How Finland Created One of the Best Educational Systems in the World (by Doing the Opposite of U.S.)

Every con­ver­sa­tion about edu­ca­tion in the U.S. takes place in a mine­field. Unless you’re a bil­lion­aire who bought the job of Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion, you’d bet­ter be pre­pared to answer ques­tions about racial and eco­nom­ic equi­ty, dis­abil­i­ty issues, pro­tec­tions for LGBTQ stu­dents, teacher pay and unions, reli­gious char­ter schools, and many oth­er press­ing con­cerns. These issues are not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, nor are they dis­tinct from ques­tions of cur­ricu­lum, test­ing, or achieve­ment. The ter­rain is lit­tered with pos­si­ble explo­sive con­flicts between edu­ca­tors, par­ents, admin­is­tra­tors, leg­is­la­tors, activists, and prof­i­teers.

The needs of the most deeply invest­ed stake­hold­ers, as they say, the stu­dents them­selves, seem to get far too lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion. What if we in the U.S., all of us, actu­al­ly want­ed to improve the edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ences and aca­d­e­m­ic out­comes for our children—all of them? Where might we look for a mod­el? Many peo­ple have looked to Fin­land, at least since 2010, when the doc­u­men­tary Wait­ing for Super­man con­trast­ed strug­gling U.S. pub­lic schools with high­ly suc­cess­ful Finnish equiv­a­lents.

The film, a pos­i­tive spin on the char­ter school move­ment, received sig­nif­i­cant back­lash for its cher­ry-picked exam­ples and blam­ing of teach­ers’ unions for America’s fail­ing schools. By con­trast, Finland’s schools have been described by William Doyle, an Amer­i­can Ful­bright Schol­ar who stud­ies them, as “the ‘ulti­mate char­ter school net­work’ ” (a phrase, we’ll see, that means lit­tle in the Finnish con­text.) There, Doyle writes at The Hechinger Report, “teach­ers are not strait-jack­et­ed by bureau­crats, scripts or exces­sive reg­u­la­tions, but have the free­dom to inno­vate and exper­i­ment as teams of trust­ed pro­fes­sion­als.”

Last year, Michael Moore fea­tured many of Finland’s inno­v­a­tive edu­ca­tion­al exper­i­ments in his humor­ous, hope­ful trav­el­ogue Where to Invade Next. In the clip above, you can hear from the country’s Min­is­ter of Edu­ca­tion, Krista Kiu­ru, who explains to him why Finnish chil­dren do not have home­work; hear also from a group of high school stu­dents, high school prin­ci­pal Pasi Majas­sari, first grade teacher Anna Hart and many oth­ers. Short­er school hours—the “short­est school days and short­est school years in the entire West­ern world”—leave plen­ty of time for leisure and recre­ation. Kids bake, hike, build things, make art, con­duct exper­i­ments, sing, and gen­er­al­ly enjoy them­selves.

“There are no man­dat­ed stan­dard­ized tests,” writes Lyn­Nell Han­cock at Smith­son­ian, “apart from one exam at the end of stu­dents’ senior year in high school… there are no rank­ings, no com­par­isons or com­pe­ti­tion between stu­dents, schools or regions.” Yet Finnish stu­dents have, in the past sev­er­al years, con­sis­tent­ly ranked in the top ten among mil­lions of stu­dents world­wide in sci­ence, read­ing, and math. “If there was one thing I kept hear­ing over and over again from the Finns,” says Moore above, “it’s that Amer­i­ca should get rid of stan­dard­ized tests,” should stop teach­ing to those tests, stop design­ing entire cur­ric­u­la around mul­ti­ple-choice tests. Han­cock describes the results of the Finnish sys­tem, and its costs:

Nine­ty-three per­cent of Finns grad­u­ate from aca­d­e­m­ic or voca­tion­al high schools, 17.5 per­cent­age points high­er than the Unit­ed States, and 66 per­cent go on to high­er edu­ca­tion, the high­est rate in the Euro­pean Union. Yet Fin­land spends about 30 per­cent less per stu­dent than the Unit­ed States.

Moore’s cam­era reg­is­ters the shock on Finnish edu­ca­tors’ faces when they hear that many U.S. schools elim­i­nat­ed music, art, poet­ry and oth­er pur­suits in order to focus almost exclu­sive­ly on test­ing. Though light­heart­ed in tone, the seg­ment real­ly dri­ves home the depress­ing degree to which so many U.S. stu­dents receive an impov­er­ished education—one bare­ly wor­thy of the name—unless they luck into a vouch­er for a high-end char­ter school or have the inde­pen­dent means for an expen­sive pri­vate one. In Fin­land, says the Min­is­ter of Edu­ca­tion, “all the schools are equal. You nev­er ask where the best school is.”

It’s also ille­gal in Fin­land to prof­it from school­ing. Wealthy par­ents have to ensure that neigh­bor­hood schools can give their kids the best edu­ca­tion pos­si­ble, because they are the only option. Many peo­ple in the U.S. object to com­par­isons like Moore’s by not­ing that soci­eties like Fin­land are “homoge­nous” next to what may seem to them like mad­den­ing cul­tur­al diver­si­ty in the U.S. How­ev­er, Fin­land has incor­po­rat­ed (not with­out dif­fi­cul­ty) large immi­grant and refugee pop­u­la­tions—even as its schools con­tin­ue to improve. The gov­ern­ment has respond­ed in part to ris­ing immi­gra­tion with edu­ca­tion­al solu­tions such as this one, a “nation­al ini­tia­tive to rein­force Finnish high­er edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions (HEIs) as sig­nif­i­cant stake­hold­ers in migrants’ inte­gra­tion.”

The sub­tan­tive dif­fer­ences between the two coun­tries’ edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems may have less to do with demog­ra­phy and more to do with eco­nom­ics and the train­ing and social sta­tus of teach­ers.

In Fin­land, writes Doyle, no teacher “is allowed to lead a pri­ma­ry school class with­out a master’s degree in edu­ca­tion, with spe­cial­iza­tion in research and class­room prac­tice.” Teach­ing “is the most admired job in Fin­land next to med­ical doc­tors.” And as Dana Gold­stein points out at The Nation—a fact Wait­ing for Super­man failed to mention—Finnish teach­ers are “gasp!—unionized and grant­ed tenure.” Per­haps an even more sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence the doc­u­men­tary glossed over: in Fin­land, “fam­i­lies ben­e­fit from a cra­dle-to-grave social wel­fare sys­tem that includes uni­ver­sal day­care, preschool and health­care, all of which are proven to help chil­dren achieve bet­ter results at school.”

Hun­dreds of stud­ies in recent years sub­stan­ti­ate this claim. It would seem intu­itive that stress­es asso­ci­at­ed with hunger and pover­ty would have a per­ni­cious effect on learn­ing, espe­cial­ly when poor­er schools are so egre­gious­ly under-resourced. And the data says as much, to vary­ing degrees. And yet, we are now in the U.S. slash­ing break­fast and lunch pro­grams that feed hun­gry chil­dren and decid­ing whether to unin­sure mil­lions of fam­i­lies as mil­lions more still lack basic health cov­er­age. Most every Amer­i­can par­ent knows that qual­i­ty day­cares and preschools can cost as much per year as a decent uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion in this coun­try.

It seems to many of us that the atro­cious state of the U.S. edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem can only be attrib­uted to an act of will on the part our polit­i­cal elite, who see schools as com­pe­ti­tion for fun­da­men­tal­ist belief sys­tems, oppor­tu­ni­ties to pun­ish their oppo­nents out of spite, or as rich fields for pri­vate prof­it. But it needn’t be so. It took 40 years for the Finns to cre­ate their cur­rent sys­tem. In the 1960s, their schools ranked on the very low end—along with those in the U.S. By most accounts, they’ve since shown there can be sys­tems that, while sure­ly imper­fect in their own way, work for all kids, embed­ded with­in larg­er sys­tems that prize their teach­ers and fam­i­lies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Study Shows That Teach­ing Young Kids Phi­los­o­phy Improves Their Aca­d­e­m­ic Per­for­mance, Mak­ing Them Bet­ter at Read­ing & Math

In Japan­ese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learn­ing As It’s About Eat­ing

Med­i­ta­tion is Replac­ing Deten­tion in Baltimore’s Pub­lic Schools, and the Stu­dents Are Thriv­ing

Mal­colm Glad­well Asks Hard Ques­tions about Mon­ey & Mer­i­toc­ra­cy in Amer­i­can High­er Edu­ca­tion: Stream 3 Episodes of His New Pod­cast

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Ekta Vares says:

    Anoth­er sub­stan­tive dif­fer­ence is that par­ents in Fin­land val­ue edu­ca­tion and expect that their chil­dren will be on time, will be pre­pared for class and will not be dis­rup­tive.

    Request a parent/teacher meet­ing in an aver­age US school and, if they even both­er to respond, you will fre­quent­ly find your­self on the receiv­ing end of a stream of excus­es, recrim­i­na­tion and even abuse. Any issues are nev­er because of the child. Any con­duct or aca­d­e­m­ic dif­fi­cul­ties are the result of a) the child is unique and spe­cial and has a learn­ing style that does­n’t include fol­low­ing instruc­tions, wait­ing their turn, or not dis­rupt­ing the learn­ing of oth­er stu­dents; b) expect­ing that projects or home­work be com­plet­ed on time is unrea­son­able and can­not be fit into the child’s sched­ule of extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties or c) you just don’t like my child and I demand anoth­er teacher.

    The aver­age per­son in Fin­land pays near­ly 52% of their income to the state. They strict­ly con­trol their immi­gra­tion. There may be refugees and immi­grants, but Fin­land knows where these refugees are and immi­grants are admit­ted based upon whether or not they have skills that Fin­land needs.

    Yet anoth­er sub­stan­tive dif­fer­ence is that Fin­land is a bit big­ger than Cal­i­for­nia. It’s a lot eas­i­er to pro­vide a cra­dle to grave social sys­tem and devel­op and incul­cate a strong nation­al cul­ture with shared val­ues when you are doing it on such a small scale.

  • eric says:

    Fin­land’s pop­u­la­tion is less than 6 mil­lion peo­ple, 90% of which are Finnish and 5% are Swedish. When you have a small pop of homo­ge­neous peo­ple it’s much eas­i­er to con­trol their edu­ca­tion.

  • Paul Owens says:

    The only way change will hap­pen in North Amer­i­ca is if peo­ple agree that the sys­tem is bro­ken and admit­ting that will nev­er hap­pen

  • John Cena says:


  • National Home School says:

    Every Coun­try has dif­fer­ent Edu­ca­tion Sys­tem. Fin­land has done a very good job in get­ting togeth­er a won­der­ful Edu­ca­tion Sys­tem.

  • Juhana Harju says:

    In truth, the Finnish Pisa results have been in decline for 10 years.

  • Rosemary says:

    Anoth­er fac­tor that was miss­ing from this arti­cle is a com­par­i­son of the crime rate. Many US chil­dren don’t only live in pover­ty, but those neigh­bor­hoods usu­al­ly have a high crime rate. When stu­dents don’t feel safe after school it is hard for them to con­cen­trate at school. Wit the Every Stu­dent Suc­ceeds Act there is room for oth­er assess­ments besides stan­dard­ized tests. Some of these assess­ments are Per­for­mance Based Assess­ments where a stu­dent pro­duces a prod­uct to demon­strate their knowl­edge of the con­cept. I do like the idea of not com­par­ing schools as there is excel­lent teach­ing going on in some of our “poor­est” per­form­ing schools. The stu­dents just don’t have their basic needs met so it is hard for them to con­cen­trate. Anoth­er prob­lem in our edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem is teacher turnover. When you have 40%-50% new teach­ers every year in a school you’re not going to see the same achieve­ment as schools dis­tricts that can keep most of their teach­ers.

  • PRASANNA says:

    I am very inter­est­ed study in fin­land

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