Those Flying Finns: Is it Saunas or Reading That Make the Difference?

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I recently attended a conference in Stockholm, at which there were several Finns and a lot of discussion about the “Finnish Miracle,” in which Finland was found to score at the top on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). PISA periodically tests representative samples of fifteen year olds in math, science, and reading.

The Finnish Miracle became apparent in 2001, and has been talked to death since then. Much about what I heard at the conference was familiar. Finland is a small, homogeneous country in which teaching is an honored profession. I heard that Helsinki, the capital, hires 80 teachers a year, and gets thousands of applicants. Maybe these factors are all we need to know.

However, I heard something else that I knew but had forgotten.

Ten years before the Finnish PISA Miracle, there was an international test of reading, called the IEA Reading Literacy Study, which tested the reading skills of students ages 9 to 10 in 30 countries. The U.S. scored second on this test, behind- you guessed it – Finland. I looked it up, and discovered that the difference was huge. Finnish children scored 31% of a standard deviation ahead of the U. S.

A (Swedish) speaker at my conference, Jan-Eric Gustafsson, brought up the earlier IEA Reading Literacy study. He explained that throughout the 1980s, Finland had a relentless policy of ensuring that every child learned to read in the early grades. If they needed it, struggling students were given one-to-one tutoring focused on phonics as long as necessary to ensure success in this crucial subject. In light of their focus on early reading success, the outcomes on the IEA reading tests are more comprehensible.

Now space forward to the PISA tests reported 2001. The fifteen year olds who took the test were, of course, subject to the Finnish reading policy throughout their elementary years. Not only reading, but also math and science, are surely influenced by success in elementary reading.

It’s possible that Finland’s success in reading in the 1990s was equally a product of outstanding and honored teachers, a homogeneous society, and other factors (though these were also true in other Nordic countries that did not score nearly as well). Perhaps Finns eat a lot more smoked fish or spend a lot more time in saunas than other people, and these explain academic success. But it must be at least a partial explanation of Finland’s reading success that they focused substantial resources over a long time period on reading for all. In turn, their students’ success on PISA must be at least partially a result of their earlier success in reading.

One reason this all matters to the U.S. and other non-Finnish countries is that while we cannot all become Finns, we can ensure that virtually every child learns to read confidently and capably by third grade.

Many states have “Reading by Third Grade” laws that threaten to hold back third graders if they are not reading at grade level, and usually provide a last-chance summer school course to avert retention. Neither of these strategies (retention and last-chance summer school) have evidence of effectiveness. In contrast, I noted in a recent blog that there were 24 elementary programs for struggling readers that have strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness according to ESSA evidence standards.

The 24 programs were proven in our own country, and most have been widely and successfully applied. There is plenty of rationale for using these programs no matter what the Finns are doing or have done in the past. But if one of our goals is to keep up with or surpass our economic competitors in terms of education, to produce a capable workforce able to deal with complex problems of all kinds, then we need to provide our children with top-quality reading programs in the first place and effective support for struggling readers. It would be expensive to do this, perhaps, but certainly much cheaper than providing smoked fish and saunas to every U. S. family!

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