As American teachers despair about the state of our schools, many point to a small Nordic country that seems to have figured out how to deliver high-quality education to everyone. Is Finland really an educator’s paradise? Let’s find out as we explore Finland’s Education System (5 Surprising Findings).
What’s Special About Finland’s Education System?
Here are the five top things that stand out about Finland’s school system. Most U.S. teachers will be amazed by these differences.
1. Respect for Public Schools
Finland has no private schools. All schools are public. Most post-secondary education is also free or low-cost.
There is no demand for private schools, because Finnish universities and employers take it for granted that public schools are producing well-educated, well-rounded and skilled graduates. Schools issue their own assessments based on what teachers see during the school year. There is no government-mandated accountability.
2. Respect for Teachers and the Teaching Profession
Teaching is a highly respected profession in Finland. Schools of education turn away far more applicants than they accept. Teaching is one of the most desirable careers.
Once accepted into training, Finnish teachers undergo a rigorous training program.
As a result, teachers are well-paid. They are also highly respected.
The Finnish National Agency for Education points out that most teachers have a master’s degree. This includes vocational teachers and primary school teachers. Even teachers at daycare centers usually have a B.A.
“The high level of training is seen as necessary,” the agency notes, “as teachers in Finland are very autonomous professionally.”
3. Nationally Accepted Curriculum
The Finnish government approves a core curriculum of the key subjects that schools must teach. In addition to academic subjects, schools must teach art, music, drama, nutrition and Finnish folklore.
Schools and teachers are free to develop their own methods for teaching those subjects.
Schools are not subject to the political and community engagement that frequently tear apart U.S. schools. Parents do not routinely criticize school curricula, teachers, teaching methods or disciplinary measures. They accept that teachers are professionals who know how to do their jobs.
4. No Standardized Testing
Finland has no standardized tests. Teachers don’t have to spend hours drilling test material into students. They don’t have to wait to see test scores to know whether they’ll get a raise or get fired.
According to the Finnish National Agency for Education, “The focus in education is on learning rather than testing. There are no national tests for pupils in basic education in Finland. Instead, teachers are responsible for assessment in their respective subjects.”
All students take a final matriculation exam when they complete their secondary schooling. This determines where they can go for post-secondary training.
Finland doesn’t have high-risk AP or college placement exams. There is no pressure to do well on these tests. In Finland, students can go on to well-paid jobs without going to college. About 40% of students take vocational training to prepare for these jobs.
5. Emphasis on Free Time
All Finnish schools are required to give students 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of instruction. Teachers probably appreciate getting those breaks, too.
Finnish students don’t get any homework. Teachers are expected to cover the material during classroom time. Children are expected to spend their evenings with their families, enjoying creative pursuits or playing sports. That also means teachers don’t have to spend time chasing or correcting homework.
Would the Finnish System Work in the U.S.?
Could the U.S. replicate Finland’s school system? It would take an overhaul of our current system. The U.S. also has certain features that might make it difficult to implement those plans.
Poverty and Inequality
One of the major differences between U.S. and Finnish economies is the higher income inequality in the U.S. Among industrialized countries, the U.S. has the highest income gap between rich and poor. Pockets of extreme poverty still exist here to the degree that they don’t exist in countries like Finland.
As Toni Airaksinen writes in the Undergraduate Times,
“Living in poverty is not conducive to educational development. Even before children begin elementary school, children from the lower income bracket come to school less prepared to learn.”
As Airaksinen notes, one of these big differences is what’s known as the language gap:
“The ‘language gap’ refers to the fact that lower-income infants of the same age have a significantly smaller vocabulary than their higher-income peers. This gap is recognizable at 18 months of age. By the time that these children reach kindergarten, the difference in language ability is enough to have a pervading negative effect on their education long into their years of schooling.”
Shannon Frank is an American teacher from Houston who won a grant to study the Finnish education model. She noted that the lack of standardized tests and high-risk tests made Finnish schools more cooperative.
“Teaching in Finland is not about creating the best students with the best SAT scores who know the most about history, physics, or algebra,” Frank wrote in an article for Education Week. “It is about creating globally competent, critical thinkers who are ready to be successful in their post-graduation life. In my mind, the Finns grow their children as if they were plants in a garden. In order to produce well-rounded students, they focus on many disciplines that will help them become well-rounded adults.”
Finland Has a More Homogenous Culture
Finland’s foreign-born population is less than 5% of the population. In the U.S., the figure is closer to 13%. The U.S. also has deep cultural, religious and political divides. As many people note, it’s easier to institute school reforms in a population that is smaller and less diverse.
An article in the Atlantic Monthly casts some doubt on that assertion.
Writer Anu Partanen points to research by education scholar Samuel Abrams. Abrams compared Finland’s school system to that of Norway, a similarly homogeneous Nordic country.
“Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland, it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish,” writes Partanen. “The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.”
It Would Require a Massive Shift in Our Culture and Thinking
Many education reformers have noted that the U.S. won’t have high-quality education for everyone until we have economic equality. Achieving that will require a massive shift in our culture, thinking and politics.
Writing in the Huffington Post, teacher Nicole Stellon O’Donnell points out that the U.S. is not ready for Finnish-style reform, because “articles about Finland don’t address poverty, rates of youth incarceration, the availability of affordable medical care, the availability of maternal/paternal leave, the impact of the rise and influence of religious fundamentalism on public education, or the monetization of our education system by entrepreneurial edu-corp reformers. They certainly don’t discuss the impact our history of slavery, and segregation has upon school systems.”
In short, it’s unlikely the U.S. will get a school system like Finland’s without reforming the rest of our systems.
Where Does that Leave Us?
I’ve read several articles praising the system the Finns have put into place, and shaming teachers in the U.S. for not following their lead. Ridiculous notions when you consider that despite what some believe, American teachers don’t have that kind of power or pull.
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