Like a lot of people, I laughed when Gerry Brownlee made a spectacle of himself in response to David Shearer's suggestion that we might well look to Finland as a role model. Brownlee's reply that Finland could barely feed or educate its people and that Finns had no respect for women almost provoked an international incident.
John Key tried to laugh it off, explaining Brownlee's insults as part of "robust parliamentary debate". Key claimed Brownlee had "simply pointed out that there were a number of areas where New Zealand arguably had better statistics". Good fun, right? I especially loved the retort of Finnish comedian Tuomas Embuske (available on YouTube), making light of Mr Brownlee's heft.
Jokes are fine but in this case, rather than illuminating some uncomfortable truth, the made-up statistics of Brownlee were used to obscure a truth - namely, that Finland is a useful model, especially where education is concerned. Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and a historian of American education. She served as assistant secretary of education in the administration of George Bush the elder. Originally she was a strong advocate of standardised testing and school vouchers, and an ardent supporter of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) - the programme of George Bush the younger, upon which our National Party is modelling its educational programmes. In the Wall Street Journal (March 9, 2010) Ms Ravitch withdrew support for NCLB after examining its results. Her essay is titled Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform.
Her concerns that schools would focus on the tests, and that focus on reading and maths - both tested - would crowd out the arts, sciences, history, foreign languages and even sports, were substantiated by the research outcome. Moreover, comparison research (even unfair comparisons due to pupil selection) between privatised charter schools, accessible through lottery and voucher programmes, demonstrated little improvement over public ones.
Research by Margeret Raymond (conservative economist from Stanford University, funded by pro-charter foundations) showed that only 17 per cent of charter schools did better than public ones, and those enjoyed triple the funding per pupil.
More to the point of New Zealand's concerns is Ms Ravitch's take on Finland's education system, which she described in the March 8 edition of The New York Review of Books.
Instead of blaming the ills (if any) on bad teachers, Finland recognises that children are better prepared to learn if they are properly fed, their health safeguarded, and their home environment supported (where necessary) by a social safety net. All of these are provided through tax-paid services. But the entire attitude toward education in Finland deserves our attention.
Finland's teaching profession is a highly honoured one. Teachers are selected by virtue of attendance at elite universities where they focus on a wide range of subjects. They emerge with master's degrees, able to teach a variety of subjects and a diverse population of students, including those with disabilities. The testing students receive is designed by teachers themselves to assess pupil progress.
Testing of students is not done at a standardised national level until the end of nine years, after which students choose to enrol in an academic or vocational high school.
Forty-two per cent choose the latter. Those who choose the academic route are later able to take the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an exam in which Finland has consistently ranked in the top three among the 34-nation OECD, including the US. New Zealand's in the top 10. The US ranks around 20.
By this measure, New Zealand's schools are doing well, but if we're looking for better outcomes we need to look past the tomfoolery of Brownlee and his party's determination to follow the US example, because Finland is no joking matter when it comes to education.