Pasi Sahlberg Blog

Finnish education reform

What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland

As the United States is looking to reform its public school system, education experts have increasingly looked at other countries for examples on what works and what won’t. The current administration has turned its attention strong performing foreign school systems. As a consequence, recent education summits hosted in the United States have given room to international education showcases. This commitment to think outside of the box was illustrated two years ago, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked for a report titled “Strong Performers and Successful Reforms: Lessons from PISA for the United States,” prepared by a team of analysts — I was one of them — with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). One of the strong performers that is gaining increasing interest in the United States is my home country, Finland.

During the last decade, Finland has become the go-to place for education reformers all around the world. The main reason is its success in the international survey comparing 15-year-olds in reading, math and science learning called PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). Since that OECD report, I have been privileged to meet legislators, administrators, teachers, and parents here in the United States. Anywhere I go, people are eager to hear about Finnish education and its accomplishments. Especially, they want to know what they can learn from it.

What I have to say, however, is not always what they want to hear. While it is true that we can certainly learn from foreign systems and use them as backdrops for better understanding of our own, we cannot simply replicate them. What, then, can’t the United States learn from Finland?

First of all, although Finland can show the United States what equal opportunity looks like, Americans cannot achieve equity without first implementing fundamental changes in their school system. The following three issues require particular attention.

  • Funding of schools: Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.
  • Well-being of children: All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.
  • Education as a human right: All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.

As long as these conditions don’t exist, the Finnish equality-based model bears little relevance in the United States.

Second, school autonomy and teacher professionalism are often mentioned as the dominant factors explaining strong educational performance in Finland. The school is the main author of curricula. And the teacher is the sole authority monitoring the progress of students.

In Finland, there is a strong sense of trust in schools and teachers to carry out these responsibilities. There is no external inspection of schools or standardized testing of all pupils in Finland. For our national analysis of educational performance, we rely on testing only a small sample of students. The United States really cannot leave curriculum design and student assessment in the hands of schools and teachers unless there is similar public confidence in schools and teachers. To get there, a more coherent national system of teacher education is one major step.

Finland is home to such a coherent national system of teacher education. And unlike in the United States, teaching is one of the top career choices among young Finns. Teachers in Finland are highly regarded professionals — akin to medical doctors and lawyers. There are eight universities educating teachers in Finland, and all their programs have the same high academic standards. Furthermore, a research-based master’s degree is the minimum requirement to teach in Finland.

Teaching in Finland is, in fact, such a desired profession that the University of Helsinki, where I teach part-time, received 2,300 applicants this spring for 120 spots in its primary school teacher education program. In this teacher education program and the seven others, teachers are prepared to design their own curricula, assess their own pupils’ progress, and continuously improve their own teaching and their school. Until the United States has improved its teacher education, its teachers cannot enjoy similar prestige, public confidence and autonomy.

Third, many education visitors to Finland expect to find schools filled with Finnish pedagogical innovation and state-of-the-art technology. Instead, they see teachers teaching and pupils learning as they would in any typical good school in the United States. Some observers call this “pedagogical conservatism” or “informal and relaxed” because there does not appear to be much going on in classrooms.

The irony of Finnish educational success is that it derives heavily from classroom innovation and school improvement research in the United States. Cooperative learning and portfolio assessment are examples of American classroom-based innovations that have been implemented in large scale in the Finnish school system.

Those who are looking at Finland’s education system as a possible model for reform in the United States point out, quite correctly, that our two countries are very different. In these comparisons, one critical difference is often overlooked that is also essential to understanding what our two countries can or cannot learn from one another.

In the United States, education is mostly viewed as a private effort leading to individual good. The performances of individual students and teachers are therefore in the center of the ongoing school reform debate. By contrast, in Finland, education is viewed primarily as a public effort serving a public purpose. As a consequence, education reforms in Finland are judged more in terms of how equitable the system is for different learners. This helps to explain the difference between the American obsession with standardized testing and the Finnish fixation on each school’s ability to cope with individual differences and social inequality. The former is driven by excellence, the latter by equity.

Quality and equity in education must be conceived as concomitant. Based on its global data, the OECD recently drew precisely this conclusion: “The highest-performing education systems across the OECD countries are those that combine quality with equity.”

What Finland can show to others is how equity and equal opportunity in education look like. However, school reformers in the United States need to be careful when considering equity-based reform ideas to be imported from Finland. Many elements of Finnish successful school system are interwoven in the surrounding welfare state. Simply a transfer of these solutions would add another chapter to already exhausting volume of failed education reforms.

(Published in Washington Post, April 17, 2012)