Finnishing School

Forget Santa Claus and saunas, the biggest export from Finland these days is its educational system. During a two-day conference this week at Stanford University, Finnish educators discussed how they improved so dramatically and what the United States can learn from the Nordic country.

Facts on Finnish education.  (Source:  Pasi Sahlberg). Click to enlarge.

Facts on Finnish education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg). Click to enlarge.

Finnish education reform can be summed up in ten points, according to Pasi Sahlberg, a director at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and author of Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? The first nine are instructive, but it’s number ten that sums it up neatly and harshly.

“All of these factors that are behind the Finnish success seem to be the opposite of what is taking place in the United States and the rest of world where competitive, test-based accountability, standardization, and privatization seem to dominate,” Sahlberg told participants at the Empowerment Through Learning in a Global World conference. “There is hope, but you have to be smart in the way you do things…and in many of the things that you are trying to do here I see very little hope.”

Yep, that smarts, especially since Sahlberg acknowledged that Finland borrowed a lot of its reform ideas from the United States, as did many other countries, when American education was the envy of the world. Since then, the U.S. hasn’t progressed so much, at least where PISA, a triennial international exam of 15-year-olds, is concerned. In addition to Finland, PISA shows that Canada, Korea, Singapore, and Shanghai, China have all surpassed the United States.

About those other nine lessons, well, they’re a mix of common sense, shifting priorities, and paradoxes. Here are some of the key elements:

  • Pursuing excellence and equity: Achievement differences among schools in Finland is small, about 5 percent.
  • Standardized-free test zone: There’s no standardized testing until students are in their last year of school, and the scores aren’t used to evaluate teachers.
  • Wrapping education with health and welfare: There’s a nurse in every school and every child gets a free comprehensive check-up every year. Dental and mental health services are also provided, as is universal free lunch. Play is a priority and children must, by law, have recess.
  • Less is more: The school day is relatively short – about four hours in elementary school – and younger students get little homework. But teachers get a lot of time for collaboration to develop curriculum and independent learning plans tailored to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Finland also spends less money per student than the United States.

    More money and more time in school don't always equal better education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg) Click to enlarge.

    More money and more time in school don't always equal better education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg) Click to enlarge.

  • Professionalizing teaching:  The Finns focused on teaching as a key driver of reform and of the education system, and made it a noble and attractive profession by making salaries commensurate with other professionals such as doctors and lawyers, by requiring teachers to earn a research-based master’s degree and making it tuition free, by providing high-quality professional development, by giving teachers a lot of autonomy and time to work collaboratively with their colleagues, by offering career development paths that don’t just include administration, and by not evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores.  As a result, they created one of the most, if not the most, competitive teacher education systems in the world.  The acceptance rate into colleges of education is about one-in-ten, and only ten to fifteen percent of teachers leave the profession before retirement, compared to about 50 percent for teachers in urban schools and a third for other areas in the United States.

Leaning power of PISA

Finland’s educational reputation is largely a result of its students’ scores on PISA, and critics say that’s not enough. Lee Shulman, Professor emeritus of education at Stanford, noted the irony of the very people who decry the use of high-stakes testing being willing to rely on a single exam to rank the world’s school systems.

“PISA is another standardized test. It’s not a proof test. It’s credible because it fits our belief system,” argued Shulman during his presentation at the conference. “We should commit ourselves to multiple measures, not just one test.”

Other skeptics have raised questions about making comparisons between countries that differ so widely in size and demographics. Finland has 3,500 schools and 60,000 teachers. Its entire population of 5.5 million is smaller than California’s entire student population.

“You could argue that the main reason [for lower U.S. scores] is that we have a 24 percent child poverty rate and you have a four percent child poverty rate,” said one audience member during a question-and-answer session. “You could argue that we have a segregation problem where we bunch our poor children into bad schools.”

What’s more, Finland’s reading scores on PISA fell slightly from 2006 to 2009, dropping from an overall score of 547 to 536.  This is the sort of variable that American teachers say is natural and illustrates why rankings based on single exams are inadequate measures.  Despite that setback, however, Finnish students remained in the top three for reading, math and science, while scores for U.S. students placed them smack in the middle.

States show it could happen here

America’s diversity is an issue, but shouldn’t be an excuse said Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, co-director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and author of numerous books including The Flat World and Education:  How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future.

Linda Darling-Hammond and Pasi Sahlberg at Finland-U.S. education conference at Stanford. (photo courtesy of Barbara McKenna).  Click to enlarge.

Linda Darling-Hammond and Pasi Sahlberg at Finland-U.S. education conference at Stanford. (photo courtesy of Barbara McKenna). Click to enlarge.

“PISA rankings in the United States are driven by inequality. If you looked only at schools where less than 10 percent of the students are low poverty, we’re number one in the world,” said Darling-Hammond during her talk at the conference.  In Finland, the focus on the dual goals of excellence and equity have significantly closed the achievement gap. In California, where there’s a three-to-one difference in spending between high- and low-wealth districts, the gap has barely budged.

Some states have implemented reforms similar to Finland’s with noticeable results.  Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, and Connecticut have raised and equalized teacher salaries, made it

Equitable resources for all students makes a difference in achievement.  (Source:  Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford).  Click to enlarge.

Equitable resources for all students makes a difference in achievement. (Source: Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford). Click to enlarge.

more difficult to become a teacher, and invested in high-quality professional development.  It wasn’t always altruistic; a judge ordered New Jersey to invest more money in low-wealth schools after decades of litigation.  But once that happened, it became one of the top-performing states.  Darling-Hammond says Hispanic and Black students in New Jersey now outperform California students, on average.

Gov. Brown is also taking a page from the Finnish model with his proposals to reduce the number of standardized tests that students take, and to switch to a weighted-student formula for funding, through which schools would receive a flat amount of money for each student and additional funds for children who need more resources to help them succeed, such as English learners and low-income students (read more about this proposal here).

“The house of education is divided by powerful forces and strong emotions,” said Brown in his State of State address earlier this week.  “My role as governor is not to choose sides but to listen, to engage and to lead.  I will do that.  I embrace both reform and tradition – not complacency.  My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most, but I’ll take good ideas from wherever they come.”

Seems like some of them are coming from Helsinki.

This entry was posted in Jerry Brown, Standardized tests, Teacher Development, Twenty-first Century Learning and tagged , , on by .

About Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

20 thoughts on “Finnishing School

  1. Mary Thompson

    The Finish model fits what recently published plans for schools in state after state and county after county put forth…government schools to incorporate the lives from birth (even before birth in Santa Clara County’s Plan) as a seamless progression from infancy to post secondary school, and most likely beyond since the entire agenda involves government social services.   This recent emphasis on Finland’s schools has more to do with accepting the socialist Scandinavian national model than education.  Old timers who fought the nationally/internationally programmed Family Life Education Curricula (late 60′s and early 70′s) which was much more than bioli9gical sex ed, will remember one of the favorite mantras of the proponents.  i.e., Sweden’s sex ed model was constantly portrayed as successful model to be emulated by U.S. through implementation of K-12 Family Life Education.  Even at that time Sweden had more unwed pregnancies than any western country.   The state had replaced the role of  families  and marriage re: child rearing.

    During the deliberate “unfreezing of the school system”, that model has become closer to the norm here.   Now that the societal chaos of planned “unfreezing”, has succeeded in destroying what we once had, the “refreezing of the system” is looking to another Scandanavian country where socialist order of government’s managed care and upbringing of the young is to be emulated.   We old timers’s remember when other countries looked to the U.S. as the model to emulate.  We’ve been peddling backward ever since WWII and especially since the 60′s when Federal $$$ greased the skids.

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  2. Eric Premack

    Inter-national comparisons are often interesting and occasionally illuminating.
    As one who has spent a great deal of time in the Nordic countries, however,  I’d strongly caution against trying to “import” lessons on education reform from Finland to the US without a heavy dose of salt–and pouring at least a bit of cold water on the sauna heater.
    The social structure of their society is profoundly different from ours, including:
    1) A much higher level of commonly-held social values regarding the value of education;
    2) Much less diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, language, and related factors;
    3) Much higher levels of income equality (the comparability of Finnish doctor/teacher salaries probably has a lot more to do with low physician salaries than high teacher ones);
    4) The amount of time that parents work is much lower due to due to strong workplace norms and extensive vacation benefits, leaving a lot more time for parents to focus on teaching their kids;
    4) Massive investments in social programs and early childhood development; etc.
    It’s also very hard to make direct comparisons regarding education-related expenditures and compensation due to public financing of many health and welfare benefits, different ways of funding capital investments, and the like.

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  3. navigio

    The spending talked about was as it relates to in/equity, not absolute dollars.  Comparing equity in relative terms is surely more viable than comparing absolute spending. However, even that ignores the fact that the role inequity plays is still in dispute. That is relevant in any discussion that attempts to answer whether categorical programs are under-done or over-done.
    I also spend a lot of time in Europe and could not agree more with what Erik says. For that reason I think there are not as many educational lessons to learn from Finland as there are societal ones..  (You could argue that moving away from testing might be one, but thats not going anywhere.. its in the American DNA at this point.. for better or for worse).
    @Mary, that is an interesting comment. I know there are some who believe that the Feminism movement is the direct cause of the decay for some sectors of society that is reflected in our Educational outcomes. Even though I personally believe it probably cant be isolated that completely (especially with our country’s history), I do think its appropriate to assess how well those kinds of societal changes correlate with educational ones, and maybe more importantly, whether that evolution happened differently in other countries, and why.

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  4. Ze'ev Wurman

    I agree with Eric’s well taken cautions, but I would like also to direct more attention to the issue of Finnish “excellence.”
    Finland claims that it can successfully “Pursue[ing] excellence and equity.” Kathy suggests they succeed, saying that “achievement differences among schools in Finland is small, about 5 percent.” But this answers only the equity part of the Finnish claim — what about the excellence part?
    The Finnish claim to excellence rests squarely — and solely — on PISA. Yet PISA does not assess curriculum-based “academic” knowledge. Rather, it assesses so called “literacy” in math, in science, and in reading. Such literacy draws in a large degree on skills developed not only within the school but also outside it, as PISA readily concedes. Over 200 Finnish academics have a less charitable description of PISA expectations: “PISA … measured only everyday mathematical knowledge … ; the kind of mathematics which is needed in high-school or vocational studies was not part of the survey. No doubt, everyday  mathematical skills are valuable, but by no means enough.”
    They go on and cite an example of the degrading skills among Finnish high-school graduates: “in order not to fail an unreasonably large amount of students in the matriculation exams, recently the board has been forced to lower the cut-off point alarmingly. Some years, 6 points out of 60 have been enough for passing.
    Last time Finland participated in the TIMSS international examinations — that in contrast with PISA do assess academic knowledge — was in 1999 and they scored respectably but did not stand out in respect to the U.S. Finland scored 520 in math versus Singapore’s 604 (and U.S.’s 502) and 535 in science versus 568 of Singapore (and 515 of U.S.) Since then Finland decided not to participate in TIMSS and only in PISA. In contrast to Finland, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore participates in both TIMSS and PISA over the years and do exceedingly well on both. In other words it seems unclear that Finland does, indeed, deliver on the promise of both equity AND excellence. Equity, perhaps. But excellence — academic-achievement-wise at least — is not very robust.
    TIMSS is about the overall academic achievement, but a nation is also measured on how well it nurtures its specially talented youngsters, those that will push their country forward. The creme de la creme, if you will. Here Finland is also not doing well. The top achievement can be highly sensitive to population size so I did not compare it to the much larger United States or Korea, but to a similarly sized Singapore and Hong Kong. On the International Math Olympiad Finland used to be ranked in the 1980s around 20-30, similarly to both Hong Kong and Singapore. Since then Finland moved down to around rank 50-60 in the 2000s and closer to 70 in the recent few years. In contrast, both Hong Kong and Singapore are still ranked in the 20s-30s until this day. Hong Kong did not participate in many other Olympiads for sufficient number of years but here are the gold/silver medals for Finland and Singapore in the most recent 5 years, respectively:
    Int’l Physics Olympiad: 0/2 (Fi) ; 11/11 (Sgp)
    Int’l Chemistry Olympiad: 0/2 ; 5/11
    Int’l Biology Olympiad: 0/1 ; 9/10
    In summary, Finland seems like a poor example to demonstrate that both equity and excellence are achievable through their system.

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  5. navigio

    Hey Ze’ev, are you really saying you would use the olympiads as a measure of the ability of a country’s entire school system to produce excellence? An olympiad is almost by definition exactly not such a measure. If you would like to try to do that, I welcome you to include the US’s rankings in the argument as well. :-)
    Im also a bit confused by one aspect of your analysis. Finland’s olympiad ‘declines’ (to the extent thats really what they represent) began long before their last participation in TIMMS.  So Im not clear why you feel they would be a good way to ‘fill in’ the ‘missing data’ for their TIMMS’ lost decade? If that were appropriate, we would not have expected the results they achieved in 1999 (btw, I think those results are stand-out when compared to the US overall numbers, especially in 1999, fwiw).
    I did find it interesting in the math rankings, HK and Sing did not really do all that exceptionally well until very recently. I also find it interesting that Singapore had drops in 8th grade TIMMS scores the last time around.
    But most importantly, if you dont think PISA is appropriate for measuring success, then perhaps that argument could be used to counter the claim that the US system is failing based on that same data? (setting aside the fact that claim can only be made when using aggregate results).  I guess one might argue that in fact you could still use it to prove failure, just not success. But of course then we shouldnt have any business talking about the ‘success’ of singapore or shanghai or hong kong or korea…

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  6. Ze'ev Wurman

    Please don’t misinterpret me. I did not claim that olympiads are a measure of a whole country. TIMSS is. That is where Finland seems to lack excellence, that is what its own colleges are worried about, and that seems to counter the claim that Finland achieved the utopia of equity and excellence.
    Lack of extremely strong achievers is just an additional interesting manifestation of equity. I don’t believe education system can be truly responsible for developing such extreme talent — at best it can support and encourage it. But it seems quite effective in suppressing it. Which is what I suspect we see in Finland.

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  7. Ze'ev Wurman

    Incidentally, U.S. does exceedingly well on the various math & science Olympiads. This is to be expected from a very populous country like ours. Influx of highly skilled immigrants also helps. That is why I did not compare Finland to us or to Korea, but to similarly-sized international high achievers. This has nothing to do with TIMSS, or with filling in its “missing data.” It is simply a different kind of measure of nurturing excellence. A highly volatile one due to the small number of participants, but integrating the trend over multiple years tells an important story.

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  8. Vivian

    As the owner/director of both a major franchise supplemental learning center for 15 years (which participated in and produced top scores in the TIMSS) and now my own learning program ( — the point that jumped out at me from the article was:

    “…teachers get a lot of time for collaboration to develop curriculum and independent learning plans tailored to each student’s strengths and weaknesses”.

    Is our competitive system conducive to true collaboration?  I know this is part of the daily routine for Singapore teachers.  Regardless, if teachers were able to tailor learning plans to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, it would probably make a lot of our current concerns irrelevant.  Most kids would have the chance to thrive and I might have to find another business.

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  9. Gary Ravani

    It’s interesting how many people seem to think that he/she who provide the most “links” wins the argument.
    For example, if you follow the link provide by Ze’ev (“less charitable explanations of PISA” re Finland) you find three editorials. The most detailed one supports the premise that the Finnish plan of supporting equity and children results in higher results on international assessments. The other two, much less detailed and supported by examples, are kind of cranky essays of college professors complaining about the “poor quality” of the students the non-university level schools are producing. Anyone recall the colleges and universities in this country ever declaring that the “quality” of students being prepared by the K-12 system was finally adequate. Me neither.

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  10. Ze'ev Wurman

    When one university ed school lecturer claims success you characterize it as “most detailed.” When over 200 university mathematics professors and lecturers argue that they see decline in mathematics preparation and cite the need to score as low as 10% correct as a passing grade on the national matriculation examinations, you label it “cranky essay of college professors.” Why am I not surprised? Here is another one then, but I am sure its more details won’t convince you anyway. Incidentally, 200 university mathematicians seem significantly over 50% of their total nationwide math faculty but, then, who cares about cranky mathematicians?
    At least Lee Shulman was intellectually honest.

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  11. pur

    Ze’ev, I agree that PISA alone is not a good yardstick. However, I have graduated from a US High School and a Finnish lukio and if I compare the two, the Finnish students are 2-3 years ahead when they graduate.  Finnish school is way more demanding, you cannot compare the two. About a dozen of my friends who have done the same all share this view. And in addition to that, most of the Finns speak two foreign languages at about the level you see me write here when they graduate, and this extra learning is not measured in PISA at all. It is beyond any doubt that the average Finnish education is far, far ahead of the American, and you need no testing to understand it. There is also no doubt that the talented Finns get a superb education in Finland, allthough the last three years before the matriculation examination are the most important; before that even he Finnish school might be a bit too easy for the top performers.
    All this may sound a bit harsh, but there is a good Finnish proverb: aknowledging the facts is the beginning of wisdom.

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