Finnish Education and How It Can Save America

Behind Finland’s Success

The New York Times calls Finland the darling of education (8). For this assertion, The Times is referring to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the math, reading and science skills of 15-year-olds from approximately 70 different countries (the exact number of participating countries varying from year to year). In 2006, Finland secured the highest scores and ranked number one, while the United States did not even make into the top 25 (7). The most recent PISA results show that Finland has slipped slightly in its ranking, but still performs well above the international average and far above the scores of the United States (7). Many American parents and educators have expressed bewilderment over the small nation’s scores, prompting a slew of reports focused on uncovering the methodologies behind Finland’s success.

What is remarkable is that as recently as the mid-1980’s, Finland performed little better than the OECD average level science tests that were then used (6). They realized then that the key to a more efficient and more competitive society was the education of its young people. Finland underwent a radical transformation in their educational policy. They set high expectations for their schools and set up support systems for how these expectations should be met. They encouraged and enabled teachers and school principles to assume responsibility for the learning outcomes of every student (9). Most importantly, they let the schools dictate how to best reach these goals. The list of strict content to be taught was instead replaced with fundamental goals that should be met. Furthermore, they eliminated tracking, helping to replace the mindset that students’ failure was the result of students being un-teachable, and instead placed responsibility on the teachers (9). Grade repetition was also done away with, under the assumption that “more of the same” would not fix the issue. Finland instead hired better-educated teachers—a Finnish school-teacher is required to hold at least a Masters Degree (4).

Essentially, Finland raised their educational expectations, empowered the principals and teachers to reach those goals as they deemed necessary, and treated the position of a teacher as one of authority and respect. Even more remarkable than Finland’s educational reform is the fact the United States is really not that far away from achieving the same level of education. An analyst in Waiting For Superman, a 2010 documentary showcasing the reality of American public education, made this radical assessment: “If we could take the bottom 6% to 10% of the bottom teachers, and just replace them with an average teacher, we could bring the average U.S. student up to the level of Finland.” From his calculations, simply eliminating just over 5% of the bottom-of-the-barrel teachers could bump the whole of America to scoring at the top of international tests. Unfortunately the American system is bogged by an innavigable web of bureaucracy. Tenure and teachers’ unions stand in the way of change and progress. The documentary also states the statistic, “by the year 2020, 123 million American jobs will be high skill and high pay, but only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill them.” If the United States wants to continue being the world’s last remaining Super Power, and remain competitive in the global economy, then we must eliminate the underperforming teachers and reform the educational system, or else watch as the country crumbles to more advanced nations.

Compared to America

The United States has already began looking to Finland for how to revive its own failing educational system. The difference in the systems is a fundamental difference in attitude. Olli Luukkainen, President of Finnland’s most powerful teachers’ union, says that, “Equality is the most important word in Finnish Education” (4). Pasi Salhberg, the director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s center on International Mobility, says that he knows Americans like to talk about statistics and competition, but that “real winners do not compete” (6). This attitude is further reflected by the Kirrkkojarvi Comprehensive School principal Kari Louhivouri, who says, “This is what we do every day—prepare kids for life” (4).

Finland has not always reigned supreme in education. Their county, torn from centuries of battling the Swedish monarchy to the west and the Russian Czar to the east, was battered and broken. Finally, in 1917, the Czar fell to the Bolsheviks and Finland declared its independence. After three more wars, the country was left scarred, bitter, and in an enormous well of debt (4). Finland needed a way out, and so they invested in education. They realized the only way for a prosperous economic future was for its citizens to be educated and able to repair the landscape. They invested in education not out of choice, but out of necessity. It worked. 93% of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, which is 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States. 66% move on to a higher education, which is the highest rate in all of Europe. What’s even more is that Finland does this all with spending 30% less per student than the United States (4).

David Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for Superman, states early on in the documentary how even though he even though he supports and advocates for public education, he notices his own hypocrisy each morning as he drives past three public schools to take his kids to a private school. His actions speak volumes about the American educational system. Every parent always wants the best for his or her child. Affluent parents who are able to move to the nice neighborhoods do so because they are acting in the interest of their own children. They are not thinking about the larger national scale of public education. The question most important to these parents is, “how am I going to give my child the best chance in life?” When acting on an individual basis, it is easy for a broken system to continue to thrive. Sahlberg, the director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s center on International Mobility, said he also noticed that here in America, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applied to say, shops. Schools are a shop where parents can buy whatever they want. In Finland, parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.” A public education in Finland is the only option, and so parents, teachers and the community hold it in high regard.

The teachers are also held in high regard. In 1979, reformers raised teachers’ salaries and required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in Theory and Practice at one of the eight state universities—at the state’s expense (4). From them on, teachers were essentially granted the same standing as doctors or lawyers. Applicants for teaching positions began to inundate the system, not only for the high salary, but also for the prestige. Unfortunately in America, teachers do not have this respect. A comic published by Taylor Mali illustrates this sad truth (12). The comic features two couples out at a fancy dinner. After finding out that Taylor is a teacher, Taylor’s dinner partner asks, “be honest Taylor, what do you make?” Taylor is gritting his teeth and has steam coming from his ears. “You want to know what I make,” he says, “I make kids work harder than they every thought they could. I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them write. I make them read, read, read. I make them spell. I make them show all their work in math and hide it on their final drafts in English. Let me break it down for you,” Taylor tells the other man, “Teachers make a difference.” This comic shows the social portrayal of American public educators; for so much work they receive such little respect. To reform the system, we need to give teachers the salaries and prestige they need to be respected.

One Finnish teacher says that she will teach the same kids for about five years, and thus she knows them on an individual level; she knows their strengths, weaknesses, and personality. “It is a good system,” she says (4). There is also one adult for every seven students, with plenty of teacher’s aids migrating around the classroom, making sure that the students receive the help they need. Finland also places a strong emphasis on play. They have shorter school days, and shorter school years, and yet their international test scores are higher than their competitor’s.

Can Finnish Methods Apply In America?

Some Americans argue that looking at the Finnish educational system is irrelevant for benefitting the United States. After all, Finland, with its population of only 5.4 million people is not on the same size scale as the United States, which has a population of over 300 million (10). They further argue that homogeneous Finland cannot compare to the “salad-bowl” of U.S ethnicities. However, it is wrong to dismiss the Finnish methods from these points. Finland’s neighboring nation, Norway, is of a similar size but utilizes a more American-based educational system (4). They frequently give their students standardize tests and employ teachers without master’s degrees. Like America, their PISA scores have stagnated in the middle ranges for almost a decade (4). Thus, the size of a country is irrelevant. More important are the educational practices employed.

Furthermore, while Finland is a fairly homogenized nation, their number of foreign-born residents has doubled since 2000. Immigrants tend also to live concentrate in particular areas, meaning that some schools were very ethnically and nationally mixed. Yet these schools, and all of Finland, continued to test highly (6). Stahlberg has also written a book about the Finnish education system, entitled, Finnish Lessons: What can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? He writes that America now, and Finland in the past, have more in common than people may realize. Finland began its educational reform in the 1970’s, out of dire need to be internationally competitive. Now, in the United States, manufacturing industries are down (6). As previously mentioned, by the year 2020, 123 million American jobs will be high skill, high pay, and only 50million Americans will be qualified to fill them, leaving 73 million jobs unaccounted for and needing to be outsourced (11). Politicians everywhere, as high up as President Obama (2), are stressing the need to stay internationally competitive. And so, Finland and the United States are not so different after all.

There are already early-childhood schools in America that employ some of the Finnish methods, under the Reggio Emilia philosophy. These schools put the children’s needs first, and tailor the curriculum to the children’s interest. Like the Finns, they also recognize the importance of play, and the importance of communication and collaboration among the teachers. The children in these schools eventually test extraordinarily well, and the waiting lists for these schools are often very long (5). It is clear that the American people are thirsty for better schools. It is clear that America needs better schools to keep from collapsing in the international market. And it is clear that we have educational models that have already proved to be successful—abroad and domestically. If America wishes to remain successful, it needs to look at previous success stories and take note. If America continues with its current educational track, the nation will surely fall (11).


(1) Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). Teacher education and the American future. Journal of Teacher Education61(1-2), 35-47.

(2) Duncan, A., Barnes, M. (2011, October 11) We Can’t Wait to Help American’s Graduates. The White House. Retrieved February 19, 2014 from

(3) Hammond, L. D. (2010, October/November). What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform. National Education Association. Retrieved February 19, 2014 from

(4) Hancock, L. (2011, September). Educating Americans for the 21st Century: Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful? Smithsonian.

(5) North American Reggio Emilia Alliance. Retrieved February 19, 2014 from

(6) Partanen, A. (2011, December 29). What American’s Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. The Atlantic.

(7) PISA 2012 Results. OECD Better Policies for Better Lives. Retrieved February 19, 2014 from

(8) Rich, M. (2013, December 3). American 15-Year-Olds Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests. The New York Times.

(9) Schleicher, A. (2006). The economics of knowledge: Why education is key for Europe’s success.

(10) U.S. and World Population Clock. United States Census Bureau. Retrieved February 19, 2014 from

(11) Waiting For Superman. Dir. David Guggenheim. 2010. DVD.

(12) Mali, Taylor. “What Teachers Make.” What Learning Leaves. Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002. Print. (ISBN: 1-­‐887012-­‐17-­‐6)


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