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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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Finland’s Secret Edu-Sauce: Pricey Booze, Plenty of Saunas, and the Dearth of Pantsless Ducks?

By Rick Hess — September 06, 2012 4 min read
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Just returned from three weeks spent traipsing around Scandinavia. Had a chance to meander Copenhagen, Bergen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, and such. Funniest discoveries: Norwegians are busy enthusiastically hosting a World Cup qualifier for scavenger hunting (they call it “orienteering”), the Danes celebrate Gay Pride weekend by astroturfing whole streets in Copenhagen and erecting beer stands at select intersections, and even an affluent guy can go broke buying cocktails in Oslo or Helsinki.

While I generally travel to get some distance from the edu-world, Finland has obviously been an education fetish for the past several years. Our earnest Secretary of Education asserts, “The wonderful progress that nations like Finland...have made in boosting achievement...is a dramatic affirmation of the power of government policy to change the education system.” NCEE’s Mark Tucker raves, “More than any other advanced industrial nation, Finland’s education strategy is to give teaching the highest status and make it the most desirable job in the country.” Tony Wagner explains, “The difference between the highest performing school in Finland and the lowest performing school in Finland is less than four percent, and that’s without any testing at all.” I could go on and on.

For what it’s worth, I came away from Finland mostly reminded why I have so little faith in the whole breathless industry of international comparisons. The difficulty with reifying international test score comparisons is that they suffer from the same banal problems that bedevil simple NCLB-style comparisons. PISA and TIMSS results say nothing about the value schools are adding; they merely provide simple cross-sectional snapshots of achievement (with the added complication, as Brookings’s Tom Loveless notes, that the tests themselves have some problems).

Using PISA or TIMSS results to judge school quality (in Finland or anywhere else) poses the exact same problem as using NCLB-style tests to conclude that schools in a bucolic, leafy suburb are “better” than those in a chaotic city rife with broken families. There’s a lot of stuff going on, and only the foolhardy would insist that any differences are necessarily due to educational strategies rather than non-school factors. (This is the conundrum that value-added analysis can help address.)

Anyway, I came away less convinced than ever that Finnish test scores are inarguably a product of educational brilliance. There are a whole bunch of cultural distinctions that might lead to big differences in youth behavior and test score outcomes--even before we get to talking about schools. What do I have in mind? Let’s see, in no particular order:


  • Beer, wine, and booze are so ridiculously expensive that teens can’t even afford to drink. (Hell, adult Finns hop on ferries to Stockholm and Tallinn just to stock up, because the taxes on alcohol are so punishing.)
  • A quarter of the country lives in or around the capital of Helsinki, a sweet, low-rise city where the streets empty out by eight or nine p.m. even on summer weeknights.
  • The country averages about eight hours of sunlight a day from September to March, leaving a whole lot of time for studying and related indoor pursuits.
  • Finland’s total population is less than that of Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Massachusetts. As far as ethnic makeup, the population is 93.4% Finnish, and 99% Finnish or Swedish. Oh, and Finland’s net immigration rate is just .62 per 1,000 citizens. So, the schools are working with a much smaller, and much more homogeneous and stable population.
  • Economic necessity and popular culture dictate that Finns grow up speaking English as well as their native tongue. In fact, the bartenders, maids, and cab drivers speak better English than half the ed reformers I know.
  • The whole nation is jazzed on design, and markets itself accordingly. Hell, Red Bull’s big annual Finnish event is a soap box derby featuring damn near life-size entrants built in the shape of pianos, barbecues, and anything else you can imagine.
  • Seventy-nine percent of Finnish kids live in families with two parents; that’s ten percentage points higher than in the U.S.
  • Finland has a sauna for every two or three citizens. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, but it suggests that there are some pretty profound differences between Finland and the U.S., other than how we train teachers.

Oh, yeah, and Donald Duck comics were banned in Finland because Donald Duck doesn’t wear pants. Meanwhile, in the U.S., when chemistry gets a little slow, we’ve got students “sexting” pantless photos of themselves--and principals hesitant to do too much about it.

For all that, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported in 2008 that “the gap between rich and poor has widened more in Finland than in any other wealthy industrialized country over the past decade.” So, Finnophile or not, a reminder that a note of caution is due when imagining that higher tests scores are the miracle salve for our economic woes.

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