Assessment Opinion

Is Finland the Answer?

By Diane Ravitch — April 29, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Deborah,

As you know, Americans have a long history of looking to other countries for answers to our educational problems. In the 19th Century, American educators traveled to Prussia to see the wonders of its national education system. In the 1960s, the British education system became the American educational Mecca because of its demonstrations of infant education and open classrooms (with an occasional side trip to Summerhill).

Recently, Finland has won admiration for its educational accomplishments—not long ago in a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal, and now in your address to your colleagues at the Forum for Education and Democracy. I note that you and the Journal identify Finland as a success because of its performance on international assessments; without those assessments, how would we know that Finland’s education system was worthy of discussion and emulation? We would be in the dark.

In some ways, Finland is not exactly a fitting role model for the United States. For one thing, it is a tiny nation, with about 5.3 million inhabitants (smaller than New York City). And unlike New York City, it is not notably diverse in ethnicity and religion: The population is overwhelmingly homogeneous, ethnically and religiously. More than 80 percent of Finns are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is recognized by the government as an established church (Finland has school prayer). More than 90 percent speak Finnish as their native language. Less than 3 percent of the population is foreign-born. Finland also has a demographic problem that we do not share: The birthrate is very low, and the population is aging. Perhaps this is an advantage for children, because they are prized. Finland is one of the most sparsely populated nations in Europe.

You are right about the wonderful schools and conditions for teaching in Finland. There is considerable local autonomy, school autonomy, and teacher autonomy. Finland has a very egalitarian school system, and its results on international assessments are impressive in every subject. The number of dropouts is small; the variance between high achievers and low achievers is also small. Another point that you might have made: Most of Finland’s schools are small. The majority of students are in schools with fewer than 500 students.

But there is yet another aspect of the Finnish education system that you did not mention. Finland has a strong and coherent national core curriculum. The core curriculum describes the general principles of instruction, as well as the specific knowledge and skills that students will acquire over the course of their basic education (from grades 1 through 9).

Finland doesn’t get great results by hiring excellent teachers and then leaving them to do whatever they choose. It specifies the subjects that will be studied, the objectives for each academic subject, and the assessment criteria for 8th grade. One reason, perhaps, that Finnish students excel in science is that there is a national course of study in physics for grades 7 through 9. The children study motion and force, vibrations and wave motion, heat, electricity, natural structures (including “radioactive decay; fission and fusion; ionizing radiation and its effect on animate nature; protection from radiation”). The national core curriculum has a carefully specified format of concepts, knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are to be taught not only in physics, but chemistry, biology, history, geography, social studies, languages, health, religion, ethics, music, visual arts, crafts, physical education, and home economics. (To learn more, click here and here.)

The content and objectives of each subject are thoughtfully detailed. Teachers have wide leeway in how they teach and in formulating their lessons. But the core content does not appear to be controversial or disputed.

This is precisely what I have been advocating in our dialogues for the past year, as well as for many years before that. I do not presume that a national core curriculum would solve all our problems, far from it. One need only look at eduwonkette’s recent post about violence in Chicago to see that our social problems are not confined to curricular issues, or to Richard Rothstein’s many writings about how issues of poverty restrict the ability of schools to teach children.

What I take from all this is that a nation will have more successful schools if it can arrive at a fundamental agreement about what the schools are supposed to do. If we leave matters at the disposal of every school and every teacher, to do as they see fit, we will not be following the Finnish model of success.

It is worth noting here the “mission statement” of the Finish education program: “Basic education is part of fundamental educational security. It has both an educational and an instructional mission. Its task on the one hand is to offer individuals the chance to acquire a general education and complete their educational obligations; and, on the other, to furnish society with a tool for developing educational capital and enhancing equality and a sense of community.”

“Basic education must provide an opportunity for diversified growth, learning, and the development of a healthy sense of self-esteem, so that the pupils can obtain the knowledge and skills they need in life, become capable of further study, and, as involved citizens, develop a democratic society. Basic education must also support each pupil’s linguistic and cultural identity and the development of his or her mother tongue. A further objective is to awaken a desire for lifelong learning.”

“In order to ensure social continuity and build the future, basic education assumes the tasks of transferring cultural tradition from one generation to the next, augmenting knowledge and skills, and increasing awareness of the values and ways of acting that form the foundation of society. It is also the mission of basic education to create new culture, revitalize ways of thinking and acting, and develop the pupil’s ability to evaluate critically.”

Tiny Finland cares about its children and its future. There is much here to admire.


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