Looking at the Finland model for public education

As you know, I’m not a big fan of the post-No Child Left Behind public education system we have here in America. I believe, as I’ve stated before on several occasions, that the American public school system, which was once the envy of the world, is being purposefully dismantled by wealthy individuals, and the politicians who do their bidding. I believe their primary objective is to keep more of their wealth, but I certainly don’t think they mind the fact that, as a result of these activities, they are creating a permanent under-class in America, easily manipulated, and willing to work for slave wages. I think destroying public education, in their eyes, is a classic “Win, Win.” It keeps people stupid, labor cheap, and more money in their pockets. The good news is, people are beginning to pay attention, and look for solutions. As we’ve discussed here in the past, one model getting a great deal of attention is that of the Finnish public education system, which, for the past several years, has been producing graduates much more proficient in math, sciences, and the languages than our American schools. The following clip comes from a recent Smithsonian magazine feature on what they’re doing in Finland, and what we might be able to learn from them. I encourage you to read it over, and, as you’re doing so, to keep in mind the recent situation in Detroit, where we’re talking about instituting 60-person classrooms, and closing down successful programs like the Catherine Ferguson Academy.

…There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Not until sixth grade will kids have the option to sit for a district-wide exam, and then only if the classroom teacher agrees to participate. Most do, out of curiosity. Results are not publicized. Finnish educators have a hard time understanding the United States’ fascination with standardized tests. “Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts,” Louhivuori teased, as he rummaged through his closet looking for past years’ results. “Looks like we did better than average two years ago,” he said after he found the reports. “It’s nonsense. We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”

…In 1963, the Finnish Parlia-ment made the bold decision to choose public education as its best shot at economic recovery. “I call this the Big Dream of Finnish education,” said Sahlberg, whose upcoming book, Finnish Lessons, is scheduled for release in October. “It was simply the idea that every child would have a very good public school. If we want to be competitive, we need to educate everybody. It all came out of a need to survive.”

Practically speaking—and Finns are nothing if not practical—the decision meant that goal would not be allowed to dissipate into rhetoric. Lawmakers landed on a deceptively simple plan that formed the foundation for everything to come. Public schools would be organized into one system of comprehensive schools, or peruskoulu, for ages 7 through 16. Teachers from all over the nation contributed to a national curriculum that provided guidelines, not prescriptions. Besides Finnish and Swedish (the country’s second official language), children would learn a third language (English is a favorite) usually beginning at age 9. Resources were distributed equally. As the comprehensive schools improved, so did the upper secondary schools (grades 10 through 12). The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots, according to Sahlberg. By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines. National math goals for grades one through nine, for example, were reduced to a neat ten pages. Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated. All children—clever or less so—were to be taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really would be left behind. The inspectorate closed its doors in the early ’90s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. “We have our own motivation to succeed because we love the work,” said Louhivuori. “Our incentives come from inside”…

[note: A Metafilter discussion on this Smithsonian article can be found here.]

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  1. Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I’d like to know the average teacher salary there. I say this because whenever the NeoCons really get going on the subject, the fact that we are all “overpaid with Cadillac benefits” comes up, the insinuation being that if we just made less money everything would be peachy keen, jelly bean.

    Having said that, their whole attitude towards public education sounds refreshing. The key thing that jumped out at me was “lots of special teacher help” being available to help kids who were having trouble. If we had two teachers per room (ideally, one for the subject and one special ed teacher for offering differentiated instruction), I think we would see a lot less kids left behind. I know this from personal experience btw…when I “push into” a classroom with my special needs kiddos, I usually can help any number of “non special needs” kids who are struggling. I don’t mean any disrespect to general ed teachers, but sometimes they get bogged down in the way they teach a subject; to wit, one of the math teachers taught long division in a certain way. Many weren’t getting it. She left the room for a minute and so I said, “Okay, let me try”. After the kids helped me figure out the Smart Board (I’m so pitiful at those things), I did the Dad Mom Sister Brother trick (divide, multiple, subtract, bring down) and a handful of kids clicked right in. Neither of us are a better or worse teacher, but I was able to bring in a different idea and that made all the difference.

    PS: Don’t forget the “other” thing going on in Detroit…10% pay cut, no step increases, double what we pay for health care. I did the math the other day and I’ll be pulling in about $10k-$12k less than I should be. I can’t let you all forget that we are already WAY lower paid than our suburban brethren (Plymouth, Troy, Bloomy, etc.) Ultimately, I love the job and have a husband to help with finances but it still causes me to make mean faces at various times throughout the day.

  2. wetdolphinmissile
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    From the Smithsonian
    “Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”
    It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.”

    Hmmmm…Preschool…and support for families…Health care…Wish we could do that here

    Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html#ixzz1VxdsnX4C

  3. Fran
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I think we need to take a step backwards from public education and look at early learning. It’s likely that these kids come to school on a more equitable level than our children do in the first place. Early learning (and I am NOT talking about drilling and killing 3 year olds) is essential and one of our biggest challenges as a society. Entering kindergarten, poor children are already at a disadvantage. That sets the stage for learning from there on out. Until we figure out how to create equitable systems for pre-school care, we are plugging holes in the dike.

    As for NCLB and its aftermath, you should never have people making laws who have a financial interest in the attributes of the system, such as testing.

    Our expectations for what public education provides (learning, character development, mental health services, orchestra, etc, etc, etc) has expanded over time, but the architecture to support it has not. We need to understand the system we expect it to be and understand what it costs to fund it.

    And as for the Finnish pedagogical approaches, Amen.

  4. heidi
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Sadly, if we followed that model, you’d get to many “people” (don’t want to name names) saying it’s too much government involvement. In Lenawee county, they are trying out a new program where everyone can get a free lunch/breakfast regardless of income..and already the comments on the article are full of “free rides need to stop” and “my tax dollars pay what”..disgusting to read. I send my kids to Tecumseh Public Schools, we are just in elementary school, but so far the public school experience as been a good one. They are planning on a gifted and talented program, that everyone is excited about and even though my kids qualify, they are also planning on way too much standard testing, so I’m opting out. They already will have to go through MEAP tests, early ACT testing (yes, as early as 9 years of age for entry to the gifted and talented program), and other nonsense.
    On a side note, you may want to pick up and read, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization by Yong Zhao..which discusses the crossroads of American Education and how in China, they are getting away from standard testing to help produce creativity BECAUSE they recognized how past American Education methods that didn’t have tons of standard testing, you create a more intelligent/imaginative/well-rounded learner. Interesting how America and China have flip flopped in their ideals on education.

  5. wetdolphinmissile
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    What is very cool about feeding everyone breakfast/lunch together is that no one is singled out as a taker of free/ reduced by other children, no one late for class because of eating breakfast, everyone gets breakfast and eating together can and should be a great learning experience. Win win win…only an oaf would complain

  6. Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Fran is correct…poor kids often come to school with a HUGE disadvantage. What I am about to say is not at all a “dis” on poor folks nor is it meant to paint all lower SES folks with the same brush. With that disclaimer said, let me say that in my limited experience I have seen kids come to school having basically raised themselves. I remember my mom and dad reading to me (actually teaching me to read), talking to me about stuff, exposing me to stuff and generally socializing my pampered little only child ass prior to entering Thorpe Elementary School. I came to school with some prior knowledge of life, in other words. It is amazing to be with kids who have very little prior knowledge of things and certainly haven’t had exposure to letters & numbers. Not gonna lie…I do see quite a few kids who are living with parents who had them too young, just don’t give a shit or who are acting as guardians and are more interested in that check that comes every month. Compare this to places like a2 where parents freaking learn sign language to “communicate” with their little unique snowflakes (wtf?) and have them filling out Harvard applications along with their Christmas list. There’s really no way to catch up…not with all of the “highly qualified” teachers in the world.

  7. Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    The trouble is that Americans widely accept the presence of poverty and a large underclass as a given. Until Americans start understanding that poverty is a state of being created as a necessary byproduct of a specific economic system, nothing will ever change.

    I am usually skeptical of the Scandinavian comparisons, however. While their success can’t be denied, I often wonder whether their models are practical in a country as large and diverse as ours. It would take, though, one single brave State (Rhode Island? MICHIGAN?) to implement a system such as the Finns have, witness results, and see if it can be applied to other States. Sadly, though, that will never happen as long as the middle class sees education as a right only for themselves.

  8. John Galt
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    If only we didn’t have lazy American-hating parasites for teachers. That’s the real problem.

  9. Edward
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Pete, at the end of the Smithsonian piece urban poverty is mentioned. Specifically the author notes that well off parents are beginning to avoid schools with a larger refugee populations. The fear is that a two-tier system may develop. They’re currently debating how to best address this.

    The most important thing, which no one has noted yet, is that the quality of education in Finland is equally distributed. In other words, schools in higher income areas don’t have more money per student than other schools do. It’s understood, across party lines, that this is the best thing for Finland going forward. It seems like common sense. People here in the States, however, would go ape shit if they knew that their kids in Ann Arbor, for instance, were essentially being treated like kids in Detroit.

  10. Eel
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    “Why should I pay to educate another man’s child?” You’d be surprised how pervasive this view is in our country. Some people won’t be happy until we’ve got one room schoolhouses again, where individuals come together to hire a teacher for their kids directly.

  11. Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink


    I would argue that we already have a many tiered educational system that correlates entirely with wealth. The Southern response to integrated schools was to expand private education, leaving black kids in the dust once more. Granted, an integrated Mississippi school system was far better than what had preceded it.

    What the Scandinavians (and the Germans, the French, the Japanese and a number of other countries) have, is a centralized educational system that dictates curriculum and funding uniformly among all geographic areas. We could never, ever hope for that here in the United States, the resistance would be incredible.

    Statistics regarding how far behind the US is from other developed nations are misleading, just as health indicators for the US compared to other developed countries are misleading. Well to do people in the US have access to some of the best educational opportunities in the world. What brings the numbers down is the deplorable state of impoverished America, which is a total crime in my opinion.

    Private education in the US does better than public education, this is entirely true. But the dismantling of public education and the leaving of poor communities to fend for themselves is not only unproductive, but entirely wrong. Sadly, I bleieve that the next 20 years will result in an America that looks more like present day South Africa than present day Scandinavia.

  12. Posted August 24, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Eel, I think you are right. Somehow, this country went from understanding why free, public education was good for all to being bitter & angry about having to pay for “someone else’s” kid to go to school. I think this all ties into the way people in this country have gotten meaner and more in the mindset of “I’ve got mine, now you get yours” or perhaps now more, “If I can’t have it, neither can you.” For example, commenters on news sites are DELIGHTED that public employees and teachers are paying more for health care.

  13. dragon
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    Median white household net worth: $135K
    Median black household net worth: $12k
    Median latino household net worth: $18K

    Median white household net worth: $113K (-16%)
    Median black household net worth: $5K (-53%)
    Median latino household net worth: $6K (-66%)

    That’s median, i.e. the ultra rich aren’t affecting these stats.


  14. Glen S.
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    The “Why should I have to pay to educate somebody else’s kid? mentality” is just another inevitable product of decades of corporate-driven right-wing propaganda designed to weaken families, neighborhoods, and communities for the benefit of private, for-profit enterprise.

    I agree that when it comes to public education, we need more (and better) of almost everything: More early childhood intervention, more teachers and aides, smaller class sizes, more parental and community involvement — and a 21st-Century collaborative model (more tailored, flexible, interactive), rather than the current 19th-Century industrial model (highly-structured, kids expected to sit still in straight rows for hours at a time, etc.)

    We also need to recognize that, even if we were to provide all of this — not every kid is going to have the interest or aptitude to be able to graduate or go on to “University.” That’s why I think we also need to provide a first-rate system of training for skilled-trades workers, craftsmen (and women), and providing apprenticeships. Many of us tend to take things like electric lights, tap water, and home heating and air-conditioning for granted — but we will always need people who know how to design, build and repair things — so why not create a systematic educational (and career) path for these folks, leading to marketable skills and solid wages?

    Most of all, we need to be willing to pitch in and PAY for all these things.

    Despite a significant decline in American’s earning-power median net-worth over the past decade, we are still a relatively rich country. If we can’t figure out that educating our next generation is at least as important as many of the other ridiculous things we support with our private spending and tax dollars, it certainly doesn’t say much for us as a nation or society.

  15. Posted August 25, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m not so sure the goal of the destruction of public education is to lock in the upper class. Probably the most vocal opponents of public education that I’ve encountered are what you might describe as lower middle class (or even less affluent than that). And I’m not going to buy into the notion that they’re all brainwashed by corporate powers — that sells those people short.

    As a teacher and union leader, I’ve thought a lot about this and talked to a lot of people and my conclusion is that a good many are opponents of public education because it means *their* kids have to go to school with *those* kids. Into the *those* kids category, insert whatever bias you have: racial, religious, ethnic, philosophical, special needs and so on. If public education is destroyed and everyone is in a charter school, then you can pick a place for your kids that doesn’t include *those* kids. You can already see that in various charter schools — ones that are pretty obviously for professional’s kids, Muslim kids, African American kids, etc.

    I think the goal is the balkanization of what once was a great unifying force.

  16. Posted August 25, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    John makes a good point. My school, in SW Detroit, is VERY multicultural. As he says, X parents don’t want their kids going to school with Y ethnicity/race and Y parents don’t want their kids with X *or* Z and on it goes. Btw, about 100% of our students receive free/reduced lunch so pretty much everyone is lower SES.

    Their is also, as John notes, a bias against special needs kids, who are traditionally left out of charters (I said *traditionally*…I know some cater to LD students).

  17. wetdolphinmissile
    Posted August 26, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    OMG, you all saw that Victory Academy was at the Heritage Festival advertising about how they have free tuition…it is not free nor is it tuition, yup that is our tax dollars paying for those charter students. And as said previously, they are not recruiting special needs students.

  18. Posted August 26, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I saw them there, but didn’t talk with them. It would have been interesting, however, to get them on tape talking about how they would handle special needs kids. If I had the time, that would make for a pretty good investigative report.

  19. Posted August 26, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the charters will ever come out and say that they don’t accept special needs kids. I am sure, however, that they will point out to parents that they don’t offer special services, and that the public schools do.

    They are, however, surely able to boot EI and behavioral issues back into the public schools. But you can be sure they don’t do that until after 4th Friday. That way, they get the funds for those kids.

  20. TaterSalad
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Here is your typical liberal, Barack Obama supporter:

    ………and then we have this:
    2. http://il.youtube.com/watch?v=4zRbe3kv70A

    3. http://weaselzippers.us/2011/03/02/video-leftist-wisconsin-protesters-cant-explain-what-theyre-fighting-against/
    This is why the country is in the mess we are in. These are the typical people who support and vote for Democrats. Why do they vote this way. A simple answer of one word: “Entitlements”. The Party of Free!

    4. http://noiri.blogspot.com/2010/08/how-and-why-obama-got-elected-idiot.html

    5. http://dailybail.com/home/meet-chairman-bernankes-replacement-happy-hour-in-santa-cruz.html

    6. …………..and then we have this typical moonbat liberal, Joy Behar:

    7. At $174,000.00 per year plus expenses, Linda Sanchez (D), California just can’t make it from week to week! Pathetic!


    8. Now we have your typical liberal/Democratic Congresswoman: http://therealrevo.com/blog/?p=43579

    9. Twelve (12) reasons why people voted for a Democrat in the past:

    10. Wisconsin capital, Tea Party, 4/15/2011 where left wing trash show their true selfs and the lowest form of morals and principals.

    11. The liberal, Democratic Party, known as the Party of Food Stamps has now entered a new “low” in morality and here is why: http://weaselzippers.us/2011/04/20/liberals-hit-new-low-keep-digging-attack-paul-ryan-because-his-father-died-young-resulting-in-survivor-benefits/

    12. http://therealrevo.com/blog/?p=43998

    13. http://weaselzippers.us/2011/04/20/liberals-hit-new-low-keep-digging-attack-paul-ryan-because-his-father-died-young-resulting-in-survivor-benefits/

    14. “If we can’t get our entitlements from the government, then we will steal them”!

    15. Here are e-mails of your typical left wing liberal Obama supporters who
    hate people of other political beliefs while they are suffering from the
    tornadoes. How low-life can these people get?

    16. Patriotism is the last ditch effort/refuge used by the liberal, Democratic Party, better know as the “Party of Food Stamps”.


    17. ……..and the typical Barack Obama supporter:

    18. Special Report #6: http://fangsout.tripod.com/abledanger/

    19. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg98BvqUvCc

    20. The attached video provides some insight to America into a typical Barack Obama supporter who has completely NO concept of what a free market, free society and capitalist system is all about. This person is what the Democratic Party prays on for their support and votes by providing
    “entitlements” to them, paid for by someone else who is working. This is what the conservative people of America are “up against” ………….Free Loaders! How many do you know?

    21. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg98BvqUvCc

    22. The video that tells it like it is. Signs that you are a liberal/progressive and don’t even know it……….yet!

  21. Meta
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Bachmann: Why is there a Department of Education?


  22. YFI
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    They’re smart because they eat radioactive reindeer blubber.

  23. Meta
    Posted December 30, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    From The Altlantic:

    Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model — long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization — Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland to visit schools and talk with the nation’s education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media marveling at the Finnish miracle……

    So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Earlier this month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit received national media attention and generated much discussion…….

    Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. “Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in Finland.”

    This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.

    The irony of Sahlberg’s making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of America’s best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to attend — not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the room commented on Sahlberg’s statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.


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