Before you move to Finland . . .

Many educators who are frustrated by U.S. educational trends – including some commentators on this blog – point to Finland as a model we might considering following. Finnish students do not take standardized tests until graduation, yet they score very high on international examinations such as PISA ( Program for International Student Assessment.) Moreover, most Finnish students graduate from either an academic or a vocational high school.

Finnish teachers have considerable leeway to design lesson plans and assessments, albeit within the structure of a national curriculum. Finland also recruits its teachers from among its top university graduates: A teaching career is both sought after and admired.

It’s an interesting model, and I agree that Finnish education deserves a closer look. But there are some elements of the Finnish system that might give some teachers pause . . . and all of us food for thought.

First,  that final test is a biggie. Fewer than a third of Finnish students go on to university, and university admission is determined almost entirely by a single matriculation test.

Perhaps in part because of these high stakes,

“while there are no standardized tests in grades 1-9, there are many internal assessments and pressures in the upper secondary school. As Sahlberg [a researcher who has published a much-cited book on Finnish education reform] notes on p. 25, teachers assess student achievement at the end of each 6-7 week period, or five or six times per subject per school year. Further, the high-stakes matriculation examination, paid for by student fees and often retaken for a higher score by students determined to get a place at a university, has a “notable effect on curriculum and instruction.”


(The source is actually a review of Sahlberg’s book, written by an education professor at the University of Arkansas.) Here’s the link:

Tests also have a lot to do with who becomes a teacher. From the same book review:

Now let’s look at those who become teachers. As all sources indicate, they must be graduates of an academic high school. They must get a place at a university (which means they are in the top 9% of their grade 9 cohort). Those who seek to teach grades 1-6 must complete a five-year program at a university consisting of a three-year BA degree program, followed by a research-based two-year M.Ed. degree program, both in the Department of Educational Sciences. Those who seek to teach a subject in grades 7-12 complete a program lasting from five to over seven years. The longer program consists of a three-year BA degree program with a major in the subject, a master’s degree program in the subject, both under the auspices of faculty in the arts and sciences, and a research-based M.Ed. degree.

I think many teachers would embrace more demanding criteria for entering the profession. But let’s not fool ourselves. This would require a seismic shift in our university education schools. Right now, alas, education majors rank at or near the bottom in SAT/ACT scores, and education courses notoriously lack rigor – as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others, laments. (See the link below.)

So yes, we probably have a lot to learn from Finland. But are we really ready for the lesson?


One comment

  1. Yak_Herder

    You nailed it. We profess to want better schools, but we aren’t prepared to do what it takes to get them (read: pay for them).

    Your blog did a wonderful job of identifying the differences, but if I may, there is another big factor that is missing from you overview. Finland’s society consists of a very broad middle class. Disparities between the “haves” and the “have nots” are less pronounced there than what we have here in the United States.

    Also, if you look at racial inequalities in Finland, you’re not talking about “black and white” in the same sense that we do. They have relatively little diversity in their society. When they talk about “black” people, they probably referring to Gypsies (Mustalaiset). The percentage of “Afro-Finns” is significantly lower than here in the United States, or even here in Utah.

    All told, it’s simply not an apples to apples comparison.

    We can learn some things from Finland, but I would not want to imitate their system. The idea of placing kids on an academic or a vocational track at an early age offends some deeply rooted feelings I have about the unlimited potential we enjoy in the United Sates. I hear this idea bounced around occasionally and it sets off warning bells in my head.

    Neither do I embrace the idea of one-big-fat-all-the-marbles exam. Too much testing is too much, but reducing it to only a grand finale just invites the kind of problems we see in South Korea. Part of the reason Finland does this is easy to understand; they simply don’t have the number of colleges and universities that we do. They have, it seems, what they feel they need. Here, virtually anyone who works for it can go to college. There, admissions and space is strictly limited.

    One more factor in their favor that seems silly, but I honestly think it makes a difference: they spell phonetically. The time we spend memorizing the nuances of how different words are spelled they spend learning other languages. Most Finns are fairly fluent in three languages (Finnish, English, and either Swedish, Norwegian or German) by the time they graduate from high school. Part of that is necessity. It’s been said that the only people who learn Finnish are Finnish children and Mormon Missionaries and that’s not far from the truth. In order to be competitive in the marketplace (which they are), and I suppose for other reasons, they learn to speak several languages.

    Try explaining “spelling class” to a Finn. They will probably just smile politely.

    Then, try learning Finnish. It’s a beautiful language, but it will make your head spin.

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