Tiger Mom Loses to Reindeer Mom

About Finland’s schools, by Lynnell Hancock:

Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around…

“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. The school where Louhivuori teaches served 240 first through ninth graders last year; and in contrast with Finland’s reputation for ethnic homogeneity, more than half of its 150 elementary-level students are immigrants—from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia and Ethiopia, among other nations. “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers,” Louhivuori said, smiling. “We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States….

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?” 

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  • Jared

    We could stand to learn more than a thing or two from our friends in Finland.

  • Ann

    How in the world?

  • Jon

    maybe this points to the fact that for education, investing in people is more significant than investing in systems, technology, bureaucracy, etc.

  • Barb

    They don’t just play outside. According to “Last Child in the Woods” there are Finnish schools that actually teach outside.

  • My oldest son, who is now 16, had a teacher for 5th grade who would love to teach in that kind of system. He retired, after 30 years, because he was unwilling to be told how to teach and to have to do so much preparation for the battery of tests the kids have to take. He gave little to no homework — kids needed to play, he said. My son learned more that year from that wonderful man and was totally ready for middle school. Love this, Scot … thanks for sharing!

  • BradK

    I’m still trying to figure out what the article has to do with tigers, reindeer, or mothers. 🙂

  • Fish

    What a change from hearing that all our problems in education can be attributed to unions. The more respect we give teachers, the better educated our children will be.

    The average banker, broker or lawyer gets far more respect in our society, for much smaller or even negative contributions to the general welfare, simply because those occupations align much more cleanly and financially with our ideal of dog-eat-dog free market capitalism. Public school teachers, on the other hand, are seen by many as more or less agents of socialism.

  • JBL

    “Weapons of Mass Instruction” is a must read if the subject of education in America interests you. John Taylor Gatto is the author. I see much of the problem in the church as directly related to the church operating like the world (especially like the school system – consumerism). Competition is a tool pervasive in schooling which is a big part of the problem that leads to consumerism – competing leads to over-consumption. Pitting kids against themselves to keep them distracted from the system that is the real enemy leads right into adulthood as people foolishly argue amongst themselves in the political arena while the establishment in both parties laugh all the way to the bank. The church needs to reverse the trend by getting people out of the pew to “play outside”. Jesus, the disciples, and the early church were all very active rather than passively consuming the show of the church “service” (in America especially). Service is an action word. How did this get so messed up? Well in America a big part of the problem is schooling. Real education happens in application not abstraction. Ask any doctor if Med School prepared them to be a doctor; they will point to residency as way more important a factor. Education happened for millennia before modern western schooling came on the scene 100 years ago. Internships and apprenticeships are far more useful ways of learning. Bible studies, pulpit preaching, and Sunday school are nice, but you only ever absorb a little of that stuff if you never get to use it. Each of us has to be about the mission Jesus gave us of making disciples in a messy world before most of that “theoretical book knowledge” really means anything to us.

    Christian, play outside!

  • ao

    Love the article–very interesting. One thing I’ve always wondered about these national averages:

    It’s clear that Finland’s national average performances on math, science, and reading are much higher than ours. It looks like an equality-focus vs. a competition-focus has contributed to this. But…

    …if we compared the top 1% of performers within each country, would the U.S. be at the top (or at least beat Finland)?

    Perhaps an equality-focus is great at producing a relatively well-educated nation, but a competition-focus is great at producing the best of the best. This difference might get into deeper philosophical issues like, what is a nation’s goal in educating everyone?

    The only time I’ve seen this issue ever addressed in political discourse was in the fictitious Presidential election debate between Texas Congressman Matt Santos (D) and California Senator Arnold Vinick (R) on “The West Wing.” It opened my eyes.

  • DLS

    “The average banker, broker or lawyer gets far more respect in our society,

    – That’s partly because bankers, brokers and lawyers don’t shut down state capitals when someone wants to make them pay a small percentage of their own health care costs and any poorly performing banker, broker or lawyer can be fired on a moment’s notice. So there’s a reason for the phenomenon you cite.

    As for the article, this is great, but the populations (and thus, inherent challenges) of Finland and the United States are not even remotely comparable. For those reasons, this is not unlike those ridiculous UN reports on standard of living among countries.

  • Suzanne

    Apples to oranges, really. Finland does not have the % of their population living in poverty that we do in this country. The population is fairly homogeneous and they lean much more toward socialism in that the government takes care of many of the social needs(transportation, education, and health care are high on the list) that is not the case in the US. While we could certainly learn something from their system, our countries are so different, I don’t imagine it would work here.

  • Jeremy

    DLS, as a resident of Madison I can assure you that the protest had almost nothing to do with those contribution amounts. Everyone was ready to compromise on that.

  • All of the research I have seen says that Suzanne is right. It is more about diversity of population than method.

  • Brian B.

    Am I the only one that finds it ironic that the article uses the results of a standardized test as the basis for comparison between the U.S. and Finland? If a standardized test can give an accurate assessment of educational outcomes and be used to judge the quality of an educational system, then why is there such opposition to standardized testing in the U.S.?

  • Brian B.

    Another thought about this article Please note that Finland has been investing in this system for over 40 years and only began to see the real fruits of the system in the last 10 years or so. We can’t adopt this system and expect immediate improvement in our own results. It takes time for a systemic change to produce positive results. It will take years of properly training the educators and administrators who will run such a system.

    But in America, we no longer have the patience to give a new system time to work. If it doesn’t work immediately, we abandon it. So why should this Finnish model be any different?

    When I lived in Nashville about ten years ago, the school system decided to emulate some Japanese education model. The model was based on a collaborative effort where teachers would work together to evaluate and write lesson plans. The plans would evolve over time to theoretically produce the best plan possible for that particular lesson. Again, the Japanese model had been in place for decades and had been subject to much refinement. The teachers hardly bought in and there were no immediate results, so the initiative was abandoned a year or two later.

  • Mary Jurmain

    I briefly attended school in Finland when I was 11 years old in 1964. Of course, things have probably changed a lot since then, and unfortunately as the only child in the class who didn’t speak Finnish I was at a disadvantage. But I do remember that the teachers seemed very conscientious and concerned about my success. And even as a child I could sense that they were held in high esteem by the parents and kids and their job was considered prestigious. In Finland, teachers were treated as winners. In America, they are all too often treated as losers. And the real losers are the children.