Education in Minnesota is like Finland, so what’s wrong?
January 25, 2016

In Minnesota we boast a lot about our Scandinavian heritage, about how the progressive beliefs and enlightened practices brought by Nordic immigrants have helped make this a prosperous state. And we believe that, like Finland in particular, our great schools are a key reason.

This is what favorite son Garrison Keillor is only sort of lampooning when he fictionalizes our state as Lake Wobegon–where “All the children are above average.”

It’s kind of true.

The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are consistently in the top 10 when it comes to college readiness scores, college graduation rates and median earnings, and in the bottom 10 in terms of poverty. We have the highest employment rate for 18- to 34-year-olds in the country.

Read almost any national list and you’ll see quality of life here is through the roof. Like Finland, Minnesota is politically and socially progressive with strong unions and support for a social welfare system. The Atlantic recently called it “The Minneapolis Miracle.”

But don’t break out the pickled herring just yet. Where Finland’s prosperity extends to virtually all of its residents—its 2014 child poverty rate was just 5 percent–Minnesota has some of the starkest racial gaps in the country.

Again, consider how both places approach public education. Confronted by some of the lowest graduation rates in Scandinavia, in the 1980s and 1990s Finland built a new school system from scratch—with no private schools for elites to retreat to. Virtually every decision the Finns make about education centers on equity, not achievement. They take for granted that one will follow the other.

“Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from,” Pasi Sahlberg, a former Finnish education official now teaching at Harvard University told The Atlantic. “Many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

By contrast, Minnesota struggles to acknowledge the extent of our inequities. Instead, many of the most powerful voices in our education establishment seek to turn off the flow of data that has revealed the shameful gaps.

For instance, recent national scores in 4th and 8th grade show 28- to 32-point gaps in the percentage of Black and White students who can read or do math at grade level or above. In both subjects and in both grades, Minnesota’s gaps are larger than the nation’s as a whole. In 8th grade math the gap is a whopping 42 points. Based on the raw scores of White and Black students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Minnesota’s gaps are between the third worst and the eighth worst in the country.

By several other measures, Minnesota’s children of color are not faring well. Just 7 percent of Blacks and 11 percent of Latinos earn a passing grade on Advanced Placement exams, compared to 22 percent for Whites. Just 10 percent of Blacks meet all four college-readiness benchmarks for the ACT, compared to 44 percent of Whites. And, just 58 percent of Blacks and 59 percent of Latinos graduate from high school compared to 85 percent of Whites.

American admirers of Finland—including Minnesota’s teacher unions, who love its teacher-centric system—like to say the country succeeds precisely because it lacks many of the accountability policies that have risen in the United States, such as assessment and teacher evaluation. And because social services and other resources are poured on at the school level, children don’t bring the effects of poverty to school with them.

Even leaving aside that this utopian vision isn’t entirely accurate, it also skirts the reality that the Finns are now reaping the rewards of bold, inequity-eradicating reforms enacted a quarter-century ago. The most impactful thing the Finns did, for example, was to blow up their colleges of education, making the process of becoming a teacher extraordinarily competitive.

Only the very top of each college class can go on for graduate teacher preparation, which makes education a very prestigious career indeed. The education colleges undergo rigorous evaluation to ensure this preparation is cutting-edge.

Teachers participate in long residencies before getting their own classrooms and in meaningful professional development after they do. Principals are expected to address the few who aren’t effective. Every child in the country is thus guaranteed a great teacher.

And those great teachers do assess their students, albeit on tests they design, and the ones who need help get it. Right now for instance, immigration rates–historically extraordinarily low—are rising quickly and educators are working to identify and address the newcomers’ needs.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, we pay lip service to ensuring every child has a great teacher, even as our largest education-sector players seek to get rid of the flow of information that reveal rising inequities. Our teacher colleges have lobbied furiously against the higher standards and ongoing evaluation that ensure Finland’s brightest prospects get the best preparation. And they have lobbied against granting licenses to teachers trained elsewhere with demonstrable classroom successes.

Nor does Minnesota require school districts to report the results of new teacher evaluations, but data from Minneapolis–which has begun tying teacher’s outcomes to their training programs—confirms that the least effective teachers are clustered in the most impoverished schools. Little wonder the state’s teacher union, which also represents faculty at the colleges of education, continues to push back against efforts to evaluate classroom teachers.

And of course there is resistance by teachers unions to the once-a-year assessments that have revealed racial disparities. Unlike Finland, which begins with equity as its guiding framework, Minnesota used a waiver from federal assessment policies to create a system for rating schools’ efforts to close racial gaps that educators complain is gamed against schools with concentrations of children of color and disabilities.

There’s one final thing Minnesota and Finland have in common. Neither economy is based on manufacturing or an abundance of natural resources. Both have acknowledged that this means they need to create a knowledge-based economy, rich with talented, skilled human capital.

So maybe it’s time that Minnesota look not to its Scandinavian past but to the Finland of today. Maybe it’s time we stopped trying to bury the evidence of our inequities and made the vision of an egalitarian system of opportunity for all the framework for every one of our decisions about education.

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