Finland’s Commitment to Better Education

Pasi Sahlberg lectured on how Finland has improved its education system, setting a bar other nations still work to meet.

Finnish Lessons 1PROVO, Utah (March 19, 2015)—As Finland continues to top the charts in education, two questions arise: first, what is the root of Finland’s success, and second, what is preventing other countries from similar achievement?

Pasi Sahlberg – visiting professor of practice in education at Harvard University – was invited by the David M. Kennedy Center to speak for this year’s Annual Bjarnason Lecture. His presentation, “Finnish Lessons: What Can the US Learn from Educational Reform in Finland?” focused on what Finland has been doing to establish itself as a leader in education, offering it as a potential model for U.S. education reform.

In 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.) conducted its first Programme for International Student Assessment (P.I.S.A.) survey, with a focus on literacy among students worldwide. Of the countries studied, Finland was ranked first; the U.S. ranked 15th. When the O.E.C.D. returned in 2003 with a P.I.S.A. study focused on mathematics, Finland again ranked first, and again in 2006 in science. The U.S. ranked 24th and 21th respectively.

Sahlberg shared his theory concerning Finland’s success, dividing it into two aspects. First, the education system is reflective the country’s success in social, technological, and financial areas. According to reports by the World Economic Forum (W.E.F.), Finland ranks first in technological advancement, second in sustainable competitiveness, and third in economic competitiveness. It holds similar rankings in studies by Transparency International, U.N.I.C.E.F. and Save the Children, who measured Finland’s standing in corruption perception, child well-being, and conditions for mothers, respectively. Most telling of all, the 2013 United Nations World Happiness Report ranked Finland at 7th place, while the United States came in 17th.

In short, Finland’s society is conducive to strong education. “It’s not only the education system with great teachers and principals and other things,” Sahlberg explained. “It’s the entire society that is helping kids to learn within the school system.”

The second aspect of Sahlberg’s theory is that Finland has put smart education policies into practice; Sahlberg identified three in particular that have had the most influence.

Finnish Lessons 2The first of these is Finland’s strong public education system. From preschool to the university level, public school is the only option; there are no private or charter schools in the entire country, and all education is free. And even though education is only compulsory through the ninth grade (when most students are 16 years old), 95 percent of all students move on to higher or specialized education. Of those, 60 percent move on to study at universities or polytechnics.

The second policy is a focus on equity. Sahlberg explained, “If we have an education system where the wealth of the family or the socio-economic struggles of the children’s parents determine how well or how poorly they are doing, then we say that there is less equity in the schools.” Poor communities typically have low-standard schools, while affluent communities have high-quality, due to the distribution of tax money.

Because this has so long been the case for the U.S., there is a common sentiment that you can have either equity or quality in education, but you can’t have both; either all schools will be meager, or some will be good and others bad.

In the mid-1970s, Finland was in a similar position. However, the country enacted massive reforms, such as discriminating schools in terms of funding, or what Sahlberg called “positive discrimination.” He said, “If we have a school that needs more resources, that has more immigrant kids who don’t speak Finnish, or more kids from single or unemployed parent families, we give those schools more resources.” The funds are spread around so that every school has all the resources necessary to provide their children with equal opportunity education.

The third policy is Finland’s high standard for good teachers. In 2014, about 8,500 students applied for primary school teacher education programs. Only 800 were accepted, going on to study for five to six years before receiving the necessary master’s degree.

Sahlberg dispelled the misunderstanding that Finland was simply recruiting the best and brightest. In fact, only 24 percent of those accepted into the teaching program were academically strong (with scores from 79 percent to 100). “To have good teachers in your schools, that doesn’t mean you have to recruit the best and the brightest academically. You have to find the best people who are able to do the job very well.”

Sahlberg further explained that the quality of the education system can exceed the quality of the teachers, but only if we understand that teaching in the schools is a team effort. He compared it to a football team, saying, “If you have leadership, a mission, a coach and an ideal to work for together, then you can do much more.”

Education is not a simple matter, and there is no such thing as a perfect model. What works for one country will not be a sure solution for another’s problems. Still, Sahlberg hopes that the U.S. will learn from Finland’s example and do whatever it must to ensure that every child in America has the resources they need to take advantage of the land of opportunity.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Images courtesy of the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies