The Role Models For Improving Education: Finland And Others

Although China, Japan, and South Korea are top performers in primary and secondary education, they have a long-standing cultural trait where parents insist upon and make very sure that all children understand the importance of learning, and enforce hard work on the part of children for long hours until midnight. We in the USA do not have that trait, and therefore, we would have very limited success if we tried to adopt one of their systems. "Reeducating parent" is a formidable, and financially unaffordable task. However, "educating and motivating" the young mind is an excellent possibility, but not with the old methodologies we use - as our decline has proven it.

The exception to the far eastern countries' behavior are highly effective programs developed for a single subject, such as Singapore Math. Students who learn Singapore Math during the first four grades, develop a capability to learn other more advanced mathematics-related subjects more easily through elementary and high school through calculus.

Brand new successful ideas to improve a down-sliding system sufficiently to rise to the top ten most siuccessful countries can never come from a sliding "sand box" in 36th place where people in it try to dream up brand new ways that "will" achieve success. They have already proven for decades that they can dream up failing ideas only at a very high cost. Why? Because the size of improvement needed would have to incorporate radical changes in management structure as well as methodology. Everyone has a natural tendency not to want change. This kind of change if done effectively would involve position and income changes, that will be fought tooth and nail, including the use of misinformation and misrepresentation or avoidance of what the actual results/facts are. Such a change, therefore, will not come from education districts, but only from above them, on the state level, if they come at all.

Adopting only parts of a system generally does not work. It is because a successful education system is made up of many cohesive parts that are mutually supporting each other. For example, delegation of all operational decisions down to the school principal, including but not limited to full budget responsibility for the school, selecting, keeping or not keeping teachers or staff, while the principal is responsible for delivering a specific measurable scholastic result. All the school income and spending details are posted and available for public scrutiny on the school web site. Similarly total delegation of classroom responsibility to the teacher responsible for producing a specific measurable academic outcome from the class, including but not limited to discipline enforcement, choice of text books, class materials, teaching aids, methodology of teaching for the best results and outstanding results. Centralized decision making has long been proven not to work well, and we are living with its results to this day. It also becomes far more expensive per student, as in our case.

School systems are also part of a national or state cohesive set of objectives creating a national brand, that is an important part of being successful. Finland is the country that recognizes that well, implemented it years ago, and is delivering not just a good living standard, but the best education system, that is not as much dependent on parental support and uniform demographics as many other nations are. Parents and employers trust them because they deliver excellent results from all population segments, minority or not. We in the US use an antiquated centralized system, blaming parents and demographics for poor results, instead of learning from the Finns who solved this problem decades ago while we spend a lot more money than they do per student. That is why more than 100 countries are studying what Finland's annually improving system has to offer, copy them, as we have slipped now to 36th place in the world in high school math and science knowledge coming out of our high schools. Tennessee and Knox County have become much worse because Tennessee is less than average on the US performance scale.

The URLs below provide a description of what the Finnish education system is like. The last link describes the Finn's national mission and brand.

Finland's education system

Why are Finland's schools successful?

Why do Finland's schools get the best results?

Finland overview; Teacher and Principal quality in Finland; Instructional systems; System and school organization; Education for all; School-to-work transition.

What Americans keep ignoring about Finland's school systems

26 amazing facts about Finland's unorthodox education system

From Finland - An intriguing school reform model

The education system in Finland - From the Finnish Ministry of Education

Lessons from Finland's education system

We need Finland's school system

Finland's National Mission And Brand

Education in Finland starts with preschool at age 4-6. There are education programs that start as early as 18 months. The preschool emphasis is on fun, educational games and THE IMPORTANCE OF LEARNING for a life time. Preschool is followed by nine years of compulsory basic education. From 9th or 10th grade the school decides which path the student should take: the Upper Secondary school (like senior high school) or a 3 -year vocational school, but the curriculum is so strong in either of these that the student can cross from one to the other, or finish one and then go to the other for emphasis on trade skills. Either branch can lead to a university for a Master's or Ph.D. degree or to a Polytechnic College that focuses on trade skills with the possibility of a Bachelor's or Master's degree in engineering.

Although the great majority of Finns finish their education by age 25, later than most other nations, education is looked upon as a life-long process in any job. Finns are generally much more educated in any trade or professional jobs than they are in other countries. They do an excellent job in having the highest work force readiness of any nation.,4699

Being a teacher in Finland, as in many other industrialized countries, is the most highly respected position. This is not cultural. That respect was earned in every country by the school system becoming a place that produces a very high percentage of students who become successful adults. Medical doctors come second to teachers in respect. This is not a cultural difference. The education system is set up such that they earn people's respect every day by the way they are centrally managed country-wide with broad guide-lines giving schools the total authority to deliver the highest standard in the world, but decentralizing all decisions to the school level and mostly to the level of the teachers with total decision-making authority. It is not uncommon for the teachers to meet in a school weekly to present problems, and have those problems resolved on the spot, including special education qualification and the best placement for that child. Both teachers and children have total access to medical care to ensure that any medical or psychological issues are treated without delay.

They produce excellent academic results even with minorities who are traditionally low performers in school (gypsies, Lapps, African and Middle Eastern immigrants). Teachers are also very well trained. They have a master's degree in the subject that they teach, not just a degree in teaching. When they volunteer for teaching, they are first evaluated by psychological tests for teaching. If they pass that, then they attend several years of teaching-specific post graduate training first, before they become assistant teachers. The difference between an assistant and a senior teacher is fifteen years of teaching experience which is highly valued in Finland. Keeping both teacher competence and school quality the best is a national mandate in Finland.

All parents understand that education is very important for their children and would never second-guess a teacher's decision in Finland. If the child did something bad in school, you can bet that both the teacher and the parent would be in total agreement for the punishment. Therefore it very rarely happens, because parents and teachers are always in agreement, and the teachers have a very good relationship with all students.

Teachers are also unionized in Finland. There are no union-related conflicts as one sees in many countries.

In Finland, the children have enormous respect for teachers, but call them by their first names. Teachers and the children eat breakfast and lunch together, which is free..

In Finland the children are not graded before the fifth grade. The teachers observe each child closely and decide how they are progressing every single day and take action accordingly. They are later tested, but their grades are not told the parents or the child during the following few years of education. This method appears to build high confidence and self esteem as well as excellent collaboration and team work first, because in the Finnish teaching model the teacher divides the class into teams of 2 or 3 children (and changes teams every couple of weeks as well) and assigns different but grade, curriculum and subject-appropriate problems for the teams to investigate, using the library or the Internet. The teacher's job becomes one of overseeing how these small teams are progressing and to ensure that they do not get stuck. As the small groups work, there is talking in class among the working groups, but the children concentrate on the task to be investigated. The friendly and respectful relationship between school teachers and students creates an atmosphere of trust, that is an important part of the success of the Finnish education system.

Finnish teachers spend very little time in front of the class. The kids have a very high graduation rate, scholastically achieving more than all other countries in most cases. So parents have no worries about how well the children will be taken care of by the teachers. Remember that the teacher is a university graduate with a master's degree program in the subject that he/she will be teaching. The teacher was in the top ten percent of his/her Master's program and volunteered to become a teacher. Only the teachers know how the child is doing. The teachers meet weekly to discuss what problems any of the children have and make decisions on the spot about what action needs to be taken or what type of class and teacher could be the best for their advancement toward a high school diploma. This could be a specific special education class. This is a very interesting approach that obviously works very well. It could work in the USA as well. Teacher training levels may need to be raised as the years go by, but that is not a major issue.

Finland has a national education policy, curriculum and national testing in high schools. Morals and ethics are in the curriculum. This is a big difference between their system and ours. The teachers make all decisions about how their class will be run, how the education material will be presented and what books or learning aids are to be used. They keep up with the best worldwide. There are two official languages in Finland: Finnish and Swedish but most children will become fluent in four. People typically speak four languages in Finland. One is Finnish, then English, Swedish, and one of German, French or Russian at minimum. They have some ethnic problems with immigrants, gypsies and some northern Lapp tribes; but they keep those cultures and languages alive as well, and the teaching methodology produces uniformly good results with the minority students also.

Could we delegate more authority to teachers in the USA? Absolutely, immediately. Even more as their continuing education is progressing.

All areas in the school are decorated beautifully. There are balconies in some class rooms. They receive many foreign visitors from more than 100 countries every year. There may be a fireplace where they eat or wait for classes to start. The focus is on what the students would like, to make the school a very pleasant place to be, for students as well as for teachers. Disrespectful or property damaging behavior is unimaginable in this environment, but there has been one school shooting in Finland as in many other countries. If it happens, I imagine it is dealt with lightning fast with repercussions at home as well, but I heard that teachers do not tell on the students to parents.

Children are given very little homework to do. Teachers work about 40% less class hours than US teachers do giving more time for excellent preparation for the classroom and also to keep up with training in their specialty in which they earned a master's degree. The biggest difference I found between the USA and Finland is the average teaching hours spent per year per teacher. This figure is a little more than 1,000-1,100 hours for US teachers, and it is 570-600 hours for teachers in Finland, and just as a second example it is about the same for Japanese teachers as it is for Finnish teachers. The maximum class size is 30. These things surprised me, but it stands to reason that a happier, friendlier and more effective school environment that does the job well, with less teaching hours and less homework, more preparation, less paperwork makes for EXCELLENT RESULTS, happier teachers, children and parents. US and Mexican teachers carry the highest classroom hours in the world by far with poor results. It is the principal and Finnish national policy that makes the results happen along with the teaching methodology where students learn by investigating hands-on everything that they are to learn.

The principal is more like a general manager although he/she comes from a teaching background. He/she makes sure that his/her school is operating at its optimum, including all teachers and supporting services including medical, dental and special ed-related functions. It is noteworthy that special education children are diagnosed by any teacher, the case is discussed immediately in their weekly meeting, diagnosis is confirmed and the child is placed into the right classroom possibly not in the same school, with the most qualified teacher for his/her problem. The communication environment is completely open among students, teachers and principals. Finland also does formal research to find better methods to achieve every year at a lower cost than ours in Tennessee. This area is very different from the US model, and more than 100 countries visit Finland with multiple teams to study how Finland accomplishes the results they accomplish.

Could studying them help us? Absolutely. Do our local education districts want to learn about a more productive system? No. Systemic changes would expose all the weaknesses and the significant overhead we use in management, and our 100 year-old system would be forced to undertake a major change. That could come only through state law.

The USA teacher works the longest teaching-hours in the world (, yet we are the 36th in the world in math and Finland is on top. We are clearly not using our teacher resources as smartly as the top-performing countries.

Finland's cost of education per student is about 18-22% less than the Knox County, Tennessee average, yet Finland's cost of living is higher.

Charter schools would be best equipped to adopt Finnish methods because they would be independent of elected Boards of Education and Central Management in traditional US public schools. Charter Schools determine their own curriculum and budget, producing better results, but should be directly under state guidance with no association with the district management in traditional public education. The principal calls the shots. Not a Central Management organization in the school district. Some of our charter schools, like the (Harlem) Success Academy also learned from the Finns and produce excellent results in a very tough demographic area.

As one can see from the ACT report referenced, the qualification of high school graduates to be able to learn a job and college readiness have become the same several years ago. The low end jobs have and will continue to disappear to software and robotic automation. Unemployment has been and will continue to be the highest percentage in such areas, with open jobs growing in the areas requiring more science and engineering education, because we are not delivering a sufficiently large well enough educated work force. That in turn is forcing companies to more automation and to move to areas or other countries with a well enough trained work force. In turn, the disappearing jobs devastate local economies where the government did not do enough to remedy primary and secondary education output. More money does not help as in the past. Better management systems, more efficient operations and improved methodologies of teaching are the improvements we need.

Those in charge could improve the system by adopting the methods of Finland's schools - they just do not want to change.


What the best education systems-are doing right.

Why are Finland's schools successful?

20 best education systems in the world.

States with the best schools - main findings.

Which countries have the best education system and why?

How US students compare.

Which country currently has the best education system in the world and for what reasons does it stand out from the others.

The Finland phenomenon inside the world's most surprising school system.






Vic Spencer
Farragut, TN

Copyright(c) 2008-2015 V. Spencer
This is a work in progress.