We returned from Finland on Saturday, so here are my initial overall impressions, focused mostly on the implications for K–12 education. To begin, let me acknowledge that one can’t draw firm conclusions about cause and effect after a short visit. Spending a week in a far-off country means you return knowing a lot more than you knew, and a lot more than most people know back home. You’re also armed with various illustrative anecdotes and quotations that are useful to bolster arguments. But I would never claim total knowledge of the American education system, and I live there, spent 19 years in school there, get paid to write and think about it full-time, etc. So my factual assertions will be limited to the obvious (e.g. it’s very dark in winter), first-hand observations, and expert sources. When I say, for example, that “Finns are a punctual people,” that’s based on both experience (e.g. the senior ministry of education official who arrived at an 11:00 AM meeting at precisely 11:00 AM and said “I’m sorry for almost being late.”) and official documents (it’s a direct quote from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official “Guide to Finnish Customs and Manners.”)
I’ll start by sketching out what Finland is like and how the education system works in broad strokes. It’s a remote and sparsely populated nation. There are slightly fewer than 5.5 million people living in a land area about 80 percent the size of California, mostly near the southern coast. The population is racially and religiously homogenous—98 percent are native Finns and 82 percent are Lutheran. For almost 600 years, Finland was under the dominion of Sweden, which is why Swedish is still the second national language and all students are required to learn it in school, despite the fact that the Swedish language minority comprises only five percent of the population. The country’s small immigrant population is growing, notably with Russians, Estonians, and Somalis. Finland has very liberal international trade policies, which is more or less a prerequisite for prosperity when you’re a long way from everything and your only natural resource is wood. Labor markets, by contrast, are highly regulated, with roughly 70 percent of workers belonging to trade unions, including teachers. The biggest company is Nokia, the cell phone giant.
The Finnish sensibility is an interesting mix of individualism and cultural solidarity. On the one hand, they’re very invested in the idea of equality and seem quite comfortable with the high-tax, high-service Nordic welfare state. Because Finland is geographically and linguistically remote—Finnish is a difficult language understood by few non-Finns—they seem to understand the need to stick together. But that mutual support is a means of giving people space to live their lives in an individual, self-directed way. Our hosts at the Finnish embassy in America said that they were far more involved with their neighbors and local community in the U.S. than back home. Finns tend to be taciturn; the chairperson of the Education Committee in Parliament compared Finns to the allegedly indecisive, endlessly voluble Swedes by telling us that “In Finland, we talk a little while, make a decision, and get to work.”
It’s important to understand what Finland’s PISA test score distribution looks like beyond the world-beating average. Performance in the top 10 percent of Finnish schools is almost exactly the same as the average among the top 10 percent of all OECD schools. Performance in the bottom 10 percent of Finnish schools, by contrast, is better than the median score for the OECD. In Finland, the Lake Wobegon effect is essentially real—it appears to have few if any low-performing schools. And this is perfectly congruent with the aims of its larger social and economic policies–few people get very rich, but no one is truly poor.
Finnish children don’t start 1st grade until they’re seven years old. But most are engaged with state-supported early childhood services from an early age. Parental leave policies are (as Dana Goldstein explains) very generous, and once parents return to work they have the choice of a receiving a child care subsidy or enrolling their children in municipal day care (the most popular option; we visited three such facilities during the week.) They’re not in a big hurry to teach reading, focusing more on play and socialization, but it would be inaccurate to describe Finnish day care as non-educational. Half-day “preschool” begins at age six.
All children attend basic primary schools through the ninth grade, when most Finns are 15 years old. All schools follow a single national core curriculum that spells out what subjects must be taught at each grade level, the content to be covered, and the minimum number of hours of instruction. (This includes religious instruction or philosophy for those who opt out.) There are no formal national tests administered to all students a la NCLB. Nor is there a British-style inspectorate system. However, as fellow junketeer Matt Yglesias notes, this doesn’t mean that there’s no governmental assessment or oversight. National education officials used sample-based assessments to gauge progress, and local municipalities also administer tests as a means of managing their schools. It just happens in a more low-key, non-public way.
Grade retention is virtually unheard of in Finland, homework is generally light, and after-school tutoring is rare. As I wrote earlier, Finns spend significantly less time on education than most countries, particularly the other high-performing nations. While ability grouping is officially disallowed, the principal in the primary school we visited said they try to give more instruction to high-end students in subject like math. While there are no charter schools or vouchers per se, some parents have options among public schools, particularly in Helsinki where population density makes travel to multiple schools feasible. One principal in a school we visited spoke of the school’s music and foreign language programs as being key to attracting students. But since standards, funding levels, and teachers in public schools are generally uniform and evenly distributed, and (per above) school-to-school performance variation is unusually low, there seems to be less impetus to create policies designed to engender market competition.
After ninth grade, the system splits in two. Some students apply to and attend “upper secondary” schools, where they study for three (or sometimes four) years and take college prep-type classes. These students are given a lot of latitude to decide what classes to take (see previous re: independence), and the courses mix students from different age cohorts. Upper secondary students are required to take high-stakes, subject-specific “matriculation exams,” the rough equivalent of “A-levels” in the U.K. The results help determine whether students get into the university of their choice—or any university at all. School-level results are publicized by the Finnish media, to the consternation of education officials.
The rest of the students attend three-year vocational high schools, where they receive further education while training for careers. Admission can also be competitive; the vocational school we visited turns away many applicants for it hairdressing program every year. (Hair seems important; one student noted that “Finnish hair is fine and thin, so if your hairdresser makes a mistake the whole village will know.”) In one class students were practicing on mannequins while another taught them how to calculate profit margins and otherwise run the financial side of the business. Most Finnish hairdressers are sole proprietors who belong to the hairdressers union. (For those who think welfare states are totally incompatible with capitalism and entrepreneurialism, let me direct you to words such as “profit margins” and “sole proprietors” in the previous sentence.”)
The Finnish higher education system has a similar dual structure. There are 20 universities, research institutions built in the classic German mold, and 28 polytechnic institutions where students study subjects like engineering, business and nursing. (“Vocational education” generally has a much broader meaning in Finland than America.) While students can theoretically cross back and forth between the dual tracks, most don’t, with the upper secondary schools providing the large majority of undergraduates in both universities and polytechnics. Men are required to spend a year in military service, and it’s normal for Finnish students to knock around for a while and not start college until their early or even mid-20s. College tuition is universally free and students also receive a small living stipend while they study.
When asked to reveal the secrets of their PISA success, Finns generally cite two things: egalitarian policies and the quality of the teaching workforce. Finnish teachers are required to get a master’s degree from a university in order to get a full-time job. Admission to the programs is extremely competitive, with 10 – 12 percent admission rates overall and a 7 percent rate for the primary teacher education program at the flagship University of Helsinki. A faculty member there told us that applicants came from the top half of the upper secondary pool, which is itself already selective. Teacher applicants sit for a single national exam, with the top scorers moving on to a second screening process based on interviews and in some cases structured teaching observations.
Once they hit the classroom, teachers’ salaries are fairly modest, roughly equal those in America. Tenure isn’t as automatic as in the states, but all teachers are unionized and enjoy substantial job security. While base salaries are determined by a uniform national schedule, teachers can get paid more to teach in the frozen north or on small islands in the eastern archipelago. Locally-funded performance pay is also an option—in the Helsinki upper secondary school we visited, the municipal government sent the entire faculty on a vacation to Rome as reward for meeting pre-defined (and partially test-based) performance goals. The national student / teacher ratio is slightly below the OECD average, but classes can sometimes be quite large. Teachers are said to enjoy a great deal of autonomy in the classroom—as long as they stick to the national curriculum. “Teachers are told what to teach,” one Board of Education official told us, “but not how.”
Teaching as an extremely competitive and prestigious profession is obviously quite a contrast to the state of things in the United States. Over the course of the week, we asked almost everyone we spoke with—teachers, principals, ministry officials, politicians—why Finns were so eager to get into teaching. Some cited the satisfactions of professional autonomy. But most came around to some variation of “it’s just always been that way.” Interestingly, while everyone had clearly thought about this a lot, their historical explanations varied substantially. The consolidated Finnish creation myth of teacher prestige goes something like this:
For many hundreds of years, Finland was a province of neighboring greater powers, first Sweden, then Russia. In the mid-19th century, a new sense of national identity began to emerge, expressed by poets, painters and composers (e.g. Sibelius). At that time, Finland was a very rural society. In every village, there were two important people: the priest and the teacher. Literacy was valued, in part because of Lutheran tradition. So teachers helped Finns become Finns. In the early 20th century the progressive labor movement put a strong emphasis on education and training. Meanwhile, the agrarian movement (now represented by the Centre party in Parliament) put a strong emphasis on the civilization of the rural population. Pro-Christian groups also valued civic education. Many teachers were called to serve as non-commissioned officers in the 1939 Winter War with Russia, a source of national pride. In general, Finnish people understand the vital importance of education to national prosperity and survival, and thus appreciate the role teachers play.
All of which may be true, although as Matt pointed out at one point, many similar things could be said of other European countries where the best and the brightest aren’t clamoring to get into the classroom today.
What, then, to conclude about Finland? Despite my recent admonitions, I’m sure that Finnish PISA scores will continue to be deployed as easy evidence in support of various policy agendas. So here are the winners and losers in the “Inappropriately De-contextualized Finnish Education Policy Olympics”:
Mandatory university-based teacher education
Government-sponsored child care and early childhood education
High entry standards into teaching
Expanded school time
Class size reduction
Strict regulatory and inspectorate-based accountability systems
Increased teacher salaries
Of course, it makes zero sense to look at things this way. Which is not to say that we have nothing to learn from Finland or other countries; Americans spend too little time considering lessons from abroad. But we have to think about the totality of systems and societies. With that in mind, here’s my best guess—and it’s a hypothesis, nothing more—about why Finland is so successful and what that means.
In a nutshell, Finland suggests that an egalitarian culture and social policies to match not only make education more effective, they make it less complicated. Or to put it another way: if you know you can trust people, it eliminates the need to do a lot other things.
If you can convince your best students to try and become teachers, for example—even though only 10 percent will be accepted and they’ll have to spend five years getting a master’s degree—you reap a lot of benefits. Teacher training can be rigorous because the students are smart enough to handle it. Teachers can manage larger classes and work autonomously to achieve common curricular goals. Maybe you don’t need to pay them more than a middle class wage (although this is complicated by Finland’s very different labor market and compressed range of salaries throughout the economy relative to the American labor free-for-all.) The fact that bad teachers are hard to fire is only a minor annoyance, because there just aren’t many bad teachers.
If you provide decent social services and support families with children throughout their lives, then students come to school with fewer behavioral problems, more ready to learn. The high school students we saw were just like ours in many ways—energetic, curious, easily distractable, strangely dressed. But there was an underlying calm to it all that American schools seem to lack. There were no hall monitors, no security guards, and the school administrators reported spending very little time on discipline. The school—and society at large—trusted the students, and the students responded.
All of this makes the primary and secondary schools in Finland good places to work, which makes good people want to work there, which makes them good places to work, and so on. The Finnish combination of social and education policy clearly has many virtues and it’s no wonder that many people want to learn from their example. The whole Broader / Bolder agenda essentially boils down to, “If we were Finland, we wouldn’t need education reform.”
Which may very well be true. But we’re not Finland, we haven’t been, and we won’t be anytime soon. What, then, should we do?
We could start by getting closer. People sometimes dismiss the possibility of learning from Nordic countries out of hand due to their small size and high level of homogeneity. But I don’t really buy that. Finland has a lot of empty space, climactic extremes, little arable land or mineral wealth. Nearly everyone is white and the population is dominated by one religion, with most inhabitants living in or near the capital city. But all of those things are also true of Utah; the only difference is that Finland has twice as many people. And the American states that come closest to Finland-level education performance aren’t like Utah. They appear to be Massachusetts and Minnesota, both of which have long traditions of liberal policy and only one of which has an obvious Scandinavian cultural tradition. Massachusetts in particular has people from all sorts of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Moreover, there’s no inherent contradiction between prosperity and things like generous parental leave, subsidized child care, universal health care and equitable school funding systems. The United States has the 6th highest GDP per capita in the world, while Finland is 20th—but with a lot less poverty. It’s not that we can’t be more like Finland, it’s that many of us just don’t seem to want to.
That said, Americans have distinct national values that differ from other parts of the world, and distinct realities to confront. Our individualism is more rugged, for one. We’re huge and diverse, open to immigration, and changing all the time. Our federal system of government limits the scope of national policies. We don’t have the Finnish historical tradition of valuing teachers, wherever it might have come from.
This creates vexing problems of timing and sequence. We didn’t do what was needed to create good schools for everyone. But we can’t turn back the clock or make ourselves what we’re not. There’s a fair critique of the contemporary education reform movement that likens it to an escalating series of pharmaceutical interventions—you give someone a drug to solve a problem, and it works to some extent but also creates side effects that require more drugs, and so on with a need for constant monitoring and fine-tuning and escalating complication, all at great expense, when all the while the patient would have been much better off they’d never been sick in the first place. But a lot of our schools are sick, right now. Finland trusts local schools to do a good job (while monitoring performance in a relatively non-intense way), and they respond. Sadly, a lot of American students are educated in municipalities (I live in one) that have historically proven to be untrustworthy.
So, I think we need to move full speed ahead with policies aimed at identifying the lowest performing schools and improving them by whatever means necessary, including shutting them down and educating their students elsewhere, along with creating more public school choices for parents. There’s little to learn from Finland here, due to the absence of really terrible Finnish schools.
Finland suggests that you can have national standards without somehow stamping all the individuality out of K–12 education. National standards are seen by many as a political non-starter in the United States, due to the clichéd (but broadly true) observation that conservatives don’t like the “national” part and liberals don’t like “standards.” But that’s mostly a political problem. There’s really no strong empirical or policy justification for having, say, 51 different sets of standards for 4th grade math, assigned to students based on their residence in political subdivisions that were created via semi-arbitrary historic processes involving essentially non-educational events (i.e. wars, purchase from foreign countries, etc.) People speak from time to time about states as the laboratories of democracy etc. in this area, but that strikes me as mostly nonsensical and really just a way of constructing an after-the-fact policy argument to justify not spending time working on a politically difficult issue.
I’m not ready to endorse the Finnish dual-track secondary / post-secondary system. It has advantages, particularly in the (relative) non-marginalization of students who attend vocational schools and the whole idea of career-focused education. But while the official Finnish education org chart has lots of horizontal lines going back and forth between the tracks, officials there acknowledge that few students actually move from vocational education to university degrees. Putting people in their place so early in life seems, well, un-American.
Finally, it really does all seem to come back to teachers. There’s a huge push underway in the K–12 policy world right now to improve the quality of the teaching workforce. But whenever someone suggests doing this by raising some bar or another—e.g. program entry standards, rigor of training programs, certification requirements, on-the-job performance and tenure standards, etc.—the response is always something along the lines of “Where are you going to find all of these new people who want to be teachers? We barely have enough now.” Teach for America has already disproved this in principle, at least to an extent. Twenty years ago, graduates of elite colleges weren’t clamoring to enter the teaching profession as it was then defined. Then Wendy Kopp came along and defined it differently, appealing to people’s sense of service and adding the crucial element of selectivity—and thus, prestige. Teaching in Finland is not a high-prestige profession that anyone can enter. Indeed, there’s probably no such thing.
We don’t have Sibelius or a compressed wage distribution or a tradition of teacher prestige in America, so we’re probably not going to get to a 10 percent program acceptance rate—or the Gladwell / Kane model of letting four candidates give teaching a shot for every one we give a permanent job—anytime soon. But I think we can do a whole lot better than we are. And if we did that—along with common standards and social policies that support families—we could start to break out of the cycle of low performance and increased pressure and political backlash that we’re currently in, and move toward a world where education is more trust-driven, less complicated, and more effective all around.