Apples to Oranges: The Finnish System

Apples to Oranges: The Finnish System

After looking at the teacher shortage in the U.S. last time, I promised a deeper dive into Finland’s educational system.  It seemed to me that the U.S. and Finland had very different — almost diametrically opposed — approaches to education.  I did my research: particularly into what the naysayers might have to offer.  Certainly all the buzz Finland has gotten in the last decade had to be at least a little overrated, a little pie-in-the-sky.


Here are a few surprising things I found:

  • The Finnish program began nearly 50 years ago.  Although it’s gotten a lot of attention in the last 10 years, it’s been quietly percolating away in the background for a long time.  That attention came as the result of Finnish students’ performance on the PISA test in 2000, in which they placed at the very top in reading ability out of the 57 or so countries that take part in the test. They went on to place number one in both math and science as well.  My big take-away?  Results take time.  A lot of time.  Finland didn’t build teacher capacity and all the infrastructure for the program overnight.  It’s not a miracle; it’s more like the 10,000 hour rule.
  • The educational program was actually developed as a means of propelling the country’s economic recovery.  I just love this:  when the Finns sat down and talked over what would best improve their economy, they landed on better public education as a key component. I have a hard time imagining a room full of American businessmen and politicians reaching the same conclusion.  Take away?  Better educated people are good for the economy.
  • There are no mandatory standardized tests except for one at the end of a student’s senior year in high school.  There are no rankings, comparisons, or competitions between students, schools, or regions. There is certainly nothing like Race to the Top; all schools are federally funded and all operate under the same national goals.  This means a kid in Utsjoki, a region in the north with scattered Sámi villages, has a pretty good shot at the same quality education as a kid in Helsinki, the capital.  In fact, the differences between the weakest and strongest students in Finland are the smallest in the world. Take away:  Running schools like corporations isn’t the answer.
  • Ninety-nine percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, compared to 85% in the United States (2018), yet Finland spends less per student than the United States. Actually, the U.S. spends more per student than any other developed nation, yet doesn’t do as well on international measures of proficiency. I’ve actually seen this more than once here at home: the states that spend the most on students don’t always — or even often — have the best success rates. Take away?  Money isn’t necessarily the problem.
  • The national goal since 2006 has been to mainstream all students, only pulling out those who need extra help learning Finnish and only so they can give them extra support to keep up with the rest of their class.  Schools receive “positive discrimination money” from the government specifically to pay for extra classroom aides, special education teachers, and counselors to help them address the needs of either immigrant or learning-challenged students. Take away:  Positive Discrimination Money.  What a great idea.
  • The Finnish government does a lot to level the playing field for families.  It offers a government subsidy for each child until the age of 17, parents get 3 years’ maternity leave and subsidized childcare, and preschool, which begins at age 5, is free.  Healthcare for students is free as well.  A hungry, homeless child is a rarity in Finland. Take away:  sometimes problems with schools aren’t actually because of school.
  • In 1979, reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. After that, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants flooded teaching programs, not because the salaries were high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In Finland, it’s actually easier to become a lawyer (8.3% acceptance rate) or doctor (7.3% acceptance rate) than it is to become a teacher (6.8% acceptance rate — this is right in the ballpark of Princeton’s acceptance rate).  This is so different than what we do in the U.S. and yet, it makes total sense.  If something is hard to get into, if spots are limited and competition fierce, its value increases.  Instead of weakening teacher certification, they made it more difficult and the prestige of being accepted did the rest.  South Korea and Singapore, also educational high-flyers, have also made recruitment more difficult, thus creating a demand that attracts the most talented into teaching.  This is one domino effect I would love to see happen here.
  • Finnish teachers are also paid more than U.S. teachers.  The U.S. lags behind a number of other nations in teacher pay, including South Korea, Canada, and Germany.  In the U.S., the average teacher’s salary is 68% of what other university-educated professionals make. Small wonder we are facing a teacher shortage.  Take away:  Trying to get teachers as cheaply as possible is a false economy.  You get what you pay for.
  • Finland has abandoned the massive, stultifying curriculum documents it began with, instead distilling its curriculum down to broad guidelines.  Their national math curriculum for grades 1-9 is a tight 10 pages.  Let me say that again; ten pages. The Common Core State Standards for math K-12 are 93 pages in length. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for math K-8 is 34 pages.  BUT, this was a process.  They started with massive, prescriptive curricula and over the last 50 years have distilled it into the streamlined simplicity that guides them today.
  • Finnish children start school at a later age, spend fewer hours in school, have more recess and less homework than most children in the U.S.  Finnish school children start between 8 and 9 a.m. and finish the day at 1 p.m..  They have a 75 minute recess every day that they may use as they like — for sports, music, projects, play. On average, they have 1 hour of homework per week, but homework in general is deemphasized. Take away?  Sometimes, less is more.
  • I can’t find the source for this, but I read somewhere that Finland’s Education Department is staffed by educators.  Not politicians, not business people, not government appointees with random backgrounds:  educators.  And since all educators are required to have a masters, they’re all highly-trained educators.  What a difference that would make to educational policy in this country.

Drawbacks often cited by Finland’s detractors:

  • At age 16, students decide whether to do vocational training or  a university prep program. We are only seeing results from those who go on to the prep program.  Actually, no:  the PISA is administered to 15 year olds, before the students choose their paths.  Interestingly, both programs take 3 years, but here’s the kicker:  even if they choose vocational training, they can still go to university after they complete the program.  Many students with disabilities choose vocational training, but vo-tech is also available for adults who want to refine skills or change fields. And vo-tech is more than just woodworking or auto shop — 120 programs in 50 different fields, including circus performing.  I kid you not. Take away:  Circus Performing.  Why not think outside the box?
  • Finland is small and its education program only has to cope with 600,000 students.  This is undeniable:  they have far fewer students to address than other countries.  The UK has something like 9 million students (more than the entire population of Finland), the U.S. has 76 million.  Does this mean that what works with 600,000 can’t work for 76 million?  Maybe.  The logistics would certainly be a challenge, but I think the biggest bar to success would be getting everyone to agree on what we need to do to have success. The smaller and more nimble Finnish system benefited from having fewer personalities in the mix. We might just be too big to pull something like this off.
  • Finland is relatively homogeneous.  True.  Most Finns are ethnically Finnish and only about 3.5% of the population is foreign.  American schools generally have far greater rates of diversity and sometimes large numbers of English Language Learners.  Diversity is a challenge in American classrooms for sure, but not necessarily an insurmountable one. Finland offers extra funding to provide additional teachers and support for schools with immigrant children to help them bring their language skills to a functional point while still keeping up with their academic subjects. And they offer free classes in Finnish to the students’ parents.  That helps everyone function better and contribute to the economy.

Still, there’s something to their philosophy. Neighboring Norway, which is roughly the same size as Finland,  has an educational system that more closely resembles the U.S.:  lots of standardized testing, teachers with only bachelor’s degrees. And like the U.S., their performance on the PISA is lackluster.  At the very least, we need to reverse the trend  in this country of weakening teacher certification procedures and instead adopt something like the Finns: train them more highly, pay them more fairly, make teaching as valued and respected as practicing medicine or law.  Why would we want anything less for our children?


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