Superintendent Brings School Lessons Back from Top-Ranked Finland

Huntley Community School District 158 superintendent John Burkey spoke to the Daily Herald about his experiences on a recent tour of the school system of Finland. Considered by many to be the top national school system in the world, Finland has finished at or near the top of international rankings on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test since it was introduced roughly 15 years ago.

Burkey was selected for the trip along with several other innovative school leaders from throughout the country for the trip, which was sponsored and fully funded by EF Educational Tours, a company that provides study abroad trips for educational institutions. It focused on how Finland’s system was transformed in the past few decades into a global leader, in hopes that some lessons can translate back to improve U.S. schools.

“We spent a week studying their education system,” Burkey said. “While I think we have a great district, we can always learn from others. That’s part of how we get better and better, to learn from the best ideas not just in the United States, but the world.”

The Finnish system is different from ours in many ways. Among the most noticeable differences are the amount of time spent in school and the amount of time devoted to creative activities and play.

In Finland, compulsory education does not begin until age 7, and elementary students are in school only about four hours a day, or 20 hours a week. In addition, students take a 15-minute recess after every 45 minutes of class.

“They place a huge emphasis on quality over quantity,” Burkey said. “Their curriculum really focuses on broad and deep learning, and not learning and memorizing a bunch of facts. We’re really moving a lot toward that.”

In addition, students receive little to no homework, there is little or no standardized testing, and schools focus more on personalized learning and encouraging students to learn through following their interests. But perhaps most importantly, Burkey said, the teaching profession is revered in Finland over almost all others. Competition for teaching jobs is strict—only a handful of teacher preparation programs exist at Finnish universities, and only about 10 percent of those who apply to them are admitted.

While Burkey said he sees many ways in which the Finnish philosophy mirrors much of what Huntley 158 is doing to break down the walls of the traditional school day—including Blended Learning and issuing Chromebooks to all students—he cautioned that cultural, demographic, and economic differences between the U.S. and Finland would make many of the larger changes difficult to translate.

Finland’s population of roughly 5 million is about half that of Illinois. In addition, the Finnish national government funds schools equally, whereas in most U.S. states, differences in local community funding lead to large disparities in funding across public schools. Finland’s larger national social safety net also has decreased the learning gap associated with poverty seen in the U.S.

Still, Burkey says the trip has helped him refine his perspective on what and how schools should be teaching, with an eye on streamlining school offerings to best prepare students for the global world of today and tomorrow.

“We really do need to back up and take a hard look at what we are doing to make sure it’s of the highest quality,” Burkey said.

Read the full article in the Daily Herald »