The Surprising Success of Finland’s Schools

Finland SchoolsFinland has had recent surprising successes in measures such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s PISA survey, which compares the fifteen-year-old students of various countries in reading, math, and science. For the past decade, Finland has ranked at or near the top, along with heavy hitters South Korea and Singapore, while the U.S. has muddled along in the middle ranks. Consequently, educators from around the globe are trying to mine the Finnish model for ideas to improve education in their own countries.

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, has authored a new book called Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? and is speaking to educators in the US about what is being done in Finland.

Anu Partanen reported on Sahlberg’s reception and the lessons US educators are NOT learning about Finnish education in the recent article “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.” Sahlberg and Partanen both seem to believe that American educators are missing Sahlberg’s main points.

And yet it wasn’t clear that Sahlberg’s message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about….

From [Sahlberg’s] point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

Partanen then lists several things named by Sahlberg that Finland does in a vastly different manner than American public schools:
~ Finnish schools assign less homework.
~ Finnish schools engage children in more creative play.
~ Finland has no standardized tests.
~ Finland’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves.
~ Report cards … are based on individualized grading by each teacher.
~ In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.
~ If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.
~ The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
~ Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
~ There are no private schools in Finland.

Partanen accuses US educators of not wanting to listen to all of Sahlberg’s message, but Partanen is just as guilty as those he accuses. He actually quotes Sahlberg’s concern (above) that Americans are obsessed with evaluation and tracking and accountability but then ignores that point just as thoroughly as the US educators do in favor of his own apparent agenda. Which part do you think Partanen focuses on?

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it. Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

No private schools. That’s the message Partanen gets, the whole message, and what he thinks we should import to the US. While I am not downplaying the importance of that part of the Finnish formula, and I do think less competition in educational fields is an excellent idea, I find it at best amusing that Partanen ignores so much of the rest of Sahlberg’s message to educators: Less homework. More autonomy of teachers to teach, examine, and rate children individually. More autonomy of principals to be in charge of the teachers rather that being bogged down in red tape regulations. No standardized testing.

These are the points that are at the heart of Finland’s surprising success, and apparently the points that Sahlberg himself is concerned are being missed. Standardized testing and tying teacher evaluation to student results means less individualized attention to each student, putting them all through a sardine press that fits none. Allowing teachers to have their own classrooms where they can connect with the children as individuals and without the pressure of standardized testing looming spectrally over all is what frees them to be good teachers, frees the children to get a real education.

How do I know this is true? Because private schools that follow this model in the US get the same results. Check out John Stossel’s excellent report, “Stupid in America,” to see how privately run schools, with no oversight but the intimate group of principal, teachers, and parents, get incredible results on a very minimal budget:


Muddling along as the US public schools do, with competition between schools, within schools, and between students on standardized tests, produces the mediocre results we have been seeing in US public education in recent decades. One way to get to the top of the heap to emulate countries South Korea and Singapore, which essentially eliminate childhood in favor of intensive study habits that according to some lead to increased suicide rates among teens.

The other way to get to the top of the heap, apparently, is to chuck nationalized educational standards altogether, and return control of the classrom to where it belongs: the principal, the teachers, and the individual students themselves.

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful (Smithsonian Magazine)
Why Finland’s Schools Are the Best in the West (CBC News)

1 thought on “The Surprising Success of Finland’s Schools

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *