Finland's Excellent Public Schools: A Smithsonian's-Eye View and A Former Citizen's Perspective

Finland, a consistent high scorer on the PISA international tests measuring math, science, and reading ability, has come in for a lot of love by Americans who wish we could adopt many of the priorities they’ve set for public education. Finland was recently the subject of a lengthy profile in the September 2011 Smithsonian Magazine, a venue that has consistently featured high-quality, thoughtful pieces reflecting on the nature of American public schools, curriculum, and teaching. In “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?”, the article’s author highlights how well-trained teachers collaborate to address student needs. Teaching is such a well-regarded and valued profession that out of 6,600 applicants for teaching programs, only 600 were accepted. I was particularly inspired by the description of specialized training for teachers of special ed and non-native speakers of Finnish/English. Also interesting — schooling is guaranteed to age 16, and there’s a system of equally excellent vocational/technical schools that exists alongside fully funded college/university education. What gets much less attention is how the big test at age 16 — a form of high-stakes testing — can determine your eligibility to enter higher ed. I’d like to know more about how this works.

It’s a definite GO READ, especially when you contrast how shabbily the teaching profession has been treated in America — both historically and recently with attacks on unions and pensions, as if corporations that shirk payment of state/federal taxes do not have a larger impact on reducing state treasuries.

But I also wanted to highlight a thoughtful reflection by a blogger friend who is Finnish and grew up in that system of schools. I believe there’s room for many subjective appraisals as well as traditionally-reported ones. With that in mind, let’s hear from Katja Presnal, of Skimbaco Lifestyle, as she reflects on her time in Finnish schools and how she contrasts that to the education her children receive. I’ve excerpted with permission part of her post, “Finnish Schools Are the Best, and American Schools Suck? Not So Fast” here. At the end of the excerpt, please read on to the full post.

Finnish schools are the best, and American schools suck? Not so fast.

by Katja Presnal on September 5, 2011


I have written a lot about Finnish Education before but it has been a few years I have touched the subject. Each year when the PISA test results come out and Finland scores as the nation having the best education in the world, there is wonder how a small country tucked in the Northern corner of Europe can do it. The high level of education in Finland was also featured in the 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” about America’s troubled public schools. I wanted to add this time my personal opinion after reading the article “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” in the Smithsonian magazine.

Is it true that Finnish schools are the best and American school system sucks?

Simply said: things are not black and white.

It simply isn’t as simple as Finnish schools are the best and American schools suck. There is much more to it. Here is my opinion that nobody asked for, and it probably offends you.

I am an immigrant who has two lands, which means no lands when you speak up about the differences between the two. As my husband says, this is the post that could also be called “minus 2,000 Twitter followers”. There are always two sides, and like with everything else in life, I recommend trying to improve the bad ones, and enjoy the good ones.

If you want to read my previous posts about subject, here you go:

Finnish kids are the smartest in the world, right?

Finnish School System – the good, the bad and the ugly truth.

Finns study religion, evolution and sexuality – Educated minds make educated choices.

Brain food helps Finns to excel at school – it’s all about the right nutrition.

Why don’t we see any Finnish innovations, or do we? – where that education takes you.

Ugly Truth You Don’t Want to Hear

As someone who has gone through Finnish school system for 15 years, I was stunned when I moved to America and entered a college here to continue my studies, and saw the (low) level of education first hand. The math class in college bored me to death, I had already taken that level of math during my first year of high school.

Many people who criticize the Finnish education point out the homogeneous class rooms and lack of diversity making it easier to teach and get the high results. Ironically, the “book smarts” I had learned in Finland were about world history, religion, geography and social studies etc. made it easy for me to have a conversation with many Americans with diverse cultural backgrounds when I moved here.

At the same time, the lack of understanding anything about life in Europe was obvious when many people here were approaching me with questions like “how civilized is Finland”, “do you have popcorn in Finland”, “have you ever heard we had this president called Kennedy” not to mention “where is Finland”, “where is Europe” and “what is Scandinavia”. While I certainly didn’t expect people to have much knowledge of my home nation Finland, at least I sort of expected people to know the capital of France, or that Coca-Cola had made it to Europe. Remember – these were my first impressions, when I moved to the US arrogantly straight-from-school from the glorious “best schools in the world”.

The Characteristics in Finnish Education I Like (besides the book smarts)…

[read the full post here, especially the parts of American education that Katja very much likes]

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1 Comment

  1. Sam - September 7, 2011, 7:51 pm

    Cynthia, I'll try to explain what happens at the age of 16 in Finland. The 9th grade comes to an end and you are no longer guaranteed any kind of further education. You are free to try to get a job, but this is not what people do. You have at least three better options: 1) apply for high school 2) apply for vocational school 3) take the so called "10th grade" at school and try to improve your marks.

    If you apply for an ordinary high school, you will be accepted depending on your grades. In most cases you need a grade point average that would be something like being a B student in the US, at some schools strong C would be enough. In some bigger towns there are schools where the weakest pupils who get in have an A+ school report. So, before 16 every school is about the same, but there are very average and then very elite high schools – however, they are for the intellectual elite. Tuition is free and there is no other way of getting in than showing the A+ report from your previous school. Then there are very few special high schools where you get in based on your exceptional skill or talent, like music or sports, but you still need pretty good academic marks as the schools are popular.

    If you choose a vocational school, you will most likely get in with a lower grade point average, but this depends on the profession you would like to learn. Some special fields are so popular that you have to settle for high school as there is no way you could get in a vocational school – cinema, photography, computors have been popular among others. From a vocational school you can continue to university just like from high school, so it is not a dead end. Vocational schools are free of tuition, just like all university education.

    If you are not succesfull with any of your attempts – you can apply for 5 institutions at the same time – you can take the 10th grade and try again the next year.

    So at 16, there is no big test for everyone. You will get a school report that is based on your last three years at school and you try your luck with that. To many vocational and the special high schools there are separate tests that you have to pass, and in most cases it is the avarege of your report + the points from the test that determin your future education.

    So, at 16 you leave the safe school world that is excactly the same for everyone, with very little difference between the best and the worst schools. Whatever you choose, you can continue to higher education, but from vocational schools it will most likely be a university of technology. Everything is paid for you by the taxpayers, you just have to shine.

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