Equality in school leads to system excellence: Boredom and failure, part 3

January 5, 2012 at 6:53 am 7 comments

The Finnish education system is excellent, one of the best in the world, in part because they have chosen differently than in the US education system.  The trade-off is one that I talked about in my posts on boredom and failure.  The Finns don’t pull out the gifted students to keep them from getting bored, and they don’t have private schools for the rich. Instead, everyone gets the same excellent schooling, and there is less failure.

Our American higher education system explicitly chooses differently.  Many see the role of US higher ed as developing and promoting excellence. I have argued that we in CS cater mostly to the top end of our grade distributions.  I wonder if that focus on excellence is exactly what leads to a significant rate of failure?

Maybe there’s a cost to a focus on equality.  Interesting question: Do the Finns end up with fewer entrepreneurs and Nobel prize winners than the US, or a lower standard of living due to less intellectual property?  Do they suffer a lack of excellence?

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it. Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

via What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success – Anu Partanen – National – The Atlantic.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  January 5, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Hi Mark

    The actual article doesn’t support the claim that “equity in school leads to system excellence”. (Americans seem to love single-variable theories — this is one of many reasons why I think we should be teaching “systems” instead of simple and misleading cause-effect thinking.)

    What the Finns do do seems quite right — and it’s wonderful that they also decided to make equity part of their process.

    The amount of investment in teachers to get them to levels of expertise where they can “carry the content” and do valid assessment in better and more natural ways, etc., — and to be able to trust the developed skills of the teachers — is just one of many areas where they’ve thought things through and made good decisions.

    The still very homogenous population, the idea of parental and system responsibilities, etc., all contribute to the overall system design.

    And — a well set up system can often absorb big changes in demographics and keep its standards — and they so far have been making this work.

    But it is not easy to set up a well designed system in the face of difficult already present demographics (both in population and in existing theories of education and not so well chosen and prepped teachers).

    And this is true for the larger scales of governance as well (and is a huge problem for the attempts at reform in the Middle East).

    We in the US have a poorly set up educational system -and- “difficult demographics” in both the population and withing the school system itself.

    Our problem and situation are very different from that in Finland. We don’t get the starting conditions or steady state conditions to work from.

    And, yes, we should make equity one of the criteria for the new educational designs.

    Best wishes,


    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 9, 2012 at 10:06 am

      Hi Alan,

      Agreed that we’re talking about systems, and the Finnish education system has been designed around principles. Prominent among those principles is a goal of equity. To quote from the article:

      The system is propelled not by competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation. “Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location,” Partanen writes. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”

      I don’t think that the Finns would argue that because they have equity, they have system excellence. I read the above quote as being about systems thinking. Because they designed with a goal of equity, they achieved system excellence.


      • 3. Alan Kay  |  January 9, 2012 at 10:14 am

        Hi Mark

        But there is no necessary connection between equity (it could be “all equal at a below threshold level”) and systems excellence (I take the word “excellence” here to mean above threshold for the whole system).

        Achieving the latter will almost give you the former but the former doesn’t make the latter happen.

        I’m positing that if we are going to learn from the Finns, we want to really look at how the excellence part is done -and- then include the former as one of the necessary criteria.

        To rub it in: the US has many times sacrificed “system excellence” to achieve seeming forms of equity — for example, the steady lowering of basal vocabularies in order to get more children to appear to be equal in reading skills ….

  • 4. Gilbert Bernstein  |  January 8, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    Hi Mark,

    This made me think of a good article by David Labaree that a friend sent me a while back:

    excerpt from the abstract: “This article explores three alternative goals for American education that have been at the root of educational conflicts over the years: democratic equality (schools should focus on preparing citizens), social efficiency (they should focus on training workers), and social mobility (they should prepare individuals to compete for social positions). These goals represent, respectively, the educational perspective of the citizen, the taxpayer, and the consumer. …”

    Click to access Public_Goods_Private_Goods.pdf

  • 5. Nadia Hassan  |  January 9, 2012 at 1:45 am

    You might find this blog post by Laura Vanderkam interesting, as it pertains to that question:


  • […]  There is certainly evidence that the United States test scores ranks far behind countries like Finland and Singapore.  But Roschelle et al. present evidence that the US is producing enough top scientists and […]

  • […] did a series of blog posts on “Boredom vs Failure” (here’s the first post in the series, and here’s the last one). The question is: which is worse, to bore and give easy A’s to the most privileged and most […]


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