Much has been written about Finland's great education system. But with the recent decline in Finland's PISA math scores, its reputation has been called into question. In 2000, Finland was number one. By 2012, the Finns had dropped to twelfth in math, with scores down 25 points since 2003. Not only has the percentage of high math performers in Finland dropped from 23 to 15 percent, but the percentage of weak performers has risen 5 percent.
What's to blame? University of Oregon's Yong Zhao surmised that the drop in ranking could be attributed to the increasing number of East Asian countries participating in PISA testing. In the first round of tests, only two East Asian countries participated; by 2009, seven did. Zhao argued that East Asian nations excel in PISA results because of their focus on competition, standardization and testing, the ingredients of what, following the Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, he calls the GERM model (Global Education Reform Movement). However, Zhao's assessment was made before he knew the actual scores, and it turns out this isn't just about Finland's rank.
Whatever is causing Finland's decline in math performance probably lies within Finland itself. Finnish Minister of Education and Science Krista Kiuru finds that declining learning outcomes correlate to a less positive attitude about school, and she seeks to improve motivation. This is certainly an intriguing idea, but it may prove to be a fool's errand to track down all the possible causes of something as amorphous as a decline in student motivation.
Pasi Sahlberg believes that Finland has been so busy explaining its previous success to the rest of the world that it has dropped the ball on leadership and improvement over the last decade -- a situation he compares with that of Finnish telecom giant Nokia, which lost its dominance in the global market when it missed the smartphone bandwagon. Sahlberg elaborates that growing income disparities in Finland and decreased financial resources may be the cause for an increasing gap between high and low-performing schools. Another factor, he allows, is the growing number of non-Finnish speaking immigrants.
What worked when Finland was more homogeneous isn't working now -- the changing demographics in Finland make a strong case for doing some things differently going forward. As anathema as it may sound to the Finns, perhaps a dose of accountability for learning is called for.