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The Finnish paradox

More, more, more. Should we apply the principles of supersizing to education reform?

By Carol Lloyd

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Questioning conventional (American) wisdom

We live in tumultuous times when it comes to our kids’ educations. Amid slashed budgets and teacher tenure wars, we parents are learning about everything that is wrong with our schools. Or pick up any national magazine — from Time to the New York Times Magazine to O to (hello, dudes!) Men’s Journal — and you’ll be treated to another entry from the deplorable-state-of-our-schools saga. NBC's Education Nation devoted an entire week to our fall from educational excellence with hours upon hours of talking heads browbeating, mudslinging, and handwringing.

The proposed solution to our education crisis? Depends on whom you ask, of course, but most recommendations boil down to a single assumption: More means more. More hours in the classroom, more homework, more academics, more early schooling, more testing, more ranking, more formality, more school choice, and more parental involvement.

Pasi Sahlberg questions such assumptions. As an expert on the wildly successful Finnish school system, he’s carved out a niche informing the rest of the world’s ed reformers about what he calls the Finnish paradoxes. A self-proclaimed “school-improvement activist,” Sahlberg has worked as a Finnish teacher, a teacher of teachers, and an educational policy advisor for the World Bank and now directs the Finnish cultural agency Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation. I recently buttonholed him after an NBC summit panel on international schools to explain how Finnish educational success flies in the face of American ed reform’s central tenet.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/14/2011:
"Given the same teachers, hours and curriculum there is no guarantee that U.S. kids would improve. Right now the 'money to progress ratio' is a negative inverse. A longer day? Obama is nuts. It will not happen with the same teaching regimen. We are wasting too much time during our regular school day. Many schools have three recesses + PE.?? Get rid of the i-pods, mp3s and cell phones too."
10/19/2010:
"Teachers don't want to work, and any research that shows hard work doesn't improve education is given front headlines. The American population does not and cannot compare to that of Finland."
10/18/2010:
"Did we forget 'more status, more decision-making and 'in loco parentis' authority, more job security, and more pay for teachers?' I think we did."
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