Observations on the Finnish education system

September 6, 2012 • Ted Kolderie

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?