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9 reasons Finland's schools are so much better than America's

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

If there's any consensus on education in the US, it could be this: other countries are doing it better. And in the doing-education-better sweepstakes, Finland has long been the cold and snowy standout.

In 2001, the world was stunned when Finland ended up at the top of international rankings after a standardized test administered to students in developed countries. Finland's dominance continued unabated for a decade (although it slipped in 2012). Endless articles, and some books, all have the same basic gist: what can the United States learn from Finland?

Finland might be a popular example because, no matter your general beliefs on education policy, you can find something to back them up. The result turns into a policy wonk buffet — nearly everybody can a policy lesson to learn from Finland's success, or a factor that explains why it isn't replicable in the US. Even if some of those lessons directly contradict each other.

Here are 9 reasons that have been cited to explain Finland's success.

1) Finland's teachers have high status, professional support, and good pay


Becoming a teacher in Finland is hard, but they enjoy more autonomy and professional development. (Shutterstock)

Teachers in Finland with 15 years' experience make about as much as the typical college graduate with a bachelor's degree; in the US, they make less than that. And the workload is also less demanding. Teachers in Finland teach about four hours a day, with another two hours of professional development, and they develop their own curriculum based on a set of national guidelines. The leadership ranks of education are also drawn from former teachers. The result, writes Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish teacher and researcher who has become a one-man promotional machine for the country's schools, is "an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work… Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police."

American teachers unions point to the high status and professional flexibility for Finnish teachers as something they'd like to have themselves. They also often note that nearly all Finnish teachers are unionized and the unions are relatively powerful. They argue that to improve schools, the US should focus on treating teachers the way Finland does — with more professional support and greater respect — rather than using students' standardized test scores to reward and grade teachers, a trend the Obama administration has encouraged.

2) Finland has more selective and rigorous schools of education

One reason teaching in Finland is prestigious is becoming a teacher isn't easy. Finland, like the US, used to have a large number of teachers' colleges. But in the 1970s, Finland dramatically changed how teachers were trained. Teacher education became the responsibility of the country's eight universities, and teachers are required to earn masters' degrees. It takes five years of teacher education to become a teacher, and only about one in 10 applicants to teacher education programs is accepted. Secondary teachers get a master's degree in the content area they're going to be teaching, and all master's degree recipients have to write a research-based dissertation.

This is the other side of the argument about teaching: education reformers in the US argue that Finnish teachers get more respect because they earn it through a rigorous, selective entry process. The policy lesson they draw isn't that teachers should be treated like they are in Finland — it's that the teacher corps in the US needs to be more like Finland's. Groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality argue that teachers' colleges aren't selective or rigorous enough. About half of all new teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates, as measured by SAT or ACT scores, according to a 2010 McKinsey report.

On the other hand, the fact that Finnish teachers are so intensely trained also appeals to opponents of programs like Teach for America. A popular saying among opponents of the two-year program is that there is no "Teach for Finland," because in Finland, teaching is a lifelong career with a long and rigorous training program.

3) Finland doesn't give standardized tests

standardized test



The most common praise for Finland (pushed by Sahlberg and others) goes something like this: Finland has no national standardized tests and no rewards or punishments for schools that pass or fail them — and yet they still outperform American students on international exams. Students in Finland take one standardized test at the end of high school. The rest of the time, teachers are responsible for setting expectations and evaluating whether students can meet them. The nation doesn't monitor the quality of schools in any way.

Some people argue that the success of Finnish schools without standardized testing means that testing shouldn't be necessary in the United States, either – and that it's possible for the US to improve its educational performance in other ways.

4) Finland emphasizes subjects other than reading and math

Finnish kids get plenty of recess, more than an hour a day; US kids get less than half an hour. Oh, and students do less than an hour of homework per night all the way through the equivalent of American middle school. Arts and crafts are required — both boys and girls learn needlework, embroidery, and metalwork.

It's not clear how much this has to do with the success of the Finnish school system, but Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University, argued in the New Republic that these subjects allow students to apply science and math skills in the real world. They're also an example of what some parents fear has been lost in the US as teachers spend more time preparing students for standardized tests.

5) Finland has a history of tight oversight for schools

Finland doesn't have a national curriculum now, and Finnish education experts brag about how much autonomy teachers get in the classroom. But that wasn't always the case. In the 1960s and 1970s, Finland totally overhauled its education system. The change to teacher training was part of this, but the country also worked with teachers to develop a mandatory national curriculum and there were national inspections to check on student learning. That tight national control remained in place for two decades, until it was eased up in the 1990s — the national curriculum is now described as being more like guidelines than a tight prescription for what teachers should teach in the classroom.

Unlike the lack of testing, this is a Finnish tradition that American supporters of education reform, particularly standards like the Common Core, embrace. They argue that Finland can only give teachers the autonomy they have now because of the generation of tight oversight that preceded it.

6) It's easier to learn to spell in Finland

Spelling bee


This is the most unusual explanation for Finland's success yet. At The Atlantic, Luba Vangelova argues that the difficulties of learning to read and write English are holding American students back because other languages — including Finnish — are more straightforward.

Masha Bell, the vice chair of the English Spelling Society, says that Finnish is phonetically much simpler than English because there aren't dozens of arcane spelling rules and exceptions (i before e except after c, for example) to memorize. Once you know the alphabet and how letter sounds correspond with the written word, learning to read is fairly simple. A study found that in Finnish and other European languages, children can read a list of familiar words after about a year of reading instruction; in English, it took nearly three years.

In other words, Finnish children have an advantage: even though they don't start school until age 7, and even though the Finnish language is very complex for English-speakers to learn, it's relatively easy for native speakers to learn to read and write.

7) Finland has low child poverty and state support for parents

baby box


Finland doesn't spend as much on education as the United States. But that overlooks a vast social safety net for families, particularly low-income families, that doesn't exist here, either. Baby Finns start their life with a "baby box" of supplies from the Finnish government. Child care is heavily subsidized, and most children attend some kind of early childhood education before mandatory schooling starts at age 7.

Finland also has one of the lowest child poverty rates in the world, around 5 percent (it's over 20 percent in the US). Parents get a monthly allowance to help them care for their children — 100 euros for the first child and more for additional children. Matt Bruenig at Demos has an overview of Finland's extensive child welfare programs.

Perhaps as a result, Finland has very small gaps between rich and poor students' test scores; in the US, those divides are much bigger. Schools in Finland also offer other services, like dentistry and psychological counseling, according to the OECD. These "wraparound services" are something that teachers' unions argue the United States needs more of — although the attempt to create Finland-style community schools generally hasn't resulted in higher test scores.

8) Finland's schools aren't better — they're just homogenous

Some people argue that Finland's schools aren't actually better — they're just serving a much smaller, much more homogenous population. Finland is tiny — the entire country has just 5.4 million people, fewer than New York City. About 5 percent of its residents are immigrants, much lower than the United States.

Schools in the US where most children aren't poor are actually better than low-poverty school systems in Finland. But high-poverty schools in the US struggle in part because of a toxic legacy of segregation, unequal funding, and unequal opportunity. "For a lot of kids who don't score well on these tests, you go back six generations and you have people in bondage," Jack Schneider, a historian of education, told Vox in October.

Finland, which essentially reinvented its school system from scratch in the second half of the 20th century, has none of that baggage. In some ways, the United States has two school systems — well-funded, high-performing suburban schools serving the middle class, and struggling urban school systems where students are overwhelmingly poor and from disadvantaged backgrounds. While Finland has a few schools educating low-income immigrants with an excellent track record of success (this Smithsonian article features a visit to one), those schools are fewer and farther between than they are in the US.

9) Finland is culturally different


Another thing Finland has a lot of: saunas. (Shutterstock)

This is another version of the "Finland does better because it's Finland" argument — that Finnish society is just different than American society, and that as a result lessons are harder to translate. Finnish adults are among the most literate in the world, and the country's libraries are treasured institutions. That, as much as an easier language to spell, could explain stellar reading results. Finland also doesn't have a school sports culture like the US's. And children are more independent; helicopter parenting is just not really a thing.

There are other differences that influence social policy, but aren't limited to them. Rick Hess, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is skeptical that Finland can teach the US anything because its society is so different. His list of differences (most tongue-in-cheek) include long winter nights that leave plenty of time for studying and more children in two-parent families.

Finnish test scores dropped in 2012, but the fascination with its education system hasn't faded. The bottom line seems to be that something in Finland is working — but it might be impossible to ever figure out what.

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