Why Finland’s public education system is great (and why America’s isn’t)

Recently, many people have began noticing Finland’s excellent performance worldwide regarding academics. Especially in the United States, where many public schools are troubled, teachers, educators, and parents are wondering why Finland’s system works, and what we can learn from them to fix our schools. But seriously, why?

 

Surprisingly, Finland actually spends about 30% less per student than the United States, yet it trumps the US in PISA scores, though educators couldn’t care less about rankings. While the United States is moving to more private-sector participation in the school system, and encourage states to compare teachers and school systems, Finnish educators are appalled by such an idea. A principal in Helsinki, in an article for the Smithsonian, said, “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts. If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” There are few standardized tests, and little or no homework for students. Teachers, unlike in the United States, are given great responsibility and occasionally tutor students that are left behind. They have the power to do almost anything for their students to succeed. Also, children aren’t rushed to start school (and only start at age 7), but even when school starts, play is emphasized and in between lessons, students go out for nearly 15 minutes break. (Probably also keeping them healthier and more active.) Schools provide good nutritious meals free of charge, and also provide health care or transportation services to students if needed.

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Images courtesy of Smithsonian 

One of the greatest problems with the American public education system are the great differences between schools. A public school in an inner city might be impoverished with little or no resources, while one out a few miles away in a richer neighborhood might have lots of money to hire the best teachers. In Finland, this is unheard of. All schools have to follow the same national standards, and unlike in American schools, students are tried to be kept on the same level academics-wise. Only students with very severe disabilities are separated out into special classes. Whenever possible, students are in the same class, on the same level. Whereas in the United States there is disagreement across the political spectrum as how to improve our education system, especially with regards to Common Core and charter schools, there is little debate in Finland amongst all parties, left or right, about the education system. It isn’t a political issue, nor should it be. The Education ministry is run by people who have lots of years experience in the field, not politicians.

 

 

Teachers in Finland typically teach the same class for many years, with the same students, thus making a strong connection with them. Teachers must have master’s degrees. In class, collaboration in a big part of learning in a stress-free environment. Classrooms have technology one could possibly dream of, yet the tech doesn’t take over real life. It has its limitations. Technology can’t replace people and real life, and while some American schools are constantly allowing tech to take over the whole learning experience, that certainly isn’t the case here. Students start learning English at a young age, in third grade. Swedish starts in fourth. Children are allowed to talk, and even giggle or laugh. The US seems to be heading in the opposite direction of Finland. It is creating more regulations and standards, requiring more assessments. Often, it feels like students are being taught how to take a test, not how to get along in the real world. A Finnish educator said he could never understand Americans’ obsession with grades, scores, plots and charts. You can’t be defined by a number. You can call their approach unconventional, or alternative, because that’s what it is. It seems to work for them, though.

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We all see that it’s going well for them, but the real question is whether the same thing can be replicated in the United States. In Finland, most of the population is native-born, and there are few immigrants. Obviously, as a Lutheran country, there is a certain culture and work ethic that doesn’t always exist everywhere in the United States. Is there are a straight out yes or no answer? Probably not. It might work for certain parts of the country, and not others. But we should remember, Norway, also a Nordic country, has a system similar to that of the United States, with standardized testing and regulations, but scores significantly lower than Finland worldwide. There’s no harm trying. Instead of worrying about tests and ratings of schools, how about we just hire great teachers and teach them how to teach well, and instead of constantly barking at them this and that, just allow them to connect to students. All the technology, and everything else, will prove useless if we don’t have good teachers. Isn’t that what a school is about? I’m not saying we should copy Finland, but we should learn from them. Let kids be kids. Don’t obsess about grades. Prepare them for real life, not the standardized tests. It’ll pay off, spare us some humiliation, and cultivate a new generation of thinkers, ready to innovate and shape the world of the future.

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