John Hunt is associate professor of educational leadership at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and a former school superintendent. Sandra Watkins is professor of educational leadership at Western Illinois University, Macomb, and a former assistant school superintendent.
While much has been written recently about the alleged failure of the U.S. public school system, Finland’s system of public education has been highlighted as one of the most successful in the world. Finnish students consistently score at the top or near the top on international tests of student achievement, while the scores of U.S. students on the same exams are mediocre in most cases.
American policymakers have expressed concern over the performance of U.S. students on these tests and have called for a range of accountability measures in an attempt to turn this situation around.
Beginning with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 and through the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) and the more recent Race to the Top program (2009), teachers, administrators and school boards have been under extreme pressure to raise test scores. Accountability in the U.S. public education system is now focused on how well students score on state-mandated tests.
In spite of our best efforts, improvements have been slow, at best. So what is the key to Finnish educational success?
Visiting Pasi Sahlberg
We decided the best way to examine Finnish educational success was to travel to Finland and to interview the chief spokesperson for the Finnish model, Pasi Sahlberg. Sahlberg is the author of numerous articles on the Finnish success story and is most widely known for his 2010 book, Finnish Lessons: What can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?
On August 7, 2012, we met with Sahlberg in his office in Helsinki. In a wide-ranging interview, which consumed much of the afternoon, he gave us a comprehensive overview of what he perceives as the reasons for the success of the Finnish educational system.
Reform of the Finnish educational system began around 1970 with the implementation of what the Finns call, peruskoula. This is a universal system of public education in which all students are treated equitably, regardless of their residency, ethnicity or innate ability.
Prior to peruskoula, the Finnish people were not very well educated. In the 1950s, educational opportunities were unequal in Finland, with most young people leaving school after six or seven years of formal education, Sahlberg said. Only those living in larger towns and urban areas even had access to middle schools.
With the implementation of this new program, all Finnish students receive the same education through the second year of high school. At that point, they either take a vocational track or a college-bound track. No stigma is attached to the vocational track and 43 percent of Finnish students exercise this option. Another 52 percent pursue the college track and about 5 percent drop out of school.
Sahlberg outlined the following characteristics of the current Finnish educational system:
• All schooling is free, including pre-school. Mothers (or fathers) may stay home and actually continue to receive pay for the first year after giving birth. Their specific job is protected for three years, but they do not receive pay for the second and third years of their childcare leave.
• Finnish students begin public school at age seven. There is no organized attempt to teach reading before age seven.
• When a student first enters school, the teacher assesses his/her reading level and then asks the student what he/she would like to read. The student is then grouped in the classroom with students functioning at the same level or across the grade levels with similar students.
• Students do not receive written grades before the fifth grade. Feedback is given by teachers in narrative and verbal form.
• Curriculum is determined at the building level by the principal and teachers, and there is no Common Core-type curriculum in Finland.
• School boards are appointed by each municipality and the school board selects the CEO, or superintendent.
• No external high-stakes tests are employed before the end of grade 12.
Sahlberg said most Finnish elementary and middle schools have fewer than 300 students. The largest high school in Finland, in fact, has just 1,400 students.
Finnish teachers are well trained and entrance into teacher education programs is extremely competitive and coveted by the very best students in the country. Teachers are drawn from the top quartile of secondary school graduates and only 15 percent of those are accepted. They receive a three-year graduate-level teacher preparation program with a living stipend.
In addition to receiving intense instruction on how to teach, they also spend a year in a university laboratory school, honing their skills on real students. Most teachers in Finland now have master’s degrees in both their content area and in education. In addition they are given sufficient planning time for both individual and joint planning.
Expanding on the idea of planning time, Finnish teachers meet at least one afternoon each week to work jointly on curriculum. From an international perspective, Finnish teachers devote less time to formal classroom teaching than do teachers from most other countries.
At the middle school level, for example, Finnish teachers spend just more than half the hours in the classroom as do American teachers at the same grade levels. Finnish teachers are also given much more time for professional development activities than teachers in many other countries.
The Finnish public is reported to have an 80 percent confidence level in its teachers. Because of this, even though the community councils, or school boards, help develop the thrust of particular schools, they often defer to the expertise of teachers and principals in curricular matters. Teachers are well-compensated and highly respected, both of which contribute to the very low attrition rate. Furthermore, it is estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of teachers leave the profession during the course of their career.
Could this work here?
Critics of the Finnish educational system attribute much of its success to the fact the country has a relatively small population and is not very diverse, suggesting that the measures which work there cannot practically be transferred to a country such as the U.S.
Sahlberg counters by stating that Finland’s population of approximately 5.5 million is comparable to that of some U.S. states. He also claims that Finland is becoming much more diverse due to its growing immigrant population.
With this said, are there elements of the Finnish system that could be — or should be — considered for implementation in the U.S. public school system?
One strategy that is not likely to be considered is the redistribution of wealth that is used in Finland. When the country was first moving to peruskoula, the rural and poorer schools were upgraded first, and then improvements were subsequently implemented in the wealthier suburban and urban areas. A larger portion of the public money was spent on the poorer schools. With the heavy reliance on property tax in many U.S. states, including Illinois, such a shift in wealth is unlikely.
What about other areas? Certainly, the issue of smaller school size could be examined. While the typical Finnish class size is not smaller than ours, with 25 students being typical, their schools overall are much smaller.
Smaller schools enable teachers and principals to better know and understand their pupils. Smaller schools make it more likely that the school welfare teams in each building will identify students with special educational needs, helping to ensure that needy students are not overlooked.
Educators and much of the public have long understood the value of smaller schools in the U.S. Even some larger schools have divided themselves into houses or other smaller units in the attempt to gain the benefits of smaller school size. Naturally, moving to smaller schools comes with a cost in terms of administration, facilities and perhaps busing.
Teacher quality is another major issue to consider. Illinois made one move in this direction when it increased the cut score on the Basic Skills Examination for entrance into teacher education programs in September 2010. Between September 2008 and August 2010, 85.5 percent of candidates passed the Basic Skills Examination on the first attempt. However, after the cut score was increased, the percent of candidates passing the examination between September 2010 and August 2011 dropped to 28.3 percent.
Once enrolled in teacher education programs, it would be hard to argue against increased experience working with public school students in pre-clinical experiences. Indeed, pre-clinical experiences have increased for teacher education candidates over the past three decades.
It also would be hard to argue against an increased internship, or student teaching experience. Ironically, many teacher education institutions once housed laboratory schools, similar to those now found in Finland. Unfortunately, most of the U.S. lab schools were eliminated during the past 40 years.
Legislation is making strides with efforts to improve the caliber of teachers. In 2010, Governor Pat Quinn signed the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA) into law. This bill, along with Senate Bill 7, ties a portion of teacher and principal evaluation to student achievement. This action is an attempt to improve the quality of teachers already in the field.
Another Finnish concept that could be considered in the U.S. is the autonomy given to teachers. This has led to a level of creativity among teachers that was once the hallmark of U.S. public education.
However, many current U.S. teachers know nothing other than the type of NCLB-induced accountability that equates quality to student performance on state-mandated tests.
In Finland, the teachers and principal, working with the local council or school board, determine the focus and curriculum for the school. All subjects are considered to be important, not just those addressed by state-mandated tests.
This is possible in the U.S., but only if we are prepared to approve an element of risk-taking in order to restore creativity and innovative practices in the U.S. schools. It would also necessitate restoration of the status of teachers as educational experts and a major rebuilding effort for the public perception of education.
There is no doubt that Illinois faces a huge problem in terms of its budget. A bleak financial picture colors every decision and every conversation regarding education in the state.
However, an educated citizenry is essential for the survival of the state and the nation. A reasoned and thorough discussion of public education is needed and can only happen if all elements of the educational community begin working together. This includes not only teachers, administrators and parents as individuals, but also their professional and community organizations.
By regaining a moral and professional high ground, as a unified community, professional educators and their constituents can establish the groundwork for Finnish-style educational reforms in the U.S. system.
This task seems monumental, but we cannot assume that it is impossible, because the stakes are too high.
Illinois Certification Testing System. General Assembly Report: ICTS Basic Skills and Content Area Test Pass Rate Summary: Initial and Cumulative. September 2008 to June 2011, http://www.isbe.net/certification/html/testing.htm
National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE), A Nation at Risk: The imperative for educational reform, Washington, D.C., 1983
No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) Act of 2001, Public Law 107-110, 2002
Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA), Senate Bill 315, Public Act 96-0861, January 2010
Race to the Top (RTTT) Program, signed into law as a portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, Public Law 111-5, 2009
Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? New York, N.Y., Teachers College Press, 2010
Pasi Sahlberg, personal communication, August 7, 2012.