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Finns set teachers free, with enviable results

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published December 12, 2007


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The United States may still consider itself a superpower. But when it comes to science, we increasingly look like a 90-pound weakling.

The latest evidence that Americans are losing their dominance in a high-tech world lies in a comparison of science skills among 15-year-olds in 57 countries. U.S. students ranked 25th last year, far behind Hong Kong No. 2 and Canada (No. 3) and even worse than poorer countries like Poland.

And which nation did the best? Finland, whose students also ranked first in math skills and second in reading.

That superb performance could be expected in a country where everyone has access to a quality education, where teachers aren't straightjacketed by standardized testing and where important research isn't hobbled by religious dogma.

"Where I feel we've been really successful is that we have been able to create a creative environment," says Pekka Voutilainen, minister counselor for economic affairs in the Finnish Embassy in Washington, D.C. "Finns are problem solvers."

In the past three decades, Finland has remade its education system, eschewing elitism in favor of free education all the way through law or medical school. But except for SAT-like exams in high school, teachers don't spend much of their time "teaching to the test," a familiar lament in the United States.

"Schools in Finland have a lot of independence in terms of their programs," Voutilainen says. "That helps motivate teachers, and with motivated teachers, usually the results are better."

And Finland gets a lot of bang for its buck. Although it spends $30,000 less than the United States educating a student through high school, its graduation rate is 92 percent compared to the U.S. rate of 72 percent.

A country of only 5.3-million people and few natural resources, Finland also realized the need to encourage research if it were to succeed in a technology-driven global economy.

Of the 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Finland invests more money in research than any but Sweden. Its biggest company is Nokia, the world's largest maker of cell phones and a pioneer in GSM, the technology underpinning most of the world's mobile phone networks. (But not, tellingly, those in the United States.)

And while President Bush has limited embryonic stem cell research in American labs because of religious concerns, Finnish scientists are working with new stem cell lines that may lead to a cure for cystic fibrosis, diabetes and other diseases.

I found it ironic that the test results showing the disparity in Finnish and U.S. science skills were released the same week that a former researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution sued the Cape Cod institute, claiming he was fired because he doesn't believe in evolution.

"How can a scientist not believe in evolution?" wondered a reader who called my attention to the suit. "It's bizarre -- it would be like a hitter who didn't believe in baseball bats."

Nine out of 10 Finns are Lutherans, but their politics, education and research seem free of the religiosity that creeps into so much of American civic life today. Could that be a reason Finnish students excel in science and Americans lag so far behind?

"My personal opinion is that there is no correlation," says Voutilainen of the embassy. But he sounded incredulous when I asked if there's pressure to teach creationism and intelligent design in his country's schools.

Finns believe in evolution, "absolutely, yes," he says. "That's not really a discussion in Finland, unlike the United States."

Of course, the two nations are very different, one small and homogenous, the other big and staggeringly diverse.

Finland's "free" education is funded through substantially higher taxes. But that doesn't bother Finns, who are happier, healthier and less corrupt than Americans, various surveys show.

"For a patriotic American like me, the Finns present a difficult challenge," Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post wrote after a 2005 visit. "If we Americans are so rich and so smart, why aren't we more like them?"

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 12, 2007, 00:14:57]


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