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Excellence in Education

What We Can Learn from Finland

In a now celebrated 2010 study of worldwide education, Newsweek  proclaimed the schools in Finland to be the best in the world. Basing its conclusion in large part on stellar test results from the PISA, a survey conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the magazine noted that since the year 2000, Finnish fifteen-year-olds had consistently scored at or near the top in reading, math, and science. Newsweek also lauded Finland for its 100% literacy rate and its remarkable per pupil average of 17.1 years of schooling. U.S. performance in each of these spheres has been, by contrast, decidedly middling.
Interestingly, Norway, the same size as Finland (5 million people) and similarly homogeneous (5.2 % foreign-born), has not had the same educational success—and Norway is actually the more prosperous of the two countries. Furthermore, Finnish education has not always been first-rate. In the 1970s, tests suggested that Finnish schools were mediocre.
How, then, did Finland turn around its schools and reach the top in three decades? When Finnish policy makers set out for reform in the 1970s, they knew that in a country with few natural resources and scant manufacturing, to compete on the world scene they had to create a knowledge-based economy. According to Anu Partanen, a Finnish-American journalist writing in last December’s The Atlantic, the policy makers made giving every child in the country exactly the same quality education their main goal. They saw education as a way to even out social inequality by making schools healthy and safe places, with free meals, easy access to healthcare, and abundant individual tutoring for students who need it (“What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” December 29, 2011).
The first step in reform was to implement a new system called periskoulu, the creation of 9-year comprehensive schools where students of all ability levels and backgrounds would learn together between ages 7 and 16. In addition, the country also recognized the importance of putting all children in pre-school. In his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, Pasi Solberg, the Director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, discusses the salient characteristics of periskoulu. One is that teachers train carefully in highly selective programs and must earn Masters Degrees. They receive decent pay, respect, and considerable teaching freedom. If there is a problem with a teacher, it is a principal’s responsibility to remedy it.
Further, students take almost no standardized tests, except for a National Matriculation Exam when they leave the equivalent of high school, (A few representative groups of students take tests periodically to assess national progress). Another plus is that schools are small, and they emphasize creative play and individual learning. While students do receive report cards twice a year, the grading is highly individualized, handled by each teacher. Additionally, by the time students leave periskoulu, about half have received some one-on-one tutoring.
An intriguing corollary: there are virtually no private schools in Finland. Parents have some choice over what schools their children will attend, but as Solberg points out, the options are really all the same. No “best schools” lists exist.
When Finnish students emerged at the top of the PISA tests in 2000, Finnish officials were stunned: they had not been aiming for this. What Solberg calls the “Finnish Paradox” is this: by teaching and testing less, the nation’s schools enabled students to learn more; by stressing equality, they achieved excellence; by stressing cooperation, they came out on top in international competition. Of course, achieving this meant spending significant money for education. But oddly enough, total public expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP in Finland in 2007 was 5.6%, whereas in the United States for that year it was 7.6% (Solberg, 57). Clearly, Finland has figured out how to get more for its money.
Could we follow the Finnish model in the United States, a vastly larger and more heterogeneous country? Ironically, we currently seem headed in a precisely opposite direction. In his New York Times column last month, Nicholas Kristof wrote, “America’s education system has become less a ladder of opportunity than a structure to transmit inequality from one generation to the next” (September 13, 2012). Yet Solberg, Partanen, and others see some hope for us.
Here’s why: state governments manage a great deal of American education, and thirty states are either equivalent to Finland in population or smaller. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Census, in 2010 eighteen states had a percentage of foreign-born residents equal to or smaller than Finland’s. If Finland can achieve educational excellence, why can’t Wisconsin, Maine, North Dakota or South Carolina?
Doing so will require a different mindset than we now have, because Finland’s experience suggests that preparing all—and not just some—of the population is key. As Anu Partanen puts it, “More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.” Many people will argue that this approach is too expensive—but what better way are we going to spend our money?

Published: October 13, 2012
Issue: November 2012 Issue