A while back, my sister found this article about the Finnish education system in The Atlantic and asked my husband what he thought of it. A lot of the information in this blog post has been retailored from that response.
The most dreadful time of my life has been at the end of the first quarter every third year since 2001. That’s when a new Programme for International Student Assessment (also known as the “Pisa study”) usually comes out, and since I’m unfortunate enough to be both Finnish as well as a social scientist, people seem to think that I’m willing
(false) and able (true) to discuss the topic.
So before dwelling into the specifics of the article, let’s have a little philosophical discussion about education and the Pisa study. The foremost problem with this Pisa (or monkey) business is that the study is essentially measuring public school performance between different countries, after which everyone wants to implement the policies found in the winning country in their own school systems. There are many political and cultural problems with this approach (some of which are briefly discussed far below), but even if there weren’t, the central problem is that a public school is hardly the best possible way of maximizing educational outcome, while minimizing its cost. In other words, the Pisa study is like the Special Olympics – where even the winners are still… well… “special” – not the pinnacle of human achievement.
Even more fundamental questions center around issues such as 1) why does it take forever to educate somebody, 2) how much education is necessary, 3) what’s the purpose of education, 4) what other ways are there to organize education? A close relative of mine who has been a teacher for over 30 years, revealed to me about five years ago that with the internet the main purpose of schools has become to babysit old kids while their parents work. Please keep that in mind when
reading my point-by-point reply to this article:
But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life — Newsweek ranked it number one last year
I want to make one remark studies like these. Most of these studies that place a Nordic country on top are combination studies that assess between a few and a dozen factors, and most OECD/developed countries score high on most of these variables. However, there’s always one or two variables where a given OECD country (such as the US) scores
relatively poorly on, e.g. average lifespan, carbon footprint, equality, healthcare costs, class mobility etc. Due to this
discrepancy, the US is weighed down enough to lose the top status (or one of the top statuses) to a Nordic country/the Nordic countries. In terms of pure materialism – largest amount of appliances/gadgets (e.g. very few people in a place like Finland have a dryer and dishwashers aren’t common either), highest purchasing power adjusted per capita,
newest cars, largest houses, biggest yards etc. the US is way, way above anything seen in the Nordic countries. From my personal perspective, my salary and living standard are far higher in here than I could ever dream of in Finland. This doesn’t mean that the issues mentioned above (lower average lifespan, larger carbon footprint etc.) wouldn’t be significant societal problems, it simply means that they act as what de facto determines the ranking of countries in specific
studies. Many of these studies are from the get go driven more by politics than by reality (the PISA study doesn’t have these flaws though).
Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.
Yes, and they also have shorter work weeks in school and one of the shortest school years in OECD with ample amounts of vacation time. I believe that this model is largely successful simply because schools are damaging to a child’s learning, thinking and imagining abilities as well as overall wellbeing, hence less time in school equals better results.
Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees.
This is true. It used to be slightly different. Until about 5 years ago or so the private institutions were allowed to charge, however these fees were often modest. I went to one of Finland’s best private schools and my parents paid 1,000€ ($1,300) for it per year.
For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.
True and I think the system works well overall. However, like the article points out, teachers in Finland also rate students on a yearly basis. This is done honestly without grade inflation. To give you an example, on a scale of 5 to 10 (4 is considered an F) the undersigned graduated with an average of 6.8 (equivalent to a 1.44 GPA) from what could be considered the Middle School, whereas the national average is 8.0 (2.4). By comparison the average GPA in the US is 3.0 these days, and a huge amount of kids receive straight As. The only criticism I have for the Finnish Matriculation Exam as well as the university entry exams that follow, is that they are all based on the ability to quickly digest a huge number of books and vomit it on the test paper, instead of being more IQ/potential achievement based like the SAT etc. tests in the US are.
For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.
The prestige and responsibility aspects are certainly correct. I will leave the wage issue up for debate, but here are some statistics. The median (which is very close to the arithmetic mean that people often refer to as “average”) teacher in Finland makes 42,612€/year ($55,496), whereas the median (again, close to “average) employee makes 43,860€/year ($57,018). However, the median primary care physician in Finland makes 80,916€/year ($105,191) and the median
VP/CxO 67,236€/year ($87,407). On a yearly basis in the US the median teacher makes $52,000, the median worker $28,000, the median primary care physician $186,000, and the median VP/CxO $228,000.
Please do note that the wages for Finnish workers above are very accurate due to the fact that these are publicly recorded and wage discrepancies are virtually impossible (i.e. a teacher in the center of Helsinki and a teacher living in a tiny northern village make almost the same amount) and the benefits are essentially the same, with the exception of the teachers being able to enjoy roughly 1 month extra vacation in comparison to the other Finnish workers. The retirement benefits – on a US standard – are however poor. The statistics on the US wages are harder to reliably measure and fluctuate widely based on who is measuring and what. The VP/CxO salaries would also effectively be ten times higher if it would focus only on the Fortune 100.
So the answer to the question of a “decent pay” depends on how you define it. If you think that decent is making roughly the average in your country and about half of what doctors and 2/3rds of what VPs/CxOs make, Finland is a better deal for you. On the other hand, if you prefer to rather make twice as much as the mean employer, but a quarter of what physicians and VP/CxOs make, then the US is a better place. In both countries the teachers effectively make up the same amount of money. In my opinion the US will probably offer a slightly better deal due to better overall benefits, lower tax burden and
higher purchase power parity adjustment.
There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
While there are no direct list of best schools in Finland, it is widely know what the, say, top dozen high schools in Finland are. Similarly, parents are often well aware of the best high school in their area and select accordingly. Otherwise, I’d say that the atmosphere is in general more cooperative than competitive.
Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.
This is largely true. The choices are mostly the same. The private school I attended was a language focused school. Before I got to high school I had more or less reached native fluency in Swedish, Finnish and English, gotten good German skills (other students could choose French instead) and basic skills in Russian (other students could choose Spanish instead). Similarly, a few private schools focus on sciences/maths (these finish about one college year ahead of the
non-science/math schools). There are also religious schools, but the education in these is largely the same. There’s more bible studies and more religious elements during the day, but the curriculum is otherwise exactly the same. This means in practice that every attendant of a religious school has to know (despite whether they believe in it or not) that the universe began from big bang, the earth is round and circles the sun, humans evolved and how/why the evolution mechanism works etc. They also have to know the main theological differences between a dozen Christian sects, the differences between the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhism etc. main lines, and also why some people don’t believe in god. In other words, the approach of the authorities is pretty much that you 1) have to teach everything in the curriculum, 2) you can’t actively teach against it (e.g. by first teaching evolution and then spending extra time un-teaching it), 3) and you have the choice of adding extra hours to your work week, if you want the kids to learn something extra (e.g. German).
Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
This is true when it comes to the likely reasoning behind what was done and why. However, it’s not as perfect as people think. There are public schools especially in Turku and Helsinki from wealthier neighborhoods that give an edge to the kids that go to them, because a larger proportion of those kids are more likely to get to better universities and start out with better networks. For example, from my class mates 88% got an university education. Of those 21% got a bachelor’s degree, 44% got a master’s degree, 21% got two master’s degree (including me), and 14% got doctoral degrees.
These numbers are orders of magnitudes higher than the Finnish average. Furthermore, Finland does have a large “periphery” area (Lapland and Eastern Finland) kind of like the southern part of Italy, Scotland in the UK or some of the poorer US states. It would be difficult to get a good start from those regions.
Another question one should ask in this context is what the value is of NOT having star performers (or many of them). The schools, or especially top universities, are so well known all over the world that everyone with an academic institution knows about the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters, MIT, Berkeley, John Hopkins and Duke. In fact, of the top 10 universities in the world 6 are from the US (the rest 4 are from the UK) and of the top 100 universities in the world 31 come from
the US. Of the Finnish universities the only one that makes the big list is located somewhere on the very bottom of it.
Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.
Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation’s education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams
suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.
From my personal perspective, I’d fall somewhere in between the two points. While it’s true that Norway hasn’t done too much better than the US in the PISA studies, while being about as homogeneous, Finland does have two discrete advantages. First of all, the Finnish language is 99% (or so) phonetic, while English is about 75%, meaning that reading and writing in Finnish is more or less a non-issue. This is such a big advantage in the PISA study, that virtually every academic commentator on the subject has mentioned this. Second of all, Finland also happens to have a 5% ethnic minority called the Swedish speaking Finns, who just happen to have a really strong pro-achievement culture, similar to Jewish, German and Chinese minorities around the world that certainly helps boost Finland’s PISA results. Secondarily, even if these two facts would not separate Finland from Norway in this manner, I have my doubts that the US could ever reach these results.
The simple fact is that Blacks and Hispanics make up 28% of the US population, and these two groups have by far the worst academic achievement records of all demographic groups. This may be due to the legacy of slavery, English as a second language, institutional discrimination etc. but it is none-the-less a fact of life. [Ed: He overlooks that the US also has its achievement oriented minority groups like the Swedish Finns, including the Asians who have been termed ‘the model minority.’]
What’s more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest
in a knowledge-based economy.
This is all true, but the question that should be asked is “has it worked?” In my opinion the honest answer is “yes, but poorly”. Since the 1970’s a lot of manufacturing has exited the country, weakening the previously extremely strong labor unions. At the same time the country has slightly eased its high-tax policy. A better education has probably helped some innovative companies spur, but despite of this Finland’s long term trajectory is not good. According to WEF’s GCR index, Finland ranks nr. 3 (and has been at nr. 1 spot for some years), but that index (see my discussion above about measurements like this) also ranks countries by using some rather random variables such as healthcare and education. In reality, true competitiveness of a country can be simply found out by looking at capital inflows vs. outflows, and in this test most Nordic countries have fared rather miserably in the last decade. Finland does have some real comparative
advantages, like the ease of starting businesses, lowish corporate regulations, stable property rights, and predictable politics, but it’s severely hampered by sky high taxes and impossible labor regulations. It is things like these, not educational infrastructure, that ultimately determine how competitive a country is on a global market.
Besides, if the Finnish educational infrastructure would be that great, how come that the purchase power parity adjusted GDP/capita is $10,000 – $14,000 less than in the US and that this gap is continuously widening. Finland is also known for its massive brain drain. On the worst years a total of 1/8 of university educated people emigrated elsewhere. To make matters worse, these people (including me) were not your liberal arts students, but those who specialized in highly technical high income fields such as engineering, science and economics.
He stopped there. I don’t know why. Maybe he fell asleep at the keyboard and drooled all over it, thus ruining it and making it impossible for him to type more.In part 2, I will discuss whether it even makes sense to discuss bringing the Finnish education system to the US.