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Issue #1559      8 August 2012

GERM Warfare – School Education in Finland

Noted educationist and author, Pasi Sahlberg, has written a timely and very relevant book explaining the stunning success of the Finnish education system over the past two decades. Not surprisingly, it puts a powerful case that is the direct opposite of current fads in educational “reform” so popular in the US, England and Australia, indeed, in most of the “advanced” capitalist world.


Author, Pasi Sahlberg.

One of the truly pleasing aspects of Sahlberg’s work, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland? is that the Finns have clearly adopted a very socialist, some might say Marxist, approach to educating their children. It has been a long and patient process but has yielded results that far outshine all the neo-liberal economist think-tank “experiments” flooding OECD countries at the moment, using innocent children as guinea-pigs.

Sahlberg has identified the present wave of global market-based educational thinking with the acronym GERM: Global Education Reform Movement. “It is like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus. It travels with pundits, media and politicians. Education systems borrow policies from others and get infected. As a consequence, schools get ill, teachers don’t feel well, and kids learn less,” he writes.

The “Race to the Top”

Strangely, Finland never really intended to be at the top of the global education tree. After World War II Finnish prospects looked bleak: the country was small, frozen for half the year, undeveloped industrially, and with very average educational capacity. Political parties of all shades agreed that the nation’s best resource was its people, and that all its youth should receive the most thorough education possible.

Thus, while other, wealthier states sought to be “best” and win the race to the top by setting up “lighthouse”, “opportunity”, “selective” and “superior” schools for elite students, the Finns concentrated on trying to provide good schools for all children: equity in education was to be the driving principle.

They focused on the process of teaching and learning, on ensuring dedicated, academic people entered the role of teaching. Cooperative learning, problem-based teaching and portfolio assessment are strategies widely cultivated throughout the system.

In direct contrast to what is now happening in the US, England and Australia, the Finnish government of the 1970s absorbed private schools into a single, unified, comprehensive and inclusive public system, provided for as equitably and fairly as possible. By the year 2000, as revealed in the globally applied OECD tests known as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), Finland emerged as the most effective educational provider, consistently, in all facets of learning: language, maths, scientific reasoning and problem-solving, with a narrow gap between “top” and “bottom” students – in short, with the most equitable outcomes.

The GERM virus is quite different, however. Sahlberg points to three main symptoms of the disease: competition, school choice, and standardised testing.

Competition

Neo-liberal pundits often contend that “competition”, not the quest for profits, is the basis of capitalism. For education to be successful, they say, it must embrace competition. Thus whole systems, nation vs nation, private vs public, school vs school, teacher vs teacher, and, most intensely, student vs student, must be encouraged to compete in order to “win” success. Frequently, learning today is framed in “game” formats which allow victory for the quickest and smartest, in order to achieve “engagement”.

In Australia, free enterprise stalwarts like Howard, Kemp, Greiner, Metherell, Kennett, and now O’Farrell and Baillieu have, following the examples of their mentors in the UK and USA, sought to encourage competition by making education a matter of consumption, of parental “choice”, as in a supermarket. They have dezoned public schools, favoured private providers in their funding policies, and set about dismantling centralised, “bureaucratic” school systems to “free up” the education market-place.

All this has been done with little or no reference to research, or solid evidence. If they had bothered to check, they would have found that no one learns better under competitive stress. This only creates feelings of panic, helplessness, impotence, confusion and rejection. In a competitive environment, there are usually only a few winners – the rest are “losers”.

Sahlberg identifies several symptoms of competitive schools: frenetic, unrelaxed classrooms, exhausted teachers, as well as higher rates of anxiety, resentment, and in the extremity, suicide, among students. In all the countries where “market-oriented” experiments have taken place, educational outcomes – after sometimes showing spectacular results at first – are in decline overall. As Sahlberg points out, “... when schools compete against one another, they cooperate less.”

School choice

Hand in hand with the idea of competition goes the doctrine of “choice”. When parents get to choose, the theory goes, pressure falls on schools to perform: everybody, most notably the teaching staff, works harder, otherwise they will soon lose favour and eventually, their jobs. The law of the jungle prevails: the “best” schools flourish, the “worst” drop off.

This chaos might even be partly fair, if everyone had an equal ability to choose. But obstacles such as geography (where you live), income (school fees), and suitability (maybe the school doesn’t want to choose you) all mean that “freedom of choice” amounts to a class system of education: “good, middle, bad”. No prizes for guessing whose children will be going to the latter category.

“Choice” and “equity” are two mutually exclusive notions, here. When parents choose a particular school, (or anything, for that matter) they are implicitly saying this school is “better” than the rest, and that their child will be “better” for it. Over time the “better” schools cost more, and the “best” cost the most – the neo-liberals who say you can’t solve an educational problem by “throwing money at it”, are really saying it’s the only solution.

Over the 12 years of Howard rule billions of extra taxpayer dollars were thrown at private schools who once never received a cent of public subsidy, while at the same time fees for elite private schools outstripped the rate of inflation several times over – the total cost of school education had increased markedly. Yet the overall PISA performance of Australian students between 2000 and 2007 declined and the gap between top and bottom performance widened, with, as Sahlberg shows, every other education system trailblazing “wider choice”.

Standardised testing

If schools are to be given greater autonomy to compete in the market-place of education, it becomes ever more necessary that they remain accountable: that their performance be measured against a common standard and appropriate (funding) action taken – thus mass standardised testing emerges as a tell-tale symptom of GERM.

It is spreading like a pandemic. In Australia it is NAPLAN, but they are everywhere, and certain companies, most with their origins in the US, not only produce the model test items and the tests themselves, but also resources that are necessary to succeed in them. Schools spend thousands of work hours analysing them, practising them, and tailoring lessons to improve results in them.

Naturally, such time and effort devoted to test preparation means the curriculum is narrowed and time-programmed down to each lesson, hour and minute. The consequence is that mass tests are becoming more and more high-stakes (New York and Texas are just two examples of how high stakes testing creates high stakes corruption) and more and more similar: there is a growing conformity across the globe. Murdoch is already preparing on-line delivery of universal curricula, for a fee, of course.

The “accountability process” places no trust in teachers. Their capacity as intellectuals who make their own decisions, take their own diversions and add character to learning, all this is taken away so that they become automaton cogs in a wheel, downloading lessons from the internet, laden with anxiety about their job integrity. “Engagement with learning” comes a distant second place to the all-important test results and their publication on My School, where schools are ranked to better assist parents making their “choice”.

There are further symptoms to GERM. Growing rates of student resistance, rising truancy, classroom hostility and total disengagement from the boredom of classroom activity, as well as a greater reliance on coercive measures to enforce attendance and “test participation” – in short, an inversion of the very aims of the neo-liberal credo of a tame, well-drilled and enthusiastic workforce.

And then there’s angry, frustrated teachers, themselves in rebellion. The Finnish example in education, as explained by Sahlberg, is pretty straightforward, commonsense, and run-of-the-mill, but in the context of present day Australia it is downright revolutionary, and a banner for future struggles.

Pasi Sahlberg will be visiting Australia later this year.  

Next article – Culture & Life – Assault on the vulnerable

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