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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Maybe Instead of Finland, We Should Be More Like Massachusetts?

By Peter DeWitt — December 09, 2016 5 min read
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Over the last decade more and more school leaders, teachers and researchers around the US (and other parts of the world) have made the pilgrimage to Finland to see what this top ranked PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) country does with students that make them so great.

Every year, the same conversation seems to be recycled over and over again in blogs and articles. Teachers, researchers and leaders said,

  • We learned so much that we can do differently!
  • We can’t do any of it until our government changes!
  • We can’t do any of it until the mindset about schooling changes!
  • We shouldn’t be compared to such a small country!
  • They’re smaller than we are which is why they’re so great!
  • They’re not as diverse as we are!

Finland consistently ranks high in the PISA results for many reasons. (What is PISA? Click here to read a guest blog written by Andreas Schleicher who is the Director of PISA). They don’t push curriculum that isn’t age appropriate, their teachers are highly qualified and the field of education is respected as one of the top professions. I wish we could be more like Finland in that respect.

Additionally, Finland has a much more flexible education system than the US. The U.S. has constant carrot and stick programs as well as a great deal of accountability and mandates. Teachers, leaders and students in Finland feel as though they have a voice in their schooling. I wish we could be more like Finland in that respect as well.

Closer to Home?
However, instead of making the trek over to Finland there is somewhere much closer and within the U.S. we can visit. Educators, researchers and leaders could make a pilgrimage to the great state of Massachusetts, because they ranked as highly as Finland in the current PISA results. More than 70 countries take part in PISA, and Massachusetts ranks among the top.

How do we know that?

Massachusetts footed the $630,000 bill to take part in the standardized test so they could get individual results. Why? Because the US, as a whole, has not fared well in the assessment. The $630,000 covers the ability to test 1,600 students in 49 schools (Vaznis).

This is not the first time Massachusetts has fared well in the PISA results. James Marshall Crotty wrote about the results of the state for Forbes back in 2014. It’s important to note, that if you read the Forbes article you will see that some countries get to choose what regions of their country can take part in PISA. The US does not do that.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MDOE) website provides the following results from the recent PISA.


  • Massachusetts students scored an average of 527 in reading. The U.S. average was 497, while the OECD average was 493. Students in North Carolina scored on average 500.
  • No national education systems scored statistically higher than Massachusetts, although eight had similar scores to Massachusetts: Singapore, Hong Kong (China), Canada, Finland, Ireland, Estonia, the Republic of Korea and Japan.
  • Fourteen percent of Massachusetts students were top performers in reading.
  • Female students in Massachusetts (average scores of 536) outperformed male students (average score of 518), but the gender gap has narrowed since 2012 from 32 points to 18 points.

Not only did Massachusetts fare well in reading but in science and math as well. The MDOE highlighted those scores,


  • Massachusetts students scored an average of 529 in science. The U.S. average was 496, while the OECD average was 493.
  • The only education system that statistically outperformed Massachusetts in 2015 was Singapore (average score of 556).


  • Massachusetts students scored an average of 500 in mathematics. The U.S. average was 470, while the OECD average was 490. Students in North Carolina scored on average 471.
  • The 11 education systems that statistically outperformed Massachusetts on math in 2015 were Singapore, Hong Kong (China), Macau (China), Chinese Taipei, Japan, Beijing- Shanghai-Jiangsu-Guangdong (B-S-J-G) (China), the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Estonia, Canada and the Netherlands.
  • Ten percent of Massachusetts students were top performers in mathematics, compared to 35 percent of students from Singapore, the top achieving system.

What accounts for the high scores?
There are probably many theories of why Massachusetts has done well in the last 2 international assessments. In this Atlantic article from May, Alia Wong writes,

The Massachusetts experiment with transforming public education traces back to 1993, when state leaders decided to set high standards, establish a stringent accountability system aimed at ensuring that students from all backgrounds were making progress, and open its doors to charter schools. And despite some hiccups, it was able to do so largely without all the partisan wrangling and interagency tensions that have notoriously confounded such efforts on a national scale.

Wong goes on to write,

The goal wasn't just to boost performance in some pockets, but to "get everybody there," Reville said. "Not just in our rhetoric, but in our intent, we said, 'All means all.'" By 2000, the state also had doubled its funding of public education, when compared with 1993.

However, not everyone seems to celebrate the PISA results from Massachusetts. James Vaznis from the Boston Globe writes that,

Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a research and consulting group in Washington, D.C., chalked up Massachusetts' strong testing performance in part to its highly educated population and strong economy.

Vaznis went on to write,

The education of parents is the single most important predictor of student performance," Tucker said. "This combination of wealth and parental levels of education should lead us to expect that Massachusetts would be a world leader in student performance."

Commissioner Mitchell Chester clearly disagrees with Tucker. On the MDOE website, Chester is quoted as saying, “Of particular note is the fact that only 14 percent of the variation in our students’ science scores is attributable to family economic background. Eighty-six percent is determined by instruction and district practices.

In the End
Massachusetts is not without its issues. Although Tucker cited family involvement and wealth as the most important factors, which Commissioner Chester sort of disputes in his quotation from the MDOE website, many of the articles focusing on the strength of the Massachusetts education system also state that there is an achievement gap they have where their impoverished students are concerned.

And yes, there will be critics who do not like PISA and what it represents. I completely understand the issue of over-testing students, and the pressures of standardized testing. However, in the long run, we as a nation might want to pay attention to Massachusetts because their education system is consistently strong, and they treat education and their teachers with respect. Although Finland is a great country to visit and learn from, it seems as though we really don’t have to go that far to see educational greatness because we have it within our own country too.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the best selling Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.