For the past decade, 15-year-old Finnish students have consistently been at or near the top of all the nations tested in reading, mathematics, and science. And just as consistently, the variance in quality among Finnish schools is the least of all nations tested, meaning that Finnish students can get a good education in virtually any school in the nation. That’s equality of educational opportunity, a good public school in every neighborhood.
What makes the Finnish school system so amazing is that Finnish students never take a standardized test until their last year of high school, when they take a matriculation examination for college admission.
Their own teachers design their tests, so teachers know how their students are doing and what they need. There is a national curriculum — broad guidelines to assure that all students have a full education — but it is not prescriptive. Teachers have extensive responsibility for designing curriculum and pedagogy in their school. They have a large degree of autonomy, because they are professionals.
Admission to teacher education programs at the end of high school is highly competitive; only one in 10 — or even fewer — qualify for teacher preparation programs. All Finnish teachers spend five years in a rigorous program of study, research, and practice, and all of them finish with a masters’ degree. Teachers are prepared for all eventualities, including students with disabilities, students with language difficulties, and students with other kinds of learning issues.
The schools I visited reminded me of our best private progressive schools. They are rich in the arts, in play, and in activity. I saw beautiful campuses, including some with outstanding architecture, filled with light. I saw small classes; although the official class size for elementary school is 24, I never saw a class with more than 19 children (and that one had two assistant teachers to help children with special needs).
Teachers and principals repeatedly told me that the secret of Finnish success is trust. Parents trust teachers because they are professionals. Teachers trust one another and collaborate to solve mutual problems because they are professionals. Teachers and principals trust one another because all the principals have been teachers and have deep experience. When I asked about teacher attrition, I was told that teachers seldom leave teaching; it’s a great job, and they are highly respected.
And by the way, the Finnish teachers I saw — those heaped with laurels as outstanding professionals — didn’t look or act differently from many, many teachers I have seen in the United States, even in so-called “failing schools.”
Finland has one other significant advantage over the United States. The child-poverty rate in Finland is under 4 percent. Here it is 22 percent and rising. It’s a well-known fact that family income is the most reliable predictor of academic performance. Finland has a strong social welfare system; we don’t. It is not a “Socialist” nation, by the way. It is egalitarian and capitalist.