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The Finnish miracle

No shoes but plenty of service: The surprising features of the world's top-performing schools.

By Hank Pellissier

Can you name a famous person in Finland? Historical episode? Imposing landmark? Foodstuff? It’s not that Finland doesn’t have its share of Olympic athletes, brilliant architects, and technology moguls, but "Nokia" is all most people can mutter when asked about this small northern nation.

Unless you're a teacher. Then the word "Finland" fills you with awe. Because everyone in the schooling profession knows that Finland is the international all-star of education.

In 2006 the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted a survey of 15-year-olds' academic skills from 57 nations. Finland placed first in science by a whopping 5% margin, second in math (edged out by one point by Chinese Taipei), and third in reading (topped by South Korea).

Comparisons that involve so many variables are ... difficult. Some might say impossible. Still, just a glance at PISA's scores year after year prompts the question: How does Finland churn out so many avid learners?

"No sweat," except in the saunas

At first glance, the Finnish educational system looks like it would only produce hippie slackers. Check out the casual amenities: Schools often have lounges with fireplaces but no tardy bells. Finnish students don't wear uniforms, nor do they often wear shoes. (Since Finns go barefoot inside the home, and schools aspire to offer students a nurturing, homey environment, the no-shoe rule has some pedagogical logic.) And although academic standards are high, there’s not the grind one associates with high-performance schooling. Never burdened with more than half an hour of homework per night, Finnish kids attend school fewer days than 85% of other developed nations (though still more than Americans), and those school days are typically short by international standards.

Finnish teachers enjoy an equally laid-back arrangement. They work an average of 570 hours a year, nearly half the U.S. total of 1,100 hours. They also dress casually and are usually called by their first names (Aino, Helmi, Viivi, Eetu, etc.).

Is the secret massive financial investment? No. Finland spends only $7,500 per student, considerably less than the United States' average $8,700.

So how does Finland produce the world's best young scholars via minimal hours and cash? Since PISA began ranking nations and revealing Finland’s special sauce, plane-loads of inquisitive teachers from every corner of the globe have been making pilgrimages to this educational mecca. Here’s a taste of what they've observed:

More cred than doctors

The level of respect accorded to Finnish teachers tends to grab attention, especially in America where teaching is viewed as a "fallback" profession occupied primarily by the lower third of college graduates. That equation is flipped in Finland, where teachers boast the highest vocational status (followed by physicians.) A full 25% of Finnish youngsters select teaching as their career goal, but only a fraction succeed. Only 10% to 13% of applicants gain acceptance into the masters' degree in education program.

After all this hard work, the rewards are generous, but not necessarily financially so. Teachers earn a generous $45 to $50 per hour for elementary school, $75 to $80 for secondary school. Yet some far lower-performing nations such as Spain and Germany pay teachers more. Instead, Finnish teachers enjoy immense independence. Allowed to design their own lesson plans and choose their own textbooks (following loose national guidelines), Finnish teachers regard their work as creative and self-expressive.

Free preschool, free college

Finnish toddlers have access to free preschools supervised by certified college graduates. Ah, you wonder — are the little innocents getting a jump-start there, reading and writing all day? Wrong! Truth is, Finland's preschools offer no academics but plenty of focus on social skills, emotional awareness, and learning to play. Remarkably, Finnish children don't approach reading until age seven (Waldorf nation?). They learn other concepts first, primarily self-reliance. One American observer noted that first-graders were expected to walk unescorted through the woods to school and lace up their own ice skates.

Twenty colleges exist in Finland, and they're all free. Imagine the financial relaxation this provides for both parents and children. Universities are not widely stratified either; the disparity between the "best" and "worst" is not terribly large.

Curbing the dog-eat-dog competition

Americans give lip service to the notion that "all men are created equal,” but our appetite for competition creates an intense focus on ranking low and high performers — whether they're schools or students.

Finland downplays educational competition in a number of ways. Schools aren't ranked against each other, and teachers aren't threatened with formal reviews. At many schools, teachers don’t grade students until the fifth grade, and they aren’t forced to organize curriculum around standardized testing. Gifted students aren’t tracked into special programs, invited into honor societies, or chosen to be valedictorians. Instead, struggling students receive free extra tutoring. After ninth grade, students attend either an academic program (53%) or vocational one (47%) — this flexibility results in a 96% graduation rate, dwarfing the United States' measly 75%. Finally, since there are no private schools to speak of, there’s no sense that the best students are being skimmed off the top.

Overall, such attitudes go hand in hand with Finland’s socialist-style egalitarian society, which focuses on meting out fees and services according to need rather than merit. Even parking ticket penalties are determined according to income: A wealthy sausage factory heir was fined $204,000 for going 50 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone!

Additional differences

Finnish schools lack some of the extracurriculars — such as sports teams or musical bands — considered so essential to U.S. high schools. But free lunches are available to all students. “School choice” doesn’t exist; everyone goes to the neighborhood school. Students learn at least three languages: Finnish, Swedish, and English. Finally, Finland is a culture of readers, with a great library system and book mobiles reaching even remote locations.

Although the Finnish system seems antithetical to South Korea's (the Asian nation placed second in the 2007 PISA surveys), the two small countries share much in common. Both cultures hold teachers in the highest esteem. Both achieved independence relatively recently — Finland in 1917, South Korea 1946 — and both are resource-poor nations that decided education was the path out of poverty. Finnish and Korean languages are easy to read and spell; they don't have the illogical phonetics of English.

Comparing lingonberries to hamburgers

Is it fair to compare the small, homogenous northern nation to our roiling melting pot of diversity? Many experts say no. After all, given our higher immigration rate and wider socioeconomic stratification, our schools tend to become social experiments not simply for learning but also for many other social functions schools aren’t designed to handle.

Still, should these challenges prevent us from learning what we can from Finland's schools?  If nothing else, it's worth noting the central importance of inspired, highly educated teachers and what keeps the United States from doing the same.

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.

Comments from readers

"Portions of the Finnish system can work here. Across the board, no way. Our lack of family values is the most obvious reason we can't be as successful. In Findland teachers are respected, well educated and allowed to create their instruction. We are governed by national, state standards and local curriculums. If you tested the top 100 schools here and in Finland you'd see little difference in scores. That tells us that students coming from environments with community commitment can succeed. I think it would be nieve to think we could do what they have done when you consider the complexity of our country. Multiple languages, economics, and social inequality contribute to widespread test scores. Being a homogeneos country really helps their success. Most of the highest PISA scores come from countries that are smaller with a population that is not diverse. The Finnish model of creativity and lack of testing could actually fail if implemented here. We should take the time to wor! k toward this type of instruction as a test model. Obviously there are some parts that have been discussed that could be implemented right away. Interesting article. "
"Has there been any comprehensive study comparing family life in the US to those of European nations such as Finland? I would suggest that the breakdown of the family in the US is a large part of the education system problem. The systematic breakdown of the traditional family is as fault for failing education and performance in the US. Also, the loosening of Christian moral standards and compass is related. Materialism and greed has infiltrated every aspect of American society. "
"Homogeneous vs. melting pot? The languages of Finland ARE NOT as homogeneous as those we have in US. In US we mainly (97%) speak Germanic European English and Latin European Spanish. In Finland, 98% speak Germanic European Swedish and Uralic Finnish. The Swedish and Finnish languages are not related to any degree. And Finland has almost as high percentage "other" languages. However, Finland IS homogeneous in one respect: The invading Swedes decided to abolish poverty and illiteracy for the 2-3% "other" languages. One could argue that we haven't even done that for our two primary languages. "
"This is all well and quite good but what other than good PISA test scores is the Finnish educational system doing? We should not act as if high test scores on a standardized test are in and of themselves any real accomplishment. I'm all for Finland but what are their well educated and learned young people doing? ( I admit I'm impressed by the underground city under Helsinki where heat is reclaimed and used again) Has Finland lately produced a new vaccine against a world disease? How should we measure a country's contributions to the world? Did Finland invent the Internet - arguably the greatest invention in the sphere of human communication? It's very short-sighted and in every way to celebrate any country's test scores - test scores are just that and real accomplishments that move forward the frontier of human knowledge and progress are something else again."
"Posted on 05/24/2010 'This is an absurd comparison. Finland's population is largely homogeneus and the US population is diverse. Teachers here have more challenges than if they taught students just like themselves.' I totally disagree with you. My 9 year old attends the EKL program in Kortepohja, Jyväskylä, which goes from 1st grade to 6th grade. Her classmates are from France, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Africa, Australia, and Finnish kids born overseas. Her teachers are all native Finns. So, how do her teachers manage to pull off the same 'miracle' considering that they are teaching such a diverse group of children? The answer is simple. The teaching methods used in Finland will work on any group, whether homogeneous or diverse. And someone else commented on socialism vs. freedom. Finnish teachers have the freedom to make learning fun, while American teachers have their hands tied because of bureaucracy. I don't think the critics can really understand how/why Finnish education is so superior unless they were to experience putting their own kids through the American school system, and then being able to put one of their kids through the Finnish system. That's my unique experience and I couldn't be happier for making the decision to move to Finland 5 years ago."
"Dear GreatSchools team and Mr. Pelissier, Best article I have read so far on famous Finnish school system, repeatedly mentioned in Brazil also. Lots to learn, though, as in US, potentially difficult to apply in entirety. Nevertheless, until now I have not found what are exact components of Finnish school-curriculum from K-12 and exact school hours. Where I live, there is a great question mark as to have day-long schools vs. half-day schools, which are currently the norm in Brazil. Is there any way your team could answer these 2 questions? Sincerily, Daniel de Godoy Lopes Administrative Specialist in Brazilian Public Service and concerned father."
"I am so proud to be half Finnish and my mother will be pleased when I tell her. I have always known that Finland excells in many things and they are famous for quite a few things"
"That's all fine and well if you want to live in a socialist society. As a home school mom and member of HSLDA I see deeper into their working systems than this article goes into. Freedom comes with a price. If you don't want to pay that price, then move."
"I think the one factor that everyone leaves out is sports in schools. In Finland sports are extra curricular and education is left to the schools. When the time and cost of sports, cost of equipment, cost of sports facilities, cost of equipment and facility maintenance, and cost of sports personal is deducted, then America spends far less on education per student. This is the real difference in comparing the US education system to any other country. Now we all know that you can put the best and brightest American students up against any other country. Even our failing schools still have some of the brightest students. But these studies and comparisons are apples to oranges and usually are themselves produced to garner money or sway political power. "
"'Finnish teachers enjoy immense independence. Allowed to design their own lesson plans and choose their own textbooks' That pretty much sums up why their teachers are held in high regard and have great results compared to us: USA teachers aren't respected because so many truly are just taking the job as the last result of the incompetent. The, if they really are any good, they must rely on politically driven garbage texts, and are stuck with lesson plans created by Educational 'doctorate' mythology. My own child quit teaching (high school math) after just one year because of the brain-deadening array of political correctness, professional wanna-be administration, and required promotion of all student regardless of subject mastery."
"This is an absurd comparison. Finland's population is largely homogeneus and the US population is diverse. Teachers here have more challenges than if they taught students just like themselves."
"'So, were the 15-year olds that were tested from a vocational or academic program. If they were only from the latter, these results are easily explained by PISA testing Finland's top half of students.' Kids start vocational or academic program when they are 16. 15 year olds study all together in comprehensive schools."
"We do have the Finnish Model in the USA. It's called Waldorf Education! Let's transform the world with more public Waldorf schools!"
"I finished school in EU. My kids go to school in USA. They speak two languages and, English is their current (second) language. Yet, they are the best readers/students. They made one interesting observation that is pretty obvious to anyone who speak some other language. A lot of kids never learn to write and read their own language properly, in USA. Kids were comparing languages they use and, they suggested language reform, which really make sense. Every letter needs just one sound. You should write every word as you speak it, and read it exactly as it is written. Kids have natural tendency to write it, as they hear it and, as they say it. We actually teach them to twist what they hear and, to write it down twisted. Kids in other countries (not China, thought) have huge advantage over USA kids. They know to read and write, very well, very correct and fluent, at very young age, while here, kids still struggle to get a spelling and meaning of the words, let alone whole idea ! of sentences. It adds up, big time, through years and they are falling behind. Instead of thinking about concept/idea of what they are reading, they are trying to figure out if they got some particular word correctly. My country did just that in 19th century - they did complete reform of language. Imagine, some centuries ago, just priests were literate and, could read and write - then Latin was replaced with something that ordinary people can grasp and understand and educate themselves. Same here - language need some evolution and change, if it means better education and smarter people. And, Finland do have competition - how do you think all those extra good students get enrolled in free, limited number of places, on just 20 schools provided for whole nation? (No matter how small country is - do the math - just 200-250 people per year can get into it - so there is competition and audition.) "
"Historically, institutionalized education has never had anything to do with preparing individuals to compete. In many European cultures through the ceturies, it has been somthing reserved for the powerful and elite. The rest of the population relied on parents and other members of the community to impart the necessary knowlege for survival and success. This notion of education as means to succeeding in global competition is pernitious nonsence. The U.S. has never truly competed with the rest of the world - so lets not confuse domination with competition. Our public education system was designed initially to prevent children from working and competing with adults during the Industrial Revolution and latef mutated into sorting institutions that guided young people into factory jobs or college depending on the socio-economic status of the student. For more information I recommend the book Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto. On the issue of comparing our public schoo! l system to the education systems in countries - the most profound difference has to do with the cultural and racial diversity of the U.S. vs. the uniformity of most other industrial nations. If you've ever visited Japan, Germany or Finland, you'ii notice that the overwhelming number of citizens in these countries share a common race, culture, and work ethic. The smaller size of these countries compared to the U.S. must also be taken into account. The education debade in the U.S. today runs too much on ignorance, fear, poitics and superstition than on any substantive or rational approach. "
"I've heard the U.S. ranks about 18th out of 24 industrialized countries in education albeit we spend more money. Students are graduating who cannot read at the 4th or 5th grade level. The No Child Left Behind Act distacted from the curriculum and teachers had to begin 'teaching the test.' Less government interference is needed. If the gov't insists on involvement, let them travel to the countries that are excelling in education and prioritize our system so that children receive a viable and proper education; not just those kids in wealthier neighborhoods. "
"Wow! Great article. Definitely makes one pause to think. I can only imagine the benefits to my children to be enrolled in a non-competitive environment guided by the brightest minds society has to offer. And then to have their self-confidence nurtured so that they developed greater self-motivational skills! AND at no out-of pocket cost to me from preschool through college!! The Finns appear to have their priorities straight. I am surprised at all the disgruntled nay-sayers who have commented so negatively, as if it is a personal affront to all things American. I think it is very American to want the best for your children and to have an institution that is the best in the world."
"I live in California and speak from the experience of having watched the finest state bankrupted by corrupt career politicans, special interest groups, and mostly power unions plus the flood of Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala's poorest of poor. While the intention to better your quality of life when immigrating is everyones goal many come here and do not intend to do so legally and yet they enjoy all of the free social programs offered like educating non-English speaking children, providing housing, medical and food stamps. They put back very little into a burdened state and send money tax free back to their home countries. Secondly, the teachers and service unions have crippled the system by their greed and rewarding terrible teachers that are tenured and need to be fired preferring to look the other way. They have pensioned us to the point of insanity. The graduating class is only at 53% so what is going on with these fine educators? Finnland has 9 million we have 320 million so what is a model for socialism will never work for the U.S. You will see in four years with socialized medicine we will lack any medical innovations, we will be on rationed healthcare and the system will fail but with this failure our children will be indepted to the tune of 37,000 per head. U.S. is not looking to be successful under this current administration but will not disappoint with being mediocre. I should know I have been in medicine for 26 years, the change is coming and you will not like it. "
"This is an interesting article, but I get quite tired of hearing it's the union fault. If you really take a look at the American schools, you will notice kids who are lazy, many are second language learners, many are poor with social issues. I'm not saying this is all to blame for the current educational state, but it plays a huge role. It's great that teachers in Finland gets to develop their curriculum to assure teaching to standards. In America teachers are told exactly what they say, use, and follow. One day, a school system will be brave enough to try something new that allows for more teacher freedom which equates to respect and trust!"
"'They may score high on tests, but as you did say in the article, their country is not know for much other than Nokia which is not doing well either. Therefore they have created very laid back, relaxed, noncompetitive sponges who benefit from the creativity and hard work of the rest of the world. At some point the relaxed well soaked sponges will either dry up or shape up and start competing and working hard.' Ummm, a little fact checking (CIA World Factbook) reveals that Finland is certainly not the well-soaked sponge the PP is trying to make it out to be. In fact, until the US economy took a nose dive and dragged the rest of the world along with it, the country was one of the best performing economies within the EU. It must be hard for some to accept that a country that respects its educators, allows children to be children, believes that testing as we know it is counter-productive, and has real equality among its people can succeed, but they did (until our country put the kabosh on the economy). Let's celebrate the great role model that Finland is, and perhaps learn what might work for us, rather than criticize it. "
"If you spend long hours at work it doesn't mean you're more productive. It's no secret that well rested people work harder and more efficiently. Also, well planned is half done."
"Part of the problem in the U.S. is the fact that Standardized testing plays such a large role in the educational system. I have seen teachers that actually take math problems from a standardized test and go over them the day before the test is given. Where is the challenge in that? Many teachers are so nervous about acquiring tenure that they actually do things like that to try to look like they are great teachers. Instead, if their was more free reign given to teachers they may acutally enjoy the art of teaching. Thus, that enthusiasim will show and help inspire the children to soak up a love of learning. That is not being a sponge. Its called loving what you do and being the very best at it. "
"I'm from Finland and my 7-year old child goes to school in the US. Both systems have their good and bad. What I don't like here in the States is that since Kindergarten kids get grades and are tested and evaluated on everything all the time. (I hate the long detailed report cards.) My friends already worry about their 5-year olds falling behind and putting them to summer school and fast forward programs. In Finland if a child is to start school at the age of six, they are tested to see if they are mentally ready for it. Here in the US long school days and the amount of homework leave little time for play and hobbies after school. My kid has 6 hour school days with one 20 minute break during the whole day, when her friends in Finland have four hour school days with 45 minute lessons and 15 -minute breaks in between to play outside. They most likely get little or no homework. My 7 year old usually has one page of English, one page of math, spelling words and she has to read 20 minutes each day as homework. But still she likes her school and loves her teacher. The school lunch here is a joke. It's far cry from anything healthy unless pizza, french toast or soggy fish burgers are something anyone would want their kids to eat and still think it's good for them. All the teachers I've met here are dedicated to their work. I like the fact that kid's call them by their last name. I wish in Finland they would change the way they teach English and would start it earlier. It really matters how you pron! ounce words and sound out letters. There they start very early on correct spelling rather than teach the kids to speak and use the language. Most Finns can speak English, but are shy to use it in case they make a mistake. Here in the US it would be a great idea, that kids get a book on every subject and a small booklet to write notes or math problems on. My daughter brings home mountains of paper from school, but I have little idea what she is studying at school or how they figure out math problems. If she had a book, we would know what she is doing, how they are taught on different matters and we could go back and go over things when needed. What comes to the free colleges and universities in Finland, they are free for people from foreign countries as well if they get in. Is that good -I don't know. I think it should be free for the Finns of course, but other people should pay at least something. There is no way I'll be able to afford for my daughter to go to college here ! in the States. So, sometime in the future well be back in Finl! and."
"A) the Fins don't need a Union they are Socialist Plus the teachers are treated with the utmost respect (i.e. not called Gangstas) Less hours more pay complete respect and control over how you teach who needs a Union. B) Nokia is the number one mobile phone company in the world. Just because they are not the thing in the US does not mean the company is doing poorly. C)The Fins take responsibility for themselves and their community. Fins are not satisfied if just their kid is doing well. Instead Fins care if ALL children are doing well. Strange concept for the Social Darwinist who fill the GOP but I think you could get the concept if you read Mathew more and Leviticus less. "
"The Finnish socialist government structure is the secret to their success. When all people, regardless of their economic circumstance, are given access to the same resources(ie, healthcare, schools, etc), then everyone wins. Unfourtunately, our American capitalist structure, built on the backs of African slaves, immigrants from China, and unsuspecting Native Americans encourages competition. American will never have a successful educational system because of the uneven distribution of resources and social stratification. One can tour any school district in American and find that the schools located in wealthy areas have more state-of-the-art resources than those in the lower socio-economic areas. "
"They may score high on tests, but as you did say in the article, their country is not know for much other than Nokia which is not doing well either. Therefore they have created very laid back, relaxed, noncompetitive sponges who benefit from the creativity and hard work of the rest of the world. At some point the relaxed well soaked sponges will either dry up or shape up and start competing and working hard. "
"Sounds like their system has some nice things going for it. If we're ever in the market for a socialistic egalitarian-type of country, we'll check out Finland. Until then, we are happy here in the good 'ol USA where our children are doing well in school and in life so far, thank God! "
"Who wants to compete in school? We just want the best to keep the world turning and that will take smart friendly adults."
"! Helsinki committee, National Geographic, Utne, New Internationalist, UNU and the IHT. Great publications keep Finland first in image, influence, and education. "
"I think it helps a lot that teachers are highly regarded in Finland. Children learn their attitudes about education from their parents. Children whose parents are involved in their education are far more successful. I also think that children have a natural curiousity and desire to learn. A nurturing environment that fosters this natural desire instead of making learning into a competition and measure of ones value probably makes students have a much more positive attitude towards school and learning. "
"I don't think this article concludes (or even suggests) that American teachers are to blame for poor results from our students. The article merely points out that the Fins are doing something right as they continue to produce students that achieve (and graduate) at a higher level than ours do. The comments regarding respect for teachers in America may offend you, but I consider them to be accurate. My own belief is that this is also more a reflection on our country than teachers themselves. Like any profession, teaching has super stars and people who aren't very good at what they're being paid to do. I suspect the same is probably true even in Finland and South Korea. I think the task for us is to discover why these folks are having more success than we are and make changes accordingly. Obviously, that won't always be possible. For example, there are no woods to walk through between my house and my first grader's school."
"America's problem has and will always be chasing the latest fad. We swing like a pendulum conservative for decades, liberal for few years back to conservative. Unfortunately everyone has their noses in the door. School boards, congressmen,right wing religious nuts who want to deny Darwin and now change American History by replacing a founding father Jefferson with a more religious acceptable way out nut does Texas school board ring the bell. It's no wonder Americans have a 30 second attention span can't keep their minds focus with constant blur of Advertising. Unfortunately Schooling has become big business with all the trappings of inefficiency, bribery and labor battling. No wonder our system doesn't work our society isn't working too well either. Finland left the education to its teachers allowing them to create and express their devotion to their craft by seeing their children excel on many social and academic levels. Can it happen here it did least we forget the first wave of immigrant children to hit the Public School System. Highly motivated by their parents and brought up to respect and listen to their teachers. The system worked as America became No 1 academically, economically, socially in the world. Unfortunately we became affluent and with all the tinkering by outsiders our educational system went down hill. "
"I believe the key here is the teacher quality and the fact that there is high competition to get into the schools of education to become qualified. Standards for teachers need to become much higher in the US and we need to be able to remove teachers who don't teach well. The teachers' unions here are the biggest problem, protecting teachers rather than students."
"I agree with the last comment that Finnish teachers wouldn't do so well in an American school. But I don't think that's a good point on our side as the last reader would have you believe. The reason they would not do good is because American children are spoiled little brats that are never taught respect, for themselves or anyone else. Our school system is failing miserably and its our own fault. As far as I can see, it's not getting better but worse, even though we know it's suffering. I think we should take a look at those other countries and try to figure out how to integrate their ideas and philosiphies into our own. Not be offended by them and, as usuall, think we are better just because we are bigger. And why are we allowing illegals that don't speak english into our schools? Especially at the cost of our children's education? I am all for immigrants, don't get me wrong. And helping them to learn english once they have gone thru the proper channels of becomin! g legal. But I am tired of my children's education suffering, and me having to do hours of homework with them, because America feels we have to baby the illegals and take pity on them. It is time to wake up America and start taking care of ourselves first! As it was once said.....'How can you fix and help someone else when you are broken?'"