The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as the “Nation’s Report Card”)  once again show that New Jersey public school students rank among the nation’s best in mathematics and reading.  In fact, New Jersey is among the few states where achievement actually advanced in recent years. As the Wall Street Journal’sLeslie Brody reported on May 7, “Public high school seniors in Connecticut and New Jersey raised their reading and math scores last year…bucking a trend of flat results for 12th-graders nationwide since 2009.”

That’s good news to hear as the 2013-2014 school year comes to a close. And it’s a credit to the hard work of New Jersey’s students and members of the education community.

Sunny in Finland But while New Jersey students perform better than their counterparts in most other states, we have to ask how well do American students fare compared to those of other developed nations. The answer, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (or PISA), is not very well at all. On that assessment, and other indicators, Finland takes the honors, consistently ranking at or near the top. The outcomes of the Finnish educational system are impressive indeed, but there is much more to the story than the test scores.

Kevin Ciak, Northeast Region director for the National School Boards Association, former NJSBA president and Sayreville Board of Education member, decided to take a closer look last year. Paying his own way toward a fact-finding trip, sponsored by the University of Kentucky doctoral program in education and NSBA, he met with Finnish government and education officials, visited schools, observed activities and sat through classes.

His conclusion: American educators can certainly learn much from the Finnish educational system, but cultural, financial and demographic differences make any comparison of academic performance, well, not quite apples-to-apples.

Kevin recently shared observations from the trip with the Leadership for Educational Excellence, a consortium of New Jersey’s major educational organizations, chaired this year by NJSBA. He cited the following qualities of the Finnish educational system that American officials, particularly at the national and state levels, should note:

As stated by educational researcher Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish system is based on collaboration, rather that competition, and on trust-based responsibility (that is, no national exams, no inspectors, and no public ranking of schools).

Educational policy is based on a long-term, consistent vision.

The teaching profession is highly valued; entry into teaching is competitive; all teachers above the Kindergarten level hold master’s degrees, and pre-service training strongly emphasizes pedagogy and teaching practice—that is, how to teach.

Although these approaches are worthy of consideration, the question is this: Can they work in the United States? Finland, after all, is different than the United States in several critical ways. That fact not only influences the structure of its school system, but also student performance comparisons with the United States.

In Finland, school-based student performance reports are not part of open government records. Consequently, school-to-school performance comparisons, common in American newspapers, are virtually non-existent in the Finnish news media. Finnish educators encounter little student mobility; the student population is homogenous; and nearly all students speak Finnish at home, although most also speak English and Swedish. The Finnish population is far less stratified economically than that of the United States.

Finland also has a nationwide school system, with a national core curriculum.

Finally, at the “upper secondary level,” Finland sorts its students into two groups: vocational, and college. Only the test scores of the college-bound students are included in the international performance comparisons.

The Gap  Whether it is based on economics, ethnicity or language, diversity brings educational challenges, but it also brings a richness to American culture and has always been one of our nation’s and our schools’ greatest strengths. Never should it be an excuse for children not succeeding.

As good as the news is about our state’s NAEP results, an achievement gap persists. That’s why NJSBA has established a Task Force on Student Achievement, which is examining the role that local school boards, and individual board members, should play in advancing initiatives that will, as our Association’s mission states, “promote the achievement of all students through effective governance.” Kevin’s presentation will be shared with the task force, which is focusing on challenges, strategies, and best practices.

One of Kevin’s most significant comments about the Finnish schools was that the country never sought to have its educational system ranked as number one. Instead, its goal can be summarized as follows: “We want to have a school system where pupils’ success doesn’t depend on their home background.”

To that, I say kippis, skål and cheers!

And may I add, as we come to the close of the school year, ”well done” to New Jersey’s hard-working school board members and educators. Our schools are among the best in the country—something that is too often overlooked by critics, even well-intentioned ones, who do not know all the facts.

These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected].