What’s With All the Praise for Finland’s Schools?

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

After Norway and Iceland, Finland is the third most sparsely populated country in Europe. For years, it hung uncomfortably close to the Soviet Union; in fact, a former foreign minister listed Finland’s three top foreign threats as “Russia, Russia, and Russia.”

It has more saunas — and heavy metal bands — per capita than any other country in the world, and the average Finn drinks one liter of milk per day. It also happens to be home to one of the world’s best education systems.


What’s With All the Praise for Finland’s Schools?


Things Weren’t Always Rosy

Until the late 1960s, most Finnish children only attended school for six years. The wealthiest children went on to private schools, but most received no further education.

By the 1970s, Finland lagged behind in educational achievement. As a country with few natural resources, its prospects for improving its economy seemed limited. In 1971, a Finnish task force concluded that the country was in crisis and had to move aggressively to modernize its economy. The Finns started by reforming their education system, but not by rolling out standardized tests and offering school choice programs. They started by addressing teacher quality.

Finland moved graduate teaching programs away from teacher’s colleges and into its universities, requiring teachers to complete a more demanding curriculum. By 1979, Finland’s basic and high school teachers had to complete a master’s degree or risk losing their jobs. Today, only one in 10 teachers who applies to a master's-level education program gains admission and goes on to pursue a teaching degree. While they’re teaching, many Finnish teachers complete the U.S.-equivalent of doctoral studies in education, which are geared toward rigorous research and improving the way subjects are taught. Teacher pay matches the country’s median wage upon graduation, but by the time a teacher retires, their pay is an average of 102 percent higher than when they started.

In Finland, students aren’t held back when they don’t meet grade-level standards. Instead, they receive intensive tutoring. Also, every Finnish student receives meals, counseling, and health and dental services without having to meet income requirements. In high school, students complete a rigorous curriculum consisting of biology, physics, chemistry, philosophy, foreign languages, and music. Overall, Finland spends 30 percent less per pupil than the U.S. does, even though nearly one-third receive special services.


Making School a Joy

In Finland, compulsory education doesn’t start until age 7. Students can attend preschool at no cost starting at age 5, but preschool emphasizes play and social skills over academics. When they start attending school, they have shorter school days that American students and much longer recess periods. The state subsidizes parents who have children, paying them 150 euros per month per child to help with living expenses, plus providing meals and taxi services to get kids to and from school.


What’s With All the Praise for Finland’s Schools?


When asked to pick a single word that describes Finnish education, teachers say “equality.” Schools in urban centers and rural towns meet similar measurements of quality. Students aren’t pulled out into special education programs; in fact, Finland has a goal of mainstreaming 100 percent of its students. The country’s national goals for mathematics aren’t book-length; they’re just 10 pages long. Teachers follow a national curriculum in broad strokes, but they have substantial academic freedom.


Going on to Great Things

Finland boasts a 93 percent high school graduation rate, nearly 18 percentage points higher than the United States. Additionally, two-thirds of its students then go on to higher education, which is the highest percentage of any country in the European Union. Finland’s high school students post excellent science test scores, and it’s easy to understand why. Science classes are limited to 16 students, and students are expected to perform lab work every day.

Instead of the lagging economy of the 1970s, Finland has produced powerhouse high-tech companies like Nokia, Orion (pharmaceuticals and medical diagnostics), Vaisala (meteorological measurement), and Polar (heart-rate monitors).
Many of these companies have research centers in the capitol city of Helsinki next to centers for SAP, IBM, and Ericsson. Forty-three percent of Finnish students attend vocational high schools, which prepare them for jobs in offices, hospitals, construction sites, and restaurants.


What’s With All the Praise for Finland’s Schools?


An Example to Follow

Although increasing diversity has created challenges for some urban Finnish schools, the country has maintained consistent high achievement compared to the United States. Better social programs, higher standards for teachers, and less standardization have done more than just reform Finnish education - they’ve transformed the country’s entire economy.





Finnish child sledding image by Miika Silfverberg from Flickr Creative Commons