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Originally published November 15, 2012 at 4:41 PM | Page modified November 15, 2012 at 4:40 PM

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A little perspective on Finland’s educational success

We are right to feel inspired by the educational successes of countries like Finland. Borrow an idea or two, but let’s not contort ourselves into Finland.

Seattle Times Editorial

Times editorial columnist

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Conversations change. Instead of fretting about why French women do not get fat, we’re now obsessed with why public schools in Finland are so good.

An official with Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture visited Seattle this week to help us feel bad about ourselves. Just kidding. Pasi Sahlberg actually cautions against too much exalting over Finland’s educational dominance.

Nonetheless, Smithsonian magazine noted Finland’s “achievements in education have other nations doing their homework.” I’m not knocking these homages to Finnish academics, but how about some perspective please?

Geographically, Finland could fit in a group of a few New England states. Its largely homogeneous population is smaller than Washington’s.

In Finland, parents get three years of paid and unpaid maternity leave plus subsidized day care and public preschool. State subsidies of about $190 a month per child until the age of 17 help pay for the necessities of childhood. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed, according to the Smithsonian profile. Student health care is free.

Finland’s achievements carry a price tag. Finns pay the high taxes found in most Scandinavian countries. In return, they receive a bounty of family-oriented services.

Washington is still trying to figure out how to pay for the basics. The state Supreme Court’s McCleary v. state of Washington court ruling that the state underfunds basic education puts the challenge squarely before the Legislature.

Does Finland have good ideas? Yes. Count in-home saunas and vodka among them.

Seriously, Finland is fascinating and a huge inspiration. Look over there to provoke thought, not to emulate.

“I never compare Finland to the U.S. or to China or to Canada,” Sahlberg says. “The relevant comparison is Finland to the state of Washington.” But Washington is trying to corral 295 school districts toward a uniform education. In Seattle alone, 80 or so foreign languages are spoken. Free-range works in Finnish schools, but there are too many moving parts in American school districts, and among states, to let each one freelance.

Still, never turn down good advice and Finland offers some:

Prioritize early learning and extra support in lower grades: Nearly a third of Finnish students receive special help in their first nine years of school. American schools need to identify struggling students earlier and provide help faster.

Standardized testing: mend it, don’t end it: Sahlberg calls standardized testing one of the necessary elements in education, but he is right to criticize our failure to build smart tests that can diagnose learning problems and measure the quality of teaching. Education researchers I’ve talked to have also pointed this out, noting that such tests could be created. They would be expensive but worth it.

Respect for teachers: Sahlberg, a former teacher, is attuned to the ways calls for teacher accountability can sound disrespectful. If you hire good people, you don’t need to hang over their shoulders. The best teachers I’ve witnessed in Washington were given latitude by principals confident in the abilities of their teachers. But here’s what’s missing: Finland is able to offer teacher autonomy wholesale because the country charts a narrow and exacting teacher career path ensuring only the best in the profession teach. In the U.S., doubling down on efforts to improve college teacher-preparation programs is a start.

Teacher pay: Finland pays it teachers more than teachers make here. Those great teachers I’ve witnessed in Washington? They had the intellect and mastery of their subject matter to command top salaries. Judging by teaching’s high turnover rate, many of them know that and leave for more lucrative fields.

Creating good schools is not about morphing into Finland. It is about committing to the price of a good education, from early learning to higher education, and that involves more support from the Legislature, parents and teachers.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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