The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Reflections on Finland’s Education Success

“So what is it that should at least capture a portion of our attention to give thought to how Finland educates its youth?”

Barry Newbold | April 8, 2015
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The Finnish flag waves proudly to represent the successes of their educational system, which incorporate both teacher and students effectively.

Until recently, the name Pasi Sahlberg was unfamiliar to me. On March 19th, 2015, Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard, spoke at Brigham Young University to a group of faculty, students, and Utah educators. His topic was: “What Can the U.S. Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” It appears that Pasi Sahlberg has been sharing many of the educational lessons learned from his native Finland in many locations around the world.

Reactions to Sahlberg’s message in the United States have been mixed, although generally positive. Jenny Anderson, an education writer for the New York Times, categorized his lecture to high school students in Manhattan in 2011 as “Intriguing.” Linda Moore, a writer for The Guardian, characterized Finland’s education system as one the United States should envy. The Huffington Post, on the other hand, reports some of Sahlberg’s critics as stating that Finland’s education system is “very basic” and limiting to free will and free-thinking.

It’s hard to argue the success of  PISA scores that are 15-20 rankings above the United States

It’s hard to argue the success of an educational system that results in student achievement scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that are 15- 20 rankings above the United States, and which are ranked number one in the world in math and science over the past decade. So what is it that should at least capture a portion of our attention to give thought to how Finland educates its youth?

In broad terms, Finland’s education system is based on cooperation between teachers and schools, equity, and a nationwide commitment to educational success for all. Some characteristics of Finnish education are – no private schools, no tuition fees, no homework for students before their early teens (and then no more than 30 minutes per night), all teachers must have a master’s degree, and there are no standardized tests. According to Sahlberg, education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

It’s true that the population of Finland as a nation could be compared to many individual states in America. The fact that constitutionally in America each individual state has responsibility for establishing and maintaining a system of public education makes implementing the Finnish education model in America, as a whole, next to impossible. And, indeed, I am not suggesting that we should. What I am suggesting, however, is that we should at least take a serious look at how Finland educates its youth.

Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, has said that Finland could be an excellent model for individual states in America.

“The fact that we have more race, ethnicity and economic heterogeneity, and we have this huge problem of poverty, should not mean we don’t want qualified teachers – the strategies become even more important,” Dr. Darling-Hammond said. “Thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.” Both Dr. Darling-Hammond and Dr. Sahlberg said a turning point was a government decision in the 1970’s to require all teachers to have master’s degrees – and to pay for their acquisition (New York Times, Jenny Anderson, December 12, 2011).

Systems of education are complex. Societies are far more complex. Finding the optimal combination of cooperation, equity, measures of student success, and the best-trained teacher workforce are formidable tasks. What Finland has done has worked very well for their citizenry when measured by international assessments – assessments in which many policymakers have attributed high status. Perhaps America could at least leverage what we can observe from Finland into fostering even stronger systems of education in our own states. In my view, it’s worth the effort.