Finnish Students Are at the Top of the World Class

By Sean Cavanagh — March 15, 2005 6 min read
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In Finland, a long-standing legal tradition known as the “everyman’s right” guarantees the public broad access to the country’s vast, picturesque forests, in most cases regardless of who owns the land. As a result, a prized national asset is shared throughout society, rather than hoarded by a few.

For years, a similar principle has applied to education.

The Scandinavian nation of 5.2 million people—perhaps best known for long summer days and equally long winter nights, peace conferences in Helsinki, and more recently, a thriving cellphone industry—is drawing worldwide attention for the strength of its schools. On the most recent results of the widely scrutinized Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, Finland’s students ranked first among those in 29 industrialized nations in mathematical literacy and second in problem-solving. It has fared similarly well on international gauges of science and reading and literacy skill.

Nor is that prowess limited to Finland’s top-performing students. The country’s percentage of low-performing youths is consistently smaller than in other nations, and the gap between its highest and lowest test scorers is considerably smaller than in many countries, including the United States.

National Goals, Local Control

Those familiar with Finland’s school system say it shares many of the traits of other top-performing nations—while maintaining its own distinctive approach.

Like many high-scoring countries, Finland has a national curriculum, overseen by the Ministry of Education. Yet that arrangement affords municipalities and schools broad latitude in all matters, including setting course content and selecting textbooks, which the nation’s highly trained teachers also influence.

Students take part in an after-school computer club.

“The Finnish approach has been to make teachers and schools take over responsibility for their school systems,” said Andreas Schleicher, the director of the indicators and analysis division in education for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers PISA. “It’s a strong set of national goals, internalized at the school level.”

In recent years, Finland has implemented more standardized testing at various grade levels in its comprehensive schools. But unlike in the United States, for example, it does not impose penalties for poor student or school performance, Mr. Schleicher notes. Exams are instead meant to provide schools with an assessment of their performance, and to encourage them to do better.

In the 1990s, the Finnish education system underwent a series of changes that gave schools considerably more control. Today’s guidelines for the country’s comprehensive schools, which serve children from the elementary level through age 15, are “far from strict,” and give local schools broad latitude, according to a 2000 OECD analysis of the Finnish system.

Nearly all children attend comprehensive schools (very few private schools exist in Finland), which operate under an approach known as “heterogeneous grouping”—generally speaking, placing stronger and weaker students in the same classes. That approach is often credited for the lack of disparity between Finland’s highest- and lowest-performing students. On the 2000 PISA, Finland had a smaller percentage of poor-scoring students in reading literacy than any participating nation except South Korea, a level of equity it also showed on the results for mathematics literacy unveiled this winter.

To be effective, heterogeneous grouping requires small classes, so that teachers aren’t overwhelmed by trying to work with students of varying abilities, said Jouni Valijarvi, a professor of educational research at Finland’s University of Jyvaskyla. Nowadays, the ratio of students to teachers in most Finnish schools hovers at about 20-to-1, he noted.

Societal Factors

Over the years, criticism of the grouping has focused mostly on its effect on the most talented students, rather than those who lag behind. “The teacher has to spend more time with the weaker ones,” said Anneli Rautiainen, the principal of Kapyla Elementary School in central Helsinki. “The gifted students learn by giving knowledge to [other students].”

Interest in bringing more equity to Finland’s school system increased during the 1960s and 1970s, with the passage of laws promoting the integration of students of different social classes. That momentum was driven partly by working-class parents who sought a demanding education for their children, Mr. Valijarvi said.

Finland’s commitment to not “track” students of different abilities into more difficult or easier classes is common among nations with strong test scores across a broad swath of the student population, said William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who has studied international test performance. “That’s a good example of how you promote equity.”

Others see societal factors behind Finland’s success, particularly in literacy skills. Finland’s students displayed the highest level of interest in reading of any OECD country in 2000. They also borrowed books from the nation’s broad network of libraries at a much higher rate than the OECD average.

10th graders review their work. Finnish students of varying abilities are grouped together in classes.

At the same time, Finland’s student population today remains overwhelmingly homogeneous, compared with countries such as the United States, a characteristic that almost certainly helps its scores on international tests, most observers say. While schools like Ms. Rautiainen’s have seen a recent influx of immigrants from Russia, Estonia, Somalia, and Southeast Asia, 98 percent of Finland’s PISA test-takers were born in Finland, 7 percentage points above the OECD average.

Interest in promoting broad access to high-caliber education has also grown as Finland’s economy has changed. Long dependent upon its timber industry and other rural businesses, the nation has seen a rise in high-tech companies, which are demanding more skilled workers.

After comprehensive school, Finnish students choose between an academic or vocational model for secondary education, lasting roughly through ages 16 to 19. Getting more students to take their studies seriously after comprehensive school, and continue on to postsecondary education, is expected to pose a major challenge in the coming years.

“We have problems with that after they leave comprehensive school,” Professor Valijarvi said. “How do we keep young people motivated?”

Top Professionals

Grouping students with different academic skills requires a capable teaching force, observers say—and by most accounts Finland has that. The nation requires teachers in comprehensive school to have a master’s degree. What’s more, entry into rigorous graduate teacher-training programs is extremely competitive. Mr. Schleicher estimates that for every nine applicants, one is admitted.

Teachers have long enjoyed prestige in Finnish society. “You’re a professional, and it’s very respected,” said Ms. Rautiainen, who oversees a group of about 40 instructors and teaching assistants. “It attracts a certain kind of young [person]. It gives [those people] the possibility to be creative.”

That level of public esteem for teachers is hardly surprising, said Mr. Schmidt of Michigan State. The public’s respect for classroom instructors tends to be highest in countries where professional training is the toughest, he said.

The appeal of teaching, though, is apparently not financial. While Finland’s average starting salary in U.S. dollars is above the OECD average, that pay remains relatively stagnant over time. The average teacher’s salary after 15 years is $31,687 U.S., well below the United States’ average of $42,801 at that level.

Steven J. Leinwand, a principal research analyst at the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, doesn’t expect the United States to rush to adopt a foreign blueprint for schools, but he says he hopes that Finland’s strength in training teachers and promoting equity will lead American policymakers to consider more uniform student expectations.

“It is no longer acceptable to have one set of standards in one state and another set of standards in another,” Mr. Leinwand said, “when we’re all feeding into the same set of economic realities.”

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Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Finnish Students Are at the Top of the World Class


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