If you’ve followed the education reform debate in this country, the Finland story should be familiar by now. Almost as if engaged in an elaborate troll, Finland has apparently organized its educational system in exactly the opposite way as the reform movement here claims is necessary. The reformers say we need longer school days, but the Finns have short ones. The reformers say we need extensive standardized testing, but the Finns have almost none. The reformers say we need to keep a close leash on teachers, but the Finns give their teachers considerable freedom. Despite all of these pedagogical mistakes, the Finns consistently find themselves at the top of the international education scoreboard.
Normally, the suggested lesson of the Finland story is that the education reformers’ proposals are at minimum unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive. Whether this lesson actually falls out of the Finland story is the subject of hotly contested arguments that are insufferably boring. However, flying under the radar of these Finland debates is a much less contestable and interesting lesson: Education cannot deliver economic equality.
If ever there was an opportunity to show that education can fix inequality and poverty, Finland is it. The children come into its education system with the lowest poverty rates in the world. In addition to its overall excellence, Finland’s education system is also extremely egalitarian in the way that it instructs its pupils. There are almost no private schools, college is free, and an ethos of total inclusion seems to reign. It is the closest thing to the liberal education utopia as you will probably ever find.
Despite all of this, Finnish economic inequality and poverty is still quite high, at least when you look at the market distribution of income. In 2010, Finland’s market poverty rate (defined as those with incomes below 50 percent of the median income) was 32.2 percent. By comparison, the United States’ market poverty was actually lower at 28.4 percent. When it comes to overall inequality, Finland’s Gini coefficient in 2010 was 0.479. This was only slightly lower than the U.S.’ Gini coefficient, which stood at 0.499.
Education boosters bizarrely think that providing everyone a high-quality education will somehow magically result in them all having good-paying jobs. But, as Finland shows, this turns out not to be true. Apparently, it’s not possible for everyone to simultaneously hold jobs as well-paid upper-class professionals because at least some people have to actually do real work. A modern economy requires a whole army of lesser-skilled jobs that just don’t pay that well and the necessity of those jobs doesn’t go away simply because people are well-educated.
The reason Finland’s ultimate distribution of income is so equal is not because its great education system has made everyone receive high paychecks (an impossible task), but because Finland has put in place distributive policies that make sure its national income is shared broadly. In 2010, Finland’s tax level was 42.5 percent of its GDP, which was nearly double the tax level of the U.S. By strategically spreading that tax money around through a host of cash transfer and benefit programs, Finland’s high market poverty rate of 32.2 percent fell to just 7.3 percent. Its child poverty rate, which Finland focuses extra attention on, fell down to 3.9 percent. Overall economic inequality took a similar dive.
The real lesson that the Finland story teaches us is not the one about pedagogical techniques that draws so much fierce debate. Rather, it’s a lesson about what very successful pedagogy and excellent education can actually do for a society. Good education can make your society well-educated and more productive, but it cannot generate a labor market in which everyone works a high-paying job. It cannot ensure that market income is distributed evenly or adequately. It cannot even come remotely close to doing those things.
The upshot of this lesson is that the fixation on education as a solution to poverty, inequality or any other distributional problem is totally wrongheaded. Good and equitable education is a huge plus for all sorts of things, but it doesn’t create an egalitarian society. Those who say it will – a group that includes reformers and their opponents – have no idea what they are talking about and, through their ignorant distractions, help sow the seeds of never-ending stratification and low-end material insecurity.