Observations on the Finnish education system

For the 40-odd Americans in Helsinki August 20-24 the schools and the education system in Finland presented a dilemma. I went with that delegation, organized by the National Public Education Support Fund.

We envy Finnish students' top rankings on the Program for International Student Assessment. But the Finnish system is organized differently and operates on quite different principles.

Classrooms look much like ours. Choice is common. Finland has some 'chartered schools'. But:

  • There is no elected district 'board of education'.
  • Finland does not do 'accountability'. If you want to know how well students are learning, they say: Ask the teachers.
  • Child care, early learning, is universal.
  • School starts at age 7; is (like ours) compulsory to 16.
  • Upper Secondary (ages 17-18) is competitive: Students are admitted based on their academic record.
  • Youth sports are not school-based.
  • They still do vocational education in high school.
  • Only about 10% of those who apply to be teachers are accepted. All teachers have a master's degree. Turnover is minimal.
  • Their teacher-training universities all own and run 'lab schools'.
  • The one teachers union bargains (with municipal representatives) at the state level; there is a single salary contract.
  • Since Finland has a state church (Lutheran) the public schools teach religion (though it leans toward 'ethics').
  • The state does not appropriate specifically for education. It makes a bloc-grant to the municipality. The municipality allocates money among the schools, child care, social services, public safety, etc.

America seems committed to its tradition of elected boards of education running the schools. We are deeply vested in testing, in accountability. We can't seem to reform teacher-education. And can't get money into child care: If there is any money available, K-12 usually takes it. Our modal teacher -- who 20 years ago was a teacher with 15 years experience -- is today a teacher in his/her first year!

With our system we probably cannot achieve what they achieve. So: What do we do?

Could we conceivably change our system to be like Finland's? How?



Fascinating piece Ted. It is unbelievable to me how difficult it is to become a teacher in Finland.

Ted, to what level do they educate students with disabilities in Finland and to what extent are they included in their typical programs? To what extent do parents of these students have approval over their child's education? Is it litigious? Ay information about how they handle this would be appreciated. Thanks.

Thank you for your advocacy of teachers and students. We all agree on one thing: We need to be able to hire and retain the best teachers possible. The only way to do this is to make the K-12 teaching profession much more attractive than it is at present. We can do this by improving salaries, working conditions and, most of all, teacher professionalism and autonomy. With many states allowing charter schools, I'm hoping to see teachers take over these schools and run them in the way that lawyers run firms and doctors run clinics. It's time for teaching to become a full profession.

I've been asking this same question "Could we conceivably change our system to be like Finland's? How?" for a few years now. Sparked some interest. Glad to see your comments on it. Would like to visit some time about how we answer your question.

Linda, great comments. Teachers are running schools in MN through an organization called: EdVisions Cooperative (http://edvisionscooperative.org). The success of the school, not just academics, is the rallying cry at these schools. Hard to blame anyone else for failure when you have autonomy!

Chris- I have been doing extensive research with Education Evolving regarding the Finnish education system. Your questions about students with disabilities bring up a central piece of the Finnish model.

First, education is considered a fundamental right in Finland, therefore all students have a right to be educated. Second, the Finnish system relies heavily on early interventions at all levels of schooling. The theory is to identify students with difficulties and work with them before they become disabilities. About half of all students who complete compulsory education will have been in some form of special education at some point. This alleviates a lot of the stigmata we see associated with being in special education here in the US.

Special education services can take many forms such as the creation of individualized teaching plans, individual counseling, or remedial teaching in small groups. Much like here in the US, teachers try to integrate students with severe disabilities as much as possible into traditional classrooms.

When I look at testing, I turn nauseous. Not only because American testing is wasted learning time, which it is, the real reason for queasiness is that testing has no real effect. Nations that rely on testing have specific reasons to test and specific outcomes in mind. They also use testing as a tool to keep their public schools strong. If a student does not pass they are eventually moved to private schools. Most of the Japanese students in our undergraduate programs are in private educational settings. They did not make it in their public schools. We think our private schools are the best and do not want to pour more money into public education, so we make a worthless test. See the problem.

If there is one thing I wish our educational system (and thus the greater society) could take away from the Finnish model, it is that teachers in Finland are granted an extraordinary amount of trust. In this country, layers of oversight, testing, and critical review are placed on classrooms because there is a prominent assumption that teachers themselves are incapable of gauging student progress, engagement, and mastery of skill and subject. Although teachers here must go through a certain level of schooling (though comparably lax when placed next to Finland's requirement of a master's degree), they are still given little autonomy in terms of interpreting how effective their pedagogies and classroom interactions are.

Finland's children have advantages that ours cannot imagine, which are bestowed by their Scandinavian Socialist government -- child care until the age of seven, when compulsory school begins, the promise of a provided university education, and health care along the way.

Our country may not be ready to provide these support systems in such abundance, but perhaps we can help change education by respecting teachers and professionalizing their roles by lifting them in society and recognizing that they, rather than standardized tests, are capable of gauging student knowledge and engagement.

Check out this post by Pasi Sahlberg the author of Finish Lessons on Valerie Strauss's blog. He offers some interesting perspectives and mentions Ted's visit.


Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 09/06/2012
A new Finnish lesson: Why gender equality matters in school reform
By Valerie Strauss

If we adopted the Finnish system we would have to replace most of our current teachers ... how many US teachers were in the top 10% of their class? States run US education systems and there is no political will to change our system of 14,000 elected citizen schools ... let's not waste time ... the winners in elections set education policy ... elect those who you believe will support your views.

Finland is a tough example for you to follow because Finlands whole society is based on a completely seperate set of business ethics and backing, and this stems further than education but also into social and health care. In the USA, education is still a business, a money making venture, and only when education is treated fully as a public service, with emphasis on education rather than business, will the situation be likely to change for the better.



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