My Thoughts on the Educational Systems in Finland and the U.S.

I get asked about this topic a lot. And as an educational professional I think about this topic a lot. Today I had a meeting with two university administrators charged with ensuring high quality curriculum and instruction university-wide in the University of Turku. We had a wonderful conversation about a wide range of topics related to education. Below I’m sharing some of my thoughts stemming from our chat.

I grew up in Finland and went through the Finnish K-12 system. Also, my first Master’s degree is from a university in Finland. The Finnish K-12 system is known worldwide as one of the best educational systems in the world. This is due to the fact that the Finnish school system focuses on ensuring that all students acquire a decent level of knowledge and skills and this is what the international educational assessments, such as the PISA test (more on the test at: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/) test on, that is, how students across the board fair in the academic assessment. The goal of the Finnish public education is to make sure that all students learn. All schools (expect for a handful of special schools) offer to a high degree the same quality of education, same curriculum, similar facilities, and teachers. Students go to a school in their neighborhood and they can rest assured that the school is as good as the next one. All schools offer lunch free of charge (following strict nutritional guidelines) and it is through schools that students get their dental check up and care. This is the assure equitable access to resources assuring that basic needs are met for all. The Finnish educational system is not designed to produce stars.

Gifted and talented programs are illegal and there is no tracking within subject areas. When I was in the Finnish K-12 school, I was a good student, what you could even call a high-achieving student. I would voluntarily serve as an “assistant teacher” helping out in the classroom, but there weren’t any special accommodations for students who processed the material faster. I don’t remember being bored. I was part of a system helping everyone succeed.

The first nine years of schooling is very much focused on leveling the playing field and about equal opportunity for all. The upper-secondary and post-secondary system is very unique and that’s where educational opportunities are differentiated. After the ninth grade (at 16 years old), which signals the end of compulsory education, students are funneled into three very distinct directions. Students have three choices:
1) seek employment (very few will do this as there are very few low-skills jobs in Finland),
2) go to a vocational/trade school resulting in employment (it is possible to attend polytechnic institutions, which are somewhat equivalent to technical/community colleges in the States) after three years in the vocational/trade school, or
3) attend high school, which is a preparatory school for universities and polytechnic institutions. Entry to universities is VERY competitive.

I sometimes think about how whether the upper-secondary and post-secondary system in Finland is equitable. How can a 16-year make a decision about the rest of their academic and vocational lives? Then I compare it to the system in the States, where everyone is expected to go to high school (designed to assure that all receive a rigorous, equitable, basic education) and not tracking students between career tracks at that point. However, in reality, not everyone makes it through high school or is successful there, and there is NO plan B for these students. If you drop out of high school, you cannot attend higher education institutions (even technical/community colleges). How is this equitable?

I often get asked what we can learn from the Finnish educational system. What Finns are so good at is seeing the educational system as an extension of their society, their strengths and values. For example:

  • Finland is a collective society and that’s what the schools are like. The focus is on educating everyone.
  • Finland is a semi-socialistic society (high taxes, strong government influence) and the schools use those tax dollars to invest in education. School lunches are free for everyone. Universities are free for students. Actually, university students get a monthly allowance that pays for their apartments. This is huge.

The takeaway for us in the States is simple. Find our strengths and capitalize on them in our school system. We are all about multiculturalism and diversity. That IS our strength and we as a society see this as our weakness. We talk about "addressing" diversity. What the heck?! We have to highlight our variety of cultures, people, talents, and perspectives and build on it proactively in our school systems. Let’s equip our students with skills to utilize the many backgrounds and perspectives of different kinds of people and show them how they use them to excel. Let’s teach our kids how to come together and have tough and productive conversations around equity and social justice, power and oppression. But this conversation needs to be led by qualified professionals and include a proportionally equal number of teachers/leaders of color.

And, let’s not forget that you cannot really compare Finland and the United States simply for the fact that Finland has 5 million people with a very homogeneous society and the U.S. has 320 million people with the most diverse population in the world. But the conversation is important!