Finnish Education: What the U.S. Can Learn

After performing in the top tier of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) the past ten years, Finland has developed a reputation for having one of the world's most successful education systems. Justin Snyder at The Hechinger Report recently spoke to the Minister of Education for Finland to find out just what educators there are doing right.

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By Megan Driscoll

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World-Class Education

For the past decade, Finland has been seen as an international leader in education. In 2001, the first test results from the tri-annual Program for International Student Assessment showed that Finland outperformed the world. The exam, administered by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), first measured reading, later adding tests of math (in 2003) and science (in 2006). On each measure, Finland repeatedly ranked in the top tier.

Although Finland dropped to third place on the reading score in 2010, below Shanghai-China and South Korea, the country continues to be seen as a model for educational success. This is due in part to the remarkable consistency in the performance of schools throughout the nation, regardless of family background or socioeconomic status. Finland seems to have found a way to educate all of its students equally well - even the gap between the highest and lowest performing students is described as 'modest.'

As a result, countries around the world are looking at Finland to help solve education crises at home. One of the key factors that many education experts point to is the remarkable quality of Finland's teachers. Justin Snyder, contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, recently interviewed Henna Virkkunen, Finland's Minister of Education, to find out how some of the world's best educators are trained.


It's All in the Teachers

When Mr. Snyder asked Ms. Virkkunen what the U.S. can learn from Finland in the realm of public education, she pointed out that education has to serve its local community. It's therefore difficult to wholly import a model from another place. But she did reaffirm the fact that teachers are 'the key for a better educational system.'

Ms. Virkkunen noted that one of the key differences between her country and places like the United States is that teaching is a venerated profession in Finland. Teachers are underpaid in the U.S., so teaching is often seen as a fallback profession for individuals without other skills. But according to Ms. Virkkunen, 'In Finland, we think that teachers are key for the future and it's a very important profession - and that's why all of the young, talented people want to become teachers.'

Teacher training in Finland is taken much more seriously. All teachers earn a 5-year master's degree at universities where they take a research-based approach to studying education. They then complete supervised teaching programs at training schools that are typically located near universities. These programs allow students to get feedback from their supervisors and hone their practical skills before being released into the classroom.

This pattern is similar to some teacher training programs in the U.S. It's becoming more common for aspiring teachers to earn a master's degree, and all states require teachers to complete supervised classroom experiences to earn a license. But there's significant inconsistency in the quality of the college programs, and many American teachers complain that they still find themselves lacking in practical skills when they go out on their own.

In Finland, teachers develop their own teaching methods and materials based on the research performed during their university years. As a result, they're 'experts of their own work,' in Ms. Virkkunen's words, operating as trained academics who are bringing their expertise to the K-12 classroom. It's almost as though all public school classrooms in Finland are being taught by college professors.


Learning Lessons

Not everyone believes that Finland can be used as an international model for education. Some critics argue that the country's homogenous culture and strong economy have created a unique set of circumstances that can't be replicated by 'melting pots' like the U.S. But in a recent analysis of Finland's educational success, the OECD points out that Helsinki now has schools where almost half the students are immigrants and Finland's average per pupil education expenditures are well below that of America's and other high-spending countries. Yet the country continues to dramatically outperform us.

Mr. Snyder asked Ms. Virkkunen how the country so successfully integrates immigrants into the education system. She acknowledged that this is a relatively new challenge for Finland, but noted that the PISA results suggest that their approach is working. Young children who come to Finnish schools from a different schooling system are placed into a smaller class setting for a year while they study Finnish, brush up on other subjects and also continue to study their native languages. By the time they enter the main Finnish school system, these students are ready to become multilingual learners with a strong educational foundation.

So what can the U.S. learn from Finland? Value teachers more. Prioritize teacher education. And offer focused education preparation not just for immigrants, but for all students who need to be integrated back into the mainstream school system.

Learn why some critics think that PISA is a biased measure of educational achievement.

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