Darja, a 15 year old Finnish Girl, Chooses a School

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Selfie with my gracious hosts, Darja on my right and Inka my left

I first met Darja and her mother, Inka, last August at our Fulbright orientation in Washington, DC. Inka was just arriving in America to begin her project and I was preparing to leave for England to begin mine. As soon as I saw her daughter, Darja, in DC, I fussed at myself for not bringing my own daughter, Anna, along with me. The two girls remind me of one another, and not just for their long, blonde hair. I think they would have had a lot to talk about at orientation, too, since they were both being pulled in tow to foreign schools and away from friends at an age when maintaining one’s place in the social hierarchy trumps all. As it has turned out, both girls thrived in their new settings.

I followed Inka’s journey at the University of Maryland through her blog while she studied music programs in the DC area for her Fulbright project. I loved the raw, honest way she wrote of her cultural struggles, homesickness, and even biking woes, and wanted to keep in touch with a women this reflective and insightful. So, when I sent an email telling the Finnish Fulbright community that I was planning a short trip to Helsinki, and asking for help in setting up some contacts with special education teachers. I was delighted that not only did she connect me with a teacher perfect for my purpose, but she also offered to let me stay with her. Her condo allows residents to reserve a guest room in the same suite as the communal sauna, so my quarters had a uniquely Finnish feel.

The afternoon I arrived, Inka wasn’t home yet from a Music Club meeting at her school, so Darja greeted me at the door. Once again, she reminded me of Anna as she scrambled together something quick to eat while chatting with a friend on the phone to arrange their plans to take a belly dancing class that evening. It seems Darja shares Anna’s addiction to dance classes and willingness to take on almost any new style.

Though she was rushed, she showed me a form she had brought home from school that she thought I might be interested in. She was right. I had arrived on the very day when she had met with her school guidance counselor to pick out her upper secondary school choices for next year. This transition from lower secondary to upper secondary is just what I wanted to learn about in Finnish schools.

At 15, Darja is at the magical age for those obsessed with international educational rankings. Fifteen is the age when students over the world are periodically measured on the PISA test. She wasn’t one of those tested in last year’s results when Finland slipped from the 3rd place (in 2009) to the 12th place. To be fair, much of the lowered rank can be explained by various cities and autonomous zones like Shanghai, Macau, and Hong Kong entering separately. And at 12th, Finland still ranks way above America’s 36th place. So, many educators still look to Finland as a model for academic success.

The age of 15 is also important because in many countries, including Finland, it’s the last year of compulsory schooling, when students move into different pathways to pursue more specific career objectives. The decision of where to go next is a big one for Finnish kids. Some students will go to academic high schools that prepare for a university pathway. Others will go to various vocational schools to prepare for a technical or career pathway. Still another group will choose a pathway that includes both types of schools. And others may repeat a year of lower secondary school, if needed. Some will either make no choice, or will not be given a place in any of the schools. I’m learning about the safety nets for some of those who are less successful in finding their paths.

Darja showed me how the decision is made, using the form from school to illustrate. (It was written in Finnish, so she translated for me.) In one column of the form, she had ranked her top five choices of schools. Darja wants to study the social sciences, so all her top five were academic high schools. She told me that the top choice school on her list was the most selective. This part of the process seemed a lot like the American college choice process. The schools that were considered to be the ‘best’ and most desirable, were those that were able to be the most selective. These schools had the highest grade average cutoff scores for entry. Young people, of course, have other reasons for the ways they rank their school choices. Inka told me later in the evening that Darja mostly wanted to go to her top choice school because her best friend, and fellow belly-dancer, went there.

On the other side of the form, all Darja’s 9th grade classes and grades were listed. She explained that school selection is based on the unwieghted average of all her grades for the year. So, her grades this year are really important in determining her future. This led me to question her about standardized testing. I had heard that the only standardized tests that are given in Finland are in this 9th grade year, when students are 15, and that they determine placements in upper secondary school. But Darja said that isn’t the case at all. She said it is the grades her teachers give, that include all the work she does this school year, that determine the score that is used to place her in upper secondary. When I researched this further, I found that the students do take National Curriculum tests as part of their coursework during 9th grade, but that these count only part of their overall grades. The national tests are mainly used by the government to evaluate how schools are doing overall, although there are no publicized rankings or performance pay derived from the scores. It was clear from talking with Darja that the students don’t perceive the tests as any more high stakes than the teacher-made tests they are given throughout their years of school.

When Darja went to school in the US during the Fall semester, she says most of the content was easier than that covered in her Finnish schools, although it was still a challenge to her since English is a second language (or probably third or fourth since she also speaks French and Swedish.) She took her textbooks from Finland to the US with her, and studied while she was away because this year it was especially important to keep up with her class back home. When she returned to Finland after Christmas, she was afraid she would be so far behind that she would need to take 10th grade next year in lower secondary instead of proceeding to high school.  Her teachers had a stack of tests ready for her to catch up in order to assign the grades she needed for her upper secondary application. Now Darja and Inka say that she has caught up and should be able to get into her top choice high school.

Tenth grade is one of the options for students who don’t get high enough grades to get into their top choice schools, or for those who don’t get a place in a school at all. Every year in Helsinki, as many as 1,000 students don’t get a place in an upper secondary high school or vocational school because of low grade averages or because they simply didn’t apply. Many of these students stay in lower secondary to take an extra year, the 10th grade, where they can raise their credits and re-apply for an upper secondary placement the next year. There are other options, too. Students who may be considering a vocational school, but don’t know what they want to do in the next year, can enroll in a program called Ammattistartti. This program offers opportunities to try different vocational options and incorporates work-based learning opportunities.  Anther pathway for students who have full-time jobs is to attend adult high school part time to earn qualifications, or they can enroll in an apprenticeship training program where they can earn school credits on the job.

Finnish schools are only compulsory to the age of 16, but the government has pledged to offer a placement for any student who wants one through the Youth Guarantee. I visited a youth guarantee outreach service called The Future Desk which helps people find a placement for education or training, and will write about that in a separate blog.

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