Education Letter to the Editor

Many Factors Contribute to Finland’s School Success

April 15, 2008 2 min read

To the Editor:

I agree with Patrick F. Bassett, writing in “What the Finns Know Shouldn’t Surprise Us (But Does)” (Commentary, Feb. 20, 2008), that we can learn a lot from the Finns and their education system. But his analysis is incomplete and, thus, misleading.

Yes, the Finns recruit talented people to teach. Teachers have higher status in most European nations than they do here. Yes, the Finns—and many other European nations—allow teachers fewer student contact hours and more time to work with colleagues to enhance their own teaching practices. And yes, the Finns organize their resources to provide “early and powerful intervention” if a child begins to fall behind.

These are all worthy qualities.

But Finland does far more in providing an admirable education to all its children. It provides tax-supported (thus, free to parents) universal, high-quality day care and preschool. Finland has also abandoned much of the industrial paradigm of schooling and implemented many features of a personalized and equitable education.

According to W. Norton Grubb, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Finnish schools benefit from the following elements and resources: small classes, usually 16 to 18 students; small schools, often around 200 students; a largely stable teaching force, with teachers remaining with the same group of students for sometimes two, three, or even six years; less mobility for students, with subsidized public housing; greater equity among all schools because they are funded nationally; and universal health care.

Also, the Finns are in no hurry to rush children to develop. Preschool is for 6-year-olds. Children ages 7 to 16 are taught in the same school, and all receive the same quality of education. A former Finnish minister of education, Tuula Haatainen, says: “Studies show that it is dangerous to divide too early into different educational paths. We believe that if we invest in all children for nine years and give them the same education, then we will reach the best results.” Finnish children also spend fewer hours in school than do children in any other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nation.

Given all these variables in Finland’s school structure and culture, and in its national culture, singling out three “key elements” of its success, as Mr. Bassett has done, certainly presents an incomplete picture and fails to convey the complexity of the Finnish school phenomenon.

David Marshak

Bellingham, Wash.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Many Factors Contribute To Finland’s School Success