Sweden, for a while at least, was the darling of education reformers, but its weak accountability regime eventually caught up with it and it has been dropping rapidly in the PISA rankings since. Finland consistently outranked Sweden in both PISA and TIMMS international tables and took over the reform model baton from Sweden. Indeed, rarely a week passed without some delegation of education tourists arriving in Helsinki to discover whether their education delivery model was transferrable.
Finland had topped the PISA rankings in 2000, 2003, and 2006, and consistently ranked near the top in other years. But In 2013 they were ranked 12th. Finnish students had dropped by 2.8% in mathematics, 1.7% in reading and 3% in science. Finland though has scored comparatively well in PISA but not so well on other international assessments such as TIMMS, where its results have plummeted.
For example, Finlands mathematics performance in TIMMS, as Gabriel Sahlgren (CMRE) ,has pointed out has Finnish eighth-graders today performing slightly lower than seventh-graders did in 1999, lagging the top-scoring nations by a considerable margin. The Pisa table is designed to test everyday rather than curriculum-based knowledge and to see how students apply knowledge. But according to some critics this means that it lacks key concepts of importance for further studies in mathematically intensive subjects, such as engineering, computer science, and economics.
As worrying, perhaps, for Finlands politicians at least, and less well known here, is the fact that economically Finland is fast becoming the ‘sick man of Europe’
The book Wake up school! by a Finnish teacher Maarit Korhonen, with 30 years’ classroom experience, is scathing about PISA. She claims that the Finnish system is not world-beating but is instead myopic and old-fashioned a slave to the PISA madness, happy to score well in these narrow, academic measures, while leaving far too many learners behind. High academic standards among teachers may only serve to promote an even more extreme form of academic education on all children, she claims.
Pasi Sahlberg, a respected Finnish academic, who has made a fortune out of explaining the Finnish model to outsiders, has never claimed that it is easily transferrable, nor has he said that seeking to transfer the model elsewhere is necessarily desirable. His aim was to map out how Finland achieved success but without going through the process of implementing competition, school choice, and test-based accountability which characterize reforms in the USA and here.
Now there are growing doubts that the model itself provides all that many lessons for outsiders, as context is everything. Finland has always been one of the most homogeneous nations in Europe, with few of the large economic and social disparities evident in some other countries and of course very few students there have Finnish as a second language. Deprivation levels and language inevitably affect attainment .Certainly we can learn from the fact that teaching there is a high status profession, as it is in South Korea and Singapore, two other stellar performers, and the teaching profession has a high entry threshold, and sound initial teacher training too, but on other issues we should be careful what we wish for.( Significantly, Finnish officials are to visit England shortly to take a look at our Teaching schools.)
The UK in the meantime tends to value PISA rankings highly and TIMMS less so, although English students perform better in the latter. Perversely, given that our politicians rate PISA so highly, we are doing nothing to prepare our students better for PISA tests, so the chances are that the next time around we will perform just as we did before, not as bad as some, but stagnant in comparative terms.
PISA undoubtedly holds many politicians in its thrall, despite some well-known concerns over whether it really does compare like with like, and the fact that rather too often it confuses correlation with causation.
An OECD blogger recently wrote ‘If there’s one word that encapsulates the desires and aspirations of education stakeholders around the world, it is improvement.’ What he meant was improvement in their PISA rankings, and this is not necessarily an entirely good thing . ( Remember Goodharts law?)