Finland has an education system with its priorities in the right places and the results to match. It’s time for our leadership to take a look over there and say, “Yes! I’ll have what they’re having.”

Linda Darling-Hammond’s indispensable new book The Flat World and Education profiles three countries-Finland, Korea, and Singapore— that had struggling education systems in the 1970s but have aggressively revamped them into superior national systems. I plan to blog more on Darling-Hammond’s opus, but for now, I want to focus on Finland.







Finland has much to teach us, if only we pay attention. They didn’t arrive at an equitable, world-class system through our current measures of privatization or accountability via high-stakes testing. The Education System of Finland’s website spells out its mission in a way that starkly differs from ours. (In fact, I couldn’t find any corresponding mission statement on the U.S. Department of Education site— only endless links and a blog.)

Here are a few highlights from Finland:

Competent teachers On all school levels, teachers are highly qualified and committed. Master’s degree is a requirement, and teacher education includes teaching practice. Teaching profession is very popular in Finland, and hence universities can select the most motivated and talented applicants. Teachers work independently and enjoy full autonomy in the classroom. 

This is the ace. What isn’t even mentioned is that all teacher training and degrees are fully paid for by the government, making teaching a competitive and attractive profession. Endless research points to quality teachers in every classroom as the most crucial helper for students; Finland actually invests in making that happen. In the U.S.’s fragmented system, so many teachers enter the classroom with minimal training, heavy student load debt, and a sink-or-swim attitude from their school leaders. Naturally, many would-be competent teachers decide not to even bother. Finland doesn’t have a teacher turnover crisis; quite the contrary, they have a well-trained, highly talented corps of teachers. This is excellence— although I can already anticipate loud, insipid criticism from the American right about government-supported teacher training as a recipe for socialist indoctrination. We need to get over ourselves and realize that investing in teacher training is not optional for developing a sustainable, robust school system. We don’t have that now and it’s killing us.

Encouraging assessment and evaluation The student assessment and evaluation of education and learning outcomes are encouraging and supportive by nature. The aim is to produce information that supports both schools and students to develop. National testing, school ranking lists and inspection systems do not exist.

The last line is clearly a knock at the U.S.’s ideological march toward high-stakes testing as the sole relevant indicator of student and school achievement. We need to shake off the addiction to corporate-assembled tests for our students, and pay attention to implementing rigorous assessments that support, not deaden, kids’ interest in education.

Significance of education in society Finnish society strongly favours education and the population is highly educated by international standards. Education is appreciated and there is a broad political consensus on education policy. 

Darling-Hammond mentions an American tradition of under-investing in preparation. President Obama has committed unprecedented billions to education in his Race to the Top program, but the money is tied to the reforms du jour of tying teacher evaluations to test scores and green-lighting more charter schools. In effect, we’ll get more testing (and practice testing) and more privatization. So much high-stakes testing sucks the soul out of education and charter schools are interesting innovations at the fringes of the system. We cannot privatize our way to a world-class education system that serves all American students. We need a dramatic, bipartisan re-commitment to education. Finland did this, and we can see where it got them— number-one status.





My long-distance love affair with Finland continues: it is ranked by Forbes as the second-happiest country in the world. (Side note: it has a single-payer public health care system and 88% of its citizens are satisfied with it. The EU national average for health care satisfaction is 41%.)

Perhaps the U.S./Finland contrast is best elucidated by Finnish policy analyst Pasi Sahlberg, who is cited in depth by Darling-Hammond:

The [No Child Left Behind] legislation… has led to fragmentation in instruction, further interventions uncoordinated with the basic classroom teaching, and more poorly-trained tutors working with students and teachers. As a consequence, schools have experienced too many instructional directions for any student, with an increase in unethical behaviors and a loss of continuity in instruction and systematic school improvement. The difference between this and the Finnish approach is notable: The Finns have worked systematically over 35 years to make sure that competent professionals who can craft the best learning conditions for all students are in all schools, rather than thinking that standardized instruction and related testing can be brought in at the last minute to improve student learning and turn around failing schools.

Much of Darling-Hammond’s examination of Finland can be found here in a 2009 article for Voices in Urban Education, but I recommend getting the book. We’d be fools to ignore what really works on a national level.

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