Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Finland the Model

In a world flattened by globalization, ideas (both good and bad) travel across international borders at the speed of the internet. Thus, when trying to reform the US education system, it behooves us to look for best practices wherever we can find them. My friend Burt from Omnilore suggested looking at Finland, the country that has been ranked first in both educational achievement and economic strength.

Burt says: “Finland completely blew apart their educational hierarchy some ten years or so ago. The national educational administration is nil. All the important decisions on how and pretty much what to teach are made by the local school administration with very heavy inputs from teachers (everyone belongs to a strong teachers union!) and somewhat by the parents.” I was intrigued to look further.

Finland's education system has received the highest marks in the latest international comparisons. PISA - the Program for International Student Assessment – is an appraisal of 15 year olds in the 40 most industrialized countries organized by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). PISA is intended to “assess the knowledge and skills needed for full participation in society, rather than mastery of a curriculum.” With the average score set at 500, the latest (2003) results were revealing and sobering for Americans. Some highlights:

Hong Kong-China: 550
Finland: 544
South Korea: 542
Netherlands: 538
Great Britain: 506
Germany: 503
Poland: 490
United States: 483

Finland: 543
South Korea: 534
Canada: 528
Australia: 525
Great Britain: 506
United States 495

Finland: 548
Japan: 548
Hong Kong-China: 539
South Korea: 538
Australia: 525
Macao-China: 525
Great Britain: 519
United States: 491

It is clear that the US is not doing very well, especially considering what we spend on education. It is also clear that when we want to study best practices, Finland and South Korea are countries to examine. Furthermore, The World Economic Forum has ranked Finland the most competitive economy in the world, ahead of the United States, for four of the past five years. How are they doing so much so right?

Lest we forget, things were not always so rosy in Finland. Fifty years ago, Finland was known for little more than the wood pulp from its endless forests, a poverty-stricken land of poorly educated loggers and farmers on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Finland's schools at the end of World War II turned out some of the worst educated young people in the industrialized world but now graduate the best.

What are some of the characteristics of the Finnish system? The first difference we find is that Finnish kids enter school at age seven, when pupils are just about mature enough to begin learning in an organized setting, much later than kids in the US and Europe. This places greater responsibility on families, with a strong culture of reading in the home. Burt says that many kids in Finland learn to read from watching American TV programs with Finnish subtitles. Perhaps that could be tried in America through the use of the mute button and captioning.

In Finland, children remain in a local “comprehensive school” for nine years where the core subjects are very broad, including languages, sciences, maths, humanities, psychology, religion and philosophy. At age 16 they take a very rigorous national examination. Based on this examination children are allowed to enter either an upper secondary school intended for more academically-able students, or a vocational school, which focuses on workplace skills.

Finland’s Educational System

.......................... 16 -- -- --
.......................... Secondary School -- University
7 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 15
Comprehensive School
........................ 16 -- -- --
........................ Vocational School -- Polytechnics

Vocational school graduates may enter the workforce directly after graduation, usually at age 18-20. Upper secondary school concludes with a nationally graded matriculation examination. Passing the examination is a prerequisite for university education. The system is designed so that approximately the lowest scoring 5% fails and also 5% get the best grade, exactly the distribution I suggested in my last post (“No Child Left Behind” 2/3/07).

There are two sectors in the tertiary education: universities and polytechnics. There are 20 universities and 29 polytechnics in Finland. The focus for universities is research and they give a more theoretical education. The polytechnics are not academia; they focus on more practice-oriented teaching and development instead of research. For example, physicians are university graduates, whereas nurses are polytechnic graduates.

In this egalitarian and meritocratic system, discipline a not a problem since “the door is open in both directions, so if they don't want to be there, no one is forcing them to stay.” Yet in practice, Finland has few dropouts in stark contrast with England which has one of the highest drop-out rates in the industrialized world and the US where dropouts are much too high among certain groups. Finland’s system is worth a further look.

Pekka Himanen, a brilliant young philosopher who advises the Finnish government, calls his country’s system the virtuous circle.

“When people can fulfill their potential they become innovators,” Dr. Himanen argues. “The innovative economy is competitive and makes it possible to finance the welfare state, which is not just a cost, but a sustainable basis for the economy, producing new innovators with social protection.”

While we look at the Finnish educational system, please do not be seduced by the socialist context. For example, Finland's social spending constitutes 25 percent of its GDP, the equivalent of Four-plus Trillion dollars in the US, much more than our entire federal budget. Finland’s unemployment stands at 8.6% compared to 4.5% in the US. Finnish pensions have risen by only 3% in real terms since 1993, ten times more slowly than wages. The public health system is overcrowded with older Finns: "You wait a long time to see a doctor, and then you don't see him for very long."

Finland’s population of 5.3 million is largely homogenous, with a 6 percent Swedish minority and no significant immigration. Finland is not America, but we could learn something from their approach to education.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you may not know is that Television comes through in sub titles, thus in order to know what characters are saying, kids learn to READ early! It's all in the motivation.


4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the emphasis on learning second (and third and fourth!) languages may also be part of the equation. I have had the opportunity to work with a number of Finns over the years, and all of them spoke nearly flawless English and often several other languages as well. I understand that this is almost universally true.


4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said! Send it to the school board and President Bush and his Mrs.


4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual, very good, Bill, and very informative.

A couple of notes and questions:
* I wonder how they're rated economically--the last time I looked at the GDP/capita numbers, Denmark was better than Finland, and neither came close to the US.

* The readers might infer that we were at the bottom of the participating countries--actually we were I believe better than the mean.

* Interesting that in two of three--and in widely different disciplines, Australia was quite high. They also have an interesting and quite different school scheme , which de-emphasizes tests (at least that's the way it was the last time I looked).

* Check that one out, and you'll be an expert --at least an Omnilorean expert--in yet another field.

* Now, if we could only get you to.................!

* The 2006 results should be published soon, and we should find a big fire to burn the results, because they're accenting our worst subject: science. Actually, that'll help the dems because we've been relatively flailing on this watch. There's gotta be some more innovative and successful directions that we'll soon hear from my buddy Barack (that Hussein guy).


4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill — Interesting article, but it lacks a lot of information needed in order to draw any real conclusions from it. In the ratings, how many countries rated ABOVE 500 and how many rated below the 500 mark? Are we 8th in Math out of 175-odd countries in the world, or are there 80 or whatever number of countries above 500 that are not listed here? Instead of comparing total social spending as a percent of GDP, what is the actual spending on education as a percent of GDP, combining Federal, State, County and Local educational spending (as well as bonded indebtedness for education). This information would make the article more meaningful and be put into a context that is apples to apples without the oranges. It may well not change anything, but I have a gut feeling the spending levels would be pretty close between the two countries.

Apparently one of the keys to the Finnish systems’ success was (or is) innovation. And as we know, the educational system in the U.S. cannot innovate as long as it is held hostage by the unions and the politicians the unions bought.


6:48 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

From the CIA World FactBook, the GDP/pp at ppp are US = $43,500, Denmark = $37,000 and Finland = $32,800. Amazing that we are able to do this in spite of our bad schools.

Since the average PISA score is set to 500, the USA was below average in all tests. In math we were 29th out of 40. Even worse, 10% of our students were rated below Level 1 (the lowest) in math compared to 1.5% of Finns and 2.4% of Canadians, while only 2% of our students achieved the higest ranking (Level 6) compared to the average of 4%, Finland's 7% and Hong-Kong's 10.5%.

I plan to look into those educational systems that are doing so much better than ours, particularly Australia and Canada.

I believe the US spends more per pupil on education than any nation, even adjusting for enonomies, but think it is a close thing with Finland. Will look into it.

You are right on about innovation, but in Finland it appears that their strong unions are on the side of the students, unlike ours.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Although I always maintained that the European education has a higher standard then the Canadian (did not know about the US) Finland amazes me, such a small country and such high standards and results in their education! You did not include language skills. Europe has a much higher education in this subject too. Like in the Netherlands, when you finish your grade 12, one knows how to speak fluently France, English, German and of course Dutch the mother language in the Netherlands.

I wonder if you ever have thought of investigating health care in the world? We (in Canada) are suppose to have "good" health care with a low monthly cost (I believe it is around $160 p.p. a month, i am not sure because my husband's firm pays this and we never see the numbers, but according to our friends it is the above amount. We get everything for this, however the price is higher then one thinks, not in dollar bills, but on the waiting lists. I had a hip replacement a couple of years ago and waited nine months to have this done. I hear one has to wait a long time for MRI's, X Ray's and so the list goes on..

Some places in Europe have a much better system. I know one calls this socialism (free health care) but meanwhile it is very nice to have. One does not need to shed hundreds of dollars for an operation or on health care.


1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am interested in any studies on the impact of broad-based religion education on social tolerance/prejudice and attitudes to multiculturalism.
Cathy Byrne

10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


So, let me get this straight. Five million Finns and a few Swedes are making us look bad? In the Korean system, if you don’t like the program of study you initially take in college, you’re screwed. No options for you, Bucky. While the Finnish circle of virtue (Do you think he talked with Bill Bennet about this?) has a certain ring to it, I remain suspicious.

I think I prefer the chaos of our freedom to Finnish virtue. Even if we could somehow control the roar that would come from the teachers’ unions in the US, I don’t know what you do with the late blooming student. I am also concerned that this model would relegate limited-English students to the “polytechnic” realm because of assessment validity problems.

I actually like the idea of more focused vocational education programs for students who don’t want to go to college. I just think that argument was lost a long time ago.


1:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments except for their above-average intelligence as exemplified by their good PISA results (PISA ~506). They perhaps do have above avg. intelligence, but the psychologist-psychometricians who have commented on a variety of nations and ethnic groups have time after time associated poor performance with the very logical: many of the best of the group emigrated (especially true of the gazillions of Irish who came to the US and elsewhere.) You can add one additional factor to your three factors: well-employed (rather than wasted, which would apply throughout Africa) external support. The friends I have in Europe uniformly tell me that Ireland was helped to a great extent (I know no detail) by EU special incentives and advantages.


1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helen has something there in the very first comment. The first 3 letters my son learned to write 20 odd years ago were "HBO". (Yes, we watched a lot on movies on TV.) Further back in time, our 3 year old daughter recognized the candidates on the cover of Time Magazine when we were in a book store. She blurted it out to the laughter of all around: "That's Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford!" (That darned TV again.)


9:08 AM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Dear Psychodoc,
Yep, those miserable Finns and Koreans are making us look bad. Don't know about the Korean system, but would never require anyone to stick to their first choice of study: I'd be a damn lawyer.

Sure chaos is fun, but I think we can do better. I'd find a way to deal with the late bloomers (like both of us). I also think it should not be above our capacity to find a way to give the non-English speakers enough time to become proficient. If we set the national exams at age 15 (like the Finns) then I expect that the vast majority of foreign born students will have achieved English fluency by then, or I'd want to know why.

I realize the argument was "lost" a long time ago... but I want to reclaim our rightful control. Let's fight the good fight.

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thank Bill for his research and agree there should be something the U.S. can learn from Finland's education system as a model. As Bill implies, some (perhaps many) aspects of Finland's model are not practical to consider, e.g., whatever effect arises from their homogeneous population and socialism, and starting formal schooling at age 7.

I have just one question, possibly leading to one thing that could have influence on our school systems' results: To what standards are Finnish teachers held, how often are they re-evaluated against the standards, and what are the consequences of failing to meet the standards? (OK, you may regard that as three questions. :-)


3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I recall it
(1) almost all Finnish teachers are in a teachers union (in the 80-90% area)
(2) They are not paid super salaries, their salaries are comparable to the rest of Europe's large countries and to the US
(3) A lot of them could qualify as 'master teachers' in the US education vernacular (and a large number of them have the equivalent a US master's degree)
(4) Their overall national education expenditures are slightly less than that of the US, percentage-wise

One of the fascinating things to me when I first began to read about it, was that at many levels the teachers do not lecture, they are there to serve as guides and counselors to help their kids with their own chosen research (I use the term research in the same vein as we use in Omnilore); there are very few exams; there is a general set of goals issued by the national education administration and thereafter they play a little-to-negligible role. The teachers and school administrators determine what they will use as texts (most choose NO texts)......It is peculiarly tuned to an advanced society with a very small minority population.


3:46 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Hal and Burt, I'll just add that teachers have high social status in Finland and that discipline is said to be quite good. Those things help. They do have unions, but not tenure. I do not see any reason for K-12 teacher tenure. It was instituted in universities to protect academic freedom. I read that average teacher salary in the US is $36 per hour worked, including prep, grading, etc, etc. Pay for performance is the problem. Smarter management would do wonders for salaries by eliminating wasteful overhead -- read administrators, especially at the district and state levels. Teacher quality is an unknown since the unions won't allow it to be measured (aside from NCLB.


3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The follow-ups from Burt & Bill make me less sure anything about the Finland model could be transferable to the U.S. But I am sure teacher quality matters and I see the evidence (status, advanced degrees...) inferring Finland's teachers are of high quality, or at least that those recruited into the teaching profession (and retained) are more effective performers, i.e., higher quality.

I have no doubt that there indeed exists "wasteful overhead" in school systems here, probably of all sizes. Unfortunately, I doubt that eliminating that waste (which would surely be hard to identify and fix) would help improve educational outcomes -- unless the $$ savings is plowed right into increasing teacher salaries to attract more qualified candidates and lifelong in-career training to keep them sharp. I don't expect in my lifetime to see such "intelligent" things transpire on a widespread basis in the U.S. Do I think we're doomed to a future nation of dummies? No, not at all: I suspect we will always have a very high absolute number of intelligent people and high achievers (we haven't exactly fallen off the scale on Nobel winners), and this pool will fuel the continuing advances of a modern society. But I see nothing happening to cause U.S. schools' average "scores" to rise in the world rankings, and this computes to larger absolute numbers of low achievers too. Does this mean the standard deviations of education scores (which I know are not necessarily equivalent to intelligent) are larger in the U.S. than most other nations? If so, does this matter to our society?


3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's correct that though the unique features of the Finnish system are fascinating, they're not directly transferable. In addition to very different public emphasis on education, an unusual situation wherein the state of say Mississippi (and every other U.S. state) has its own school system, teacher pay scales, sources of expenditures, there is one very large mountain that our teachers face.

I'd lay odds that our distribution (or to use the statistical term, variation) of scholastic scores and abilities exceed those of any OECD countries. Of course. What other country has a "minority" school population even approaching 43% (yep, that's our public school Latino, African-American and "other" student composition)

UK, France (8%), Germany , Denmark, So. Korea, Japan, etc.-- most of them have a minority index under 5%.

Definitely not good news: educational critics are concerned that we've been diverting the always-small funding from our bright and gifted cohort, toward helping the lower-performing segments approach the "no child left behind" goals.

Unfortunately, I agree with Hal that we're unlikely to adopt a cultural-political overhaul that could ultimately improve our relative school performance. However, we have one bit of good news: our very large immigration includes many bright people from all over the world that thus far continue to see many opportunities in our golden land.


3:51 PM  

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