Why does Finland excel at education?

Cultural Insights — By on March 5, 2008 at 7:15 am

That’s what the Wall Street Journal asked in a recent article, which noted that Finland placed first overall among 57 countries who recently tested their 15-year-olds in reading, math and science. This despite the fact that there is little standardized testing in Finland and very little in the way of assigned homework.

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7. Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world…

The academic prowess of Finland’s students has lured educators from more than 50 countries in recent years to learn the country’s secret, including an official from the U.S. Department of Education. What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children…

The Norssi School is run like a teaching hospital, with about 800 teacher trainees each year. Graduate students work with kids while instructors evaluate from the sidelines. Teachers must hold master’s degrees, and the profession is highly competitive: More than 40 people may apply for a single job. Their salaries are similar to those of U.S. teachers, but they generally have more freedom.

Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards. “In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs,” says Mr. Schleicher, of the Paris-based OECD.

The story does note that some of Finland’s advantages are difficult to replicate in the United States, since the Finnish population is largely homogeneous both culturally and linguistically. It also points out, however, that nearly all Finnish schools perform at a similar level because there is hardly any disparity in spending per school district.

Each school year, the U.S. spends an average of $8,700 per student, while the Finns spend $7,500. Finland’s high-tax government provides roughly equal per-pupil funding, unlike the disparities between Beverly Hills public schools, for example, and schools in poorer districts. The gap between Finland’s best- and worst-performing schools was the smallest of any country in the PISA testing.

There is much more in the full article, which is worth a read if you’re interested in educational issues.

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