. as a leader in fostering innovation, creativity, and the development of the best and the brightest students, but should it really be a surprise that same system also comes with deplorable inequities and a yawning achievement gap?
These are problems that grow out of the systems we’ve developed and the values and assumptions that underlie many aspects of our societies. Once we get past the clamor around the latest news on how our students are doing, we need to spend some time thinking about what we’re doing and why we are doing it.
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| December 13, 2010; 1:14 PM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, Standardized Tests | Tags: OECD, PISA, PISA results, finland education system, finland schools, norway, school reform
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