The Finnish Formula

3/1/2015

STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | MARCH 2015

Finland—with a robust economy and the No. 1 ranking on international student tests—has caught the world's attention.

By Suzanne Weiss

Finnish students rank on top of the world in student assessments in large part because of how the country prepares its teachers to teach.

Over the past half-century, Finland has transformed itself from a country with a relatively poor agrarian economy and a mediocre education system into a top performer on numerous measures of national well-being—economic competitiveness, student achievement, civil liberties, quality of life, and investment in research and development.

With a population of 5.5 million spread over an area roughly the size of Montana, Finland today is a global hub of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship—from electronics, engineering and smart energy systems to information and communications technology. It is among the hottest spots in Europe for startup businesses, and currently boasts one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.

The World’s Best

Finland’s education system is also widely recognized as one of the world’s best. For nearly a decade, Finnish 15-year-olds have ranked No. 1 on international tests in language, math and science administered through the 34-country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Ninety percent of Finland’s young people complete what is called upper secondary school, and two-thirds of them enroll in universities or professionally oriented polytechnic schools. More than 50 percent of the Finnish adult population participates in adult education.

One of the keys to Finland’s high levels of educational achievement is its approach to selecting, preparing and supporting teachers.

In the 1970s, Finland had far more teacher training programs than it needed, and they varied widely in terms of selectivity and rigor. A growing and bipartisan consensus among policymakers, educators and business leaders in Finland led to the decision to invest in a uniformly well-prepared teaching force.

The country shut down all existing teacher training programs except those at the country’s eight most elite universities. It recruited top candidates—only 10 percent of those who apply are admitted—and paid for their three-year graduate-level education, along with a living stipend. Candidates are judged on their literacy, communication and math skills, a willingness to learn and the motivation to teach.

Teachers’ preparation includes extensive coursework on how to teach and at least a full year of clinical experience in designated schools, guided by professors and master teachers. These model schools are intended to showcase innovative practices, as well as to foster research on learning and teaching.

In addition to coursework in their content area, prospective teachers are well-trained in both research methods and in curriculum development, psychology, classroom management, assessment models, and how to teach students who learn in different ways.

An Expectation of Excellence

Tony Wagner, a veteran educator at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab, says Finland is “defining what is excellent teaching, not just reasonable teaching, and having a standard for that. “They really think about teachers as scientists and the classrooms are their laboratories,” says Wagner.

Every teacher has a master’s degree in a content area and teachers have time in the school day and in the school week to work together.”

At a recent meeting of the NCSL International Education Study Group, Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg noted that the high attrition rate of novice teachers in the U.S. carries a whopping $7 billion-a-year price tag, and is due in large part to the widely varying quality of teacher preparation programs.

“We Finns don’t like a lot of standardization, but there are two things we do standardize: school funding and teacher preparation,” he said. “We have just one way of preparing teachers, and the focus is on academic rigor, high expectations and very strict quality control in terms of entry to the profession.”

In Finland, says Sahlberg, who currently is a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, teachers are viewed “as autonomous, independent professionals, like doctors,” with all the skills and competencies needed to do their job effectively.

“You have wonderful teachers here in the U.S., but you need to empower them to do the right things for children,” he said, adding that teachers in Finland spend at least 10 hours a week working collaboratively to plan and develop curriculum and discuss issues ranging from textbooks to research to professional growth. “It’s about the team—schooling is a team sport.”

And, the pay is good. In Finland, teacher pay is about 95 percent of GDP per capita (compared with 81 percent in the U.S.), and compensation is frontloaded so that the difference between the average starting salary and the maximum teacher salary is just 18 percent.

Notable Differences

  • Children in Finland begin school at age 7. But the country heavily subsidizes daycare for children, and 97 percent of Finnish children attend preschool, which starts at age 5.
  • Finnish children get 75 minutes of recess a day, which includes a 15-minute break after every lesson. In the U.S., schoolchildren average 27 minutes of recess a day.
  • There are few, if any, mandatory tests in Finland until a graduation exam at the end of high school.
  • In Finland, a teacher usually stays with the same group of students for five years, and the average class size is 20 students.
  • Finland does not track students’ abilities, but to ensure children with learning or behavior disabilities and immigrants struggling with Finnish don’t fall behind, schools hire specially trained teaching aides.
  • Finnish language education begins on the first day of school. By age 9, students begin Swedish, and at 11, they start learning a third language, usually English. Many students even take on a fourth language around age 13. Students are tested on their first two languages in a matriculation exam for university placement.

Suzanne Weiss is a frequent freelance contributor to State Legislatures magazine.

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