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Is Finland the Answer?


Dear Deborah,

As you know, Americans have a long history of looking to other countries for answers to our educational problems. In the 19th Century, American educators traveled to Prussia to see the wonders of its national education system. In the 1960s, the British education system became the American educational Mecca because of its demonstrations of infant education and open classrooms (with an occasional side trip to Summerhill).

Recently, Finland has won admiration for its educational accomplishments—not long ago in a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal, and now in your address to your colleagues at the Forum for Education and Democracy. I note that you and the Journal identify Finland as a success because of its performance on international assessments; without those assessments, how would we know that Finland’s education system was worthy of discussion and emulation? We would be in the dark.

In some ways, Finland is not exactly a fitting role model for the United States. For one thing, it is a tiny nation, with about 5.3 million inhabitants (smaller than New York City). And unlike New York City, it is not notably diverse in ethnicity and religion: The population is overwhelmingly homogeneous, ethnically and religiously. More than 80 percent of Finns are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is recognized by the government as an established church (Finland has school prayer). More than 90 percent speak Finnish as their native language. Less than 3 percent of the population is foreign-born. Finland also has a demographic problem that we do not share: The birthrate is very low, and the population is aging. Perhaps this is an advantage for children, because they are prized. Finland is one of the most sparsely populated nations in Europe.

You are right about the wonderful schools and conditions for teaching in Finland. There is considerable local autonomy, school autonomy, and teacher autonomy. Finland has a very egalitarian school system, and its results on international assessments are impressive in every subject. The number of dropouts is small; the variance between high achievers and low achievers is also small. Another point that you might have made: Most of Finland’s schools are small. The majority of students are in schools with fewer than 500 students.

But there is yet another aspect of the Finnish education system that you did not mention. Finland has a strong and coherent national core curriculum. The core curriculum describes the general principles of instruction, as well as the specific knowledge and skills that students will acquire over the course of their basic education (from grades 1 through 9).

Finland doesn’t get great results by hiring excellent teachers and then leaving them to do whatever they choose. It specifies the subjects that will be studied, the objectives for each academic subject, and the assessment criteria for 8th grade. One reason, perhaps, that Finnish students excel in science is that there is a national course of study in physics for grades 7 through 9. The children study motion and force, vibrations and wave motion, heat, electricity, natural structures (including “radioactive decay; fission and fusion; ionizing radiation and its effect on animate nature; protection from radiation”). The national core curriculum has a carefully specified format of concepts, knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are to be taught not only in physics, but chemistry, biology, history, geography, social studies, languages, health, religion, ethics, music, visual arts, crafts, physical education, and home economics. (To learn more, click here and here.)

The content and objectives of each subject are thoughtfully detailed. Teachers have wide leeway in how they teach and in formulating their lessons. But the core content does not appear to be controversial or disputed.

This is precisely what I have been advocating in our dialogues for the past year, as well as for many years before that. I do not presume that a national core curriculum would solve all our problems, far from it. One need only look at eduwonkette’s recent post about violence in Chicago to see that our social problems are not confined to curricular issues, or to Richard Rothstein’s many writings about how issues of poverty restrict the ability of schools to teach children.

What I take from all this is that a nation will have more successful schools if it can arrive at a fundamental agreement about what the schools are supposed to do. If we leave matters at the disposal of every school and every teacher, to do as they see fit, we will not be following the Finnish model of success.

It is worth noting here the “mission statement” of the Finish education program: “Basic education is part of fundamental educational security. It has both an educational and an instructional mission. Its task on the one hand is to offer individuals the chance to acquire a general education and complete their educational obligations; and, on the other, to furnish society with a tool for developing educational capital and enhancing equality and a sense of community.”

“Basic education must provide an opportunity for diversified growth, learning, and the development of a healthy sense of self-esteem, so that the pupils can obtain the knowledge and skills they need in life, become capable of further study, and, as involved citizens, develop a democratic society. Basic education must also support each pupil’s linguistic and cultural identity and the development of his or her mother tongue. A further objective is to awaken a desire for lifelong learning.”

“In order to ensure social continuity and build the future, basic education assumes the tasks of transferring cultural tradition from one generation to the next, augmenting knowledge and skills, and increasing awareness of the values and ways of acting that form the foundation of society. It is also the mission of basic education to create new culture, revitalize ways of thinking and acting, and develop the pupil’s ability to evaluate critically.”

Tiny Finland cares about its children and its future. There is much here to admire.




Thank you for presenting this thoughtfully. Much is typically made of Finland's differences, and the challenges that it perhaps does not have to face--such as size and diversity. What I find interesting in examining Finland is that while it may be viewed as homogeneous, they appear far more accommodating of difference than the US. Children are instructed in at least three "mother-tongues" (Finnish, Swedish and one other). The language section of their standards is highly complex because they approach both Finnish and Swedish as mother-tongue and second language (with instruction beginning in early elementary). We tend to think that English is good enough for everybody and tack on some grammatical study of a foreign language as an elective in high school.

It is true that religion (or ethics for non-believers) is a required course in school--but despite the 80% Lutherans, other religions are also taught. It would appear as though each is taught by the church/religious group, with the state only providing the ethics courses and making arrangements for all others. We prefer to whitewash the issue--creating all kinds of conflicts.

The Chicago reference is also thought provoking, because even if we recognize the inter-relationship between poor education, unemployment and crime, it is difficult to see a way out. Again, there are some lessons to be examined in Finland, where there is a much tighter connection between schools and community social services. While mobility is not generally a problem there, as it is in some districts here (and one factor that actually contributes to the stability is the quality of schools over all so that families do not move seeking better schools), schools might typically work with the local public housing authority to ensure that a family has adequate housing. As nearly as I can tell, there are also much tighter ties with the things that we might consider to be "recreational" or "after-school" programs. Their early grades focus almost exclusively on language and mathematics--with an "afternoon program" that takes on the arts, phys ed, etc. Think about how much duplication we have in some metropolitan areas between the recreation department and public education (and how poorly the schools are doing in some of those overlapping areas).

I don't look for the US to be able to become Finland--they are far more socialistic than we are. But it is important that we recognize that this is a key difference--and probably has a far greater impact on outcomes than size or homogeneity


Two things come to mind when I read this post. First, I like the spirit of your analysis of Finland's educational successes. Perhaps it would be accurate to say that you recommend looking to Finland for inspiration, rather than for a model to be followed literally.

Too often, education reformers fall into the trap of artistic imitators: they mimic the trappings rather than the essence, with dismal results. I am skeptical of education organizations that seek to "replicate" the best schools. Can schools or systems be "replicated"? Or are we better off looking closely at what they have done within their context, thus coming to understand those elements that transcend it?

(The only thing I would consider copying verbatim--or close--would be the mission statement. I love it.)

Second, you say, as you have said before in different ways, that "a nation will have more successful schools if it can arrive at a fundamental agreement about what the schools are supposed to do." I would add that most schools (to their credit) probably recognize the need for some sort of structure. If they don't have the means or courage to provide curricular structure, they will seize upon other kinds of structure, such as rigid pedagogical models and pseudo-curricular packages. I have actually heard an administrator of a NYC school announce over a loudspeaker, during school hours, "Today is Tuesday, so every ELA and ESL class will complete a graphic organizer." Clearly the administrator was trying to establish some sort of consistency, but does that not point to the very "curriculum chaos" that Bagley warned of?

So, yes, it seems that we could emulate the essence of the Finnish system by coming to a basic agreement on what education is for, and implementing it through curriculum. As you say, that will not solve all problems, but it will bring meaning and substance to the schools, and protect them from empty structures and feeble mimicry.

" A further objective is to awaken a desire for lifelong learning."

Do we all *have* to have a desire for "lifelong learning"? Somehow, America and Finland both have gone on very nicely without adopting the meme that "lifelong learning" is essential or even desirable. Again, it's an ideological value system that corrupts the basic goals of education. Education is a social and individual tool. It does reflect the values of a society. But there's simply no evidence that America (or Finland) holds lifelong learning as an essential value of a society. If people want to argue for its conclusion, then they should make the case and see if they can convince all of America that they should be going to school all their lives.

Can't we all agree that millions of people are perfectly fine with the educations they have? Surely we can allow those interested to return to school without pretending that they are morally superior to those who are happy with the knowledge they've got.

"What I take from all this is that a nation will have more successful schools if it can arrive at a fundamental agreement about what the schools are supposed to do. "

As you mentioned, though, you can take something else from Finland: a nation will have more successful schools if it has a more homogenous nation and a unified culture. The US can shoot for the second; it can't manage the first. Nor should it. But this does suggest that we shouldn't even be mentioning Finland.

Are there any countries that educate heterogenous populations that do better than the US?


For countries that educate heterogenous populations that outperform the US in both narrowing the gap between advantaged and disadvantage students as well as between immigrant and native students; look at Canada, Australia, Singapore and the Netherlands.

www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/30/17/39703267.pdf pg 191

Erin Johnson


I think that I remember reading that Finland has made a concerted effort to alter its teacher population, and their education. Things like limiting the number of slots in eduction schools, making admittance highly competitive, drawing candidates from the top third of the academic distribution, etc.

I would love to hear thoughts from you or Deborah on these things at some point (if they are, in fact, true!)

In this nation we seem to train far more people with education degrees than seem to be required by the number of jobs available. Teacher candidates are always "in excess." (Shortages in specific areas, of course.) Finland, if I remember the story correctly, tightly controls the quantity, so that they can invest in the quality of the training, the job conditions, etc.



I don't think "lifelong learning" means going to school all your life. Ideally, education brings us to the point where we can learn on our own, at least some of the time. School becomes one option of many.

As for "moral superiority," just about anyone can accuse anyone of it, with the right twist. Where is the harm in lifelong learning, or hoping to inspire a desire for it? Where is the virtue in self-satisfaction, or teaching as though learning will soon be over?


Everyone in our country blames our teachers for our poor showing on the international exams.

While teacher quality absolutely matters, how about creating a school structure that enables teachers to perfect their craft before insisting that we just need "better teachers".

We pile so much onto our teachers and provide no support for developing quality teaching methods. Do they have the time to develop or discuss how to teach well? Is the dissemination of quality teaching techniques encouraged? There is nothing about our school structure that encourages quality teaching!

Frankly, given the way that our schools are set up now and the way that teachers are treated, I would give some of those "better teachers" six months at most before they give up and get a job that appreciates their work.

Erin Johnson


Re: teachers. I believe, looking at the international picture, it isn't a case of better teachers or better support. I think it is more like both/and. We do train too many teachers and we're not terribly selective about who they are--based on incoming SATs, anyway. While my info "inside the black box" of teacher ed is pretty much limited to my own back in the dark ages, I think we are still falling short on the experiential side. And we are very spotty about what goes on in terms of support in the first or subsequent years. Some other countries provide/require more time for ongoing professional development as well as a smaller class load with a higher expectation of collaboration. Consider Japan's lesson study as an example. There is not only time in the teacher schedule for observation, collaboration and critique--but it is highly structured to ensure that the process is high quality. We tend to be so egalitarian in our outlook that we fall into "a teacher is a teacher is teacher" and allow for a sink or swim orientation. To the extent that there is collaboration, I think that we fall easily into a one man one vote mentality, rather than structuring opportunities for the naive to learn from the experienced.

As a parent (a bit long in the tooth) I have to bite my tongue when I see some young, wet behind the ears educator demanding to be regarded "as a professional" while they go on about creating some of their own difficulties simply because they are in over their heads.

Hi Diane,

I find it interesting that most of the countries that do a lot better than others in educating their kids are located close to the old Soviet Union or China or closely associated with one or the other. Singapore has a large ethnic Chinese component.

Could it be that these improvements started out as a reaction to Piaget? The Soviets did not like the results they were getting from teaching using the constructivist model. So they devised their own system. China followed suit when large numbers of Chinese were educated in Russia. The Chinese methods influenced Singapore and Korea especially in Math. The Finish system sounds to me to be an awful lot like the Russian system.

I would also note that much of what you write about Finland can be said about the schools in the United States that beat the demographics by a country mile. Ridgeview Classical School in Colorado and the Achievement First Schools come to mind immediately.

Tom Linehan

"Where is the harm in lifelong learning, or hoping to inspire a desire for it?"

Why don't we all discuss it, maybe, and come up with some answers before making it an overarching goal of a national education system? If you aren't capable of clearly articulating the value of such an objective, then why are you advocating its inclusion in a mission policy?

Either the sentence is "just words", something you think is a nice sentiment that "does no harm", or it's a goal to be taken seriously. If it's the former, then including it makes a mockery of a supposed "mission statement". We aren't supposed to take it seriously; it's just there because the words look nice. If the latter, then I suggest that advocates be able to make the case for the inclusion.

"Where is the virtue in self-satisfaction, or teaching as though learning will soon be over?"

Again, you should be able to conclusively answer that question before arguing for or against inclusion in the mission statement. Instead, you assume that everyone unquestioningly agrees with your priorities, which isn't a particularly sound way to argue your point.


It seemed to me that you had taken "lifelong learning" to mean a life spent in school. I chose to address that first. Do not mistake a single comment for the whole of a person's argument. I appreciate your implied curiosity about the latter.

Lifelong learning is, among other things, an attitude of curiosity about the world; an awareness of the limits of our own knowledge and undertsanding; and a willingness and desire to break past said limits.

It almost guarantees a mentally active life, which is an asset on the train, in the waiting room, and everywhere. It relieves us of the need for external entertainment and stimulus, while enriching our response to the outside.

The lack of curiosity can translate into boredom, self-satisfaction, arrogance, prejudice, and more. If I think I know all I need to know about a subject, then my misconceptions I become calcified and, at worst, glorified to a status of truth. If, on the other hand, I realize how little I know, then at any point I may choose to learn more.

This does not mean that the intellectually curious are "better people" than the rest, or that they lack arrogance and prejudice. Everyone has blind spots and foregone conclusions; it is possible to be curious in one area and fiercely certain in another. We cannot manage to question everything all the time; we need some certainty. But if we have the tools and desire to move beyond our limitations, then the option to do so is always there. If we tell ourselves, "what I know and think is just fine," then we close off a larger world.

For these and other reasons, I see lifelong learning as good and desirable--and I believe that we need a solid educational foundation in order to enjoy it. Remember, I am one commenter offering one perspective, and presenting only a part of my argument. The whole argument could fill a book, but it's not one I particularly want to write at this point. I put considerable time and energy every day into the defense of learning, and want some time for the learning itself.

Diane, you have now defined "lifelong learning" as "intellectual curiosity". Is it your position that any such national (or state) mission statement should include the latter? How would it read? "A further objective is to create intellectually curious people"?

Moving on to your case for the value of intellectual curiosity:

"It almost guarantees a mentally active life, which is an asset on the train, in the waiting room, and everywhere. It relieves us of the need for external entertainment and stimulus, while enriching our response to the outside."

Is there any evidence of this? Hard data, that is? I'd be interested in how the study identifies "intellectually curious" people, as opposed to the mental deadweights. But there's actual evidenced that the former are better off in trains and waiting rooms or other periods with no external stimulus?

For that matter, what hard data supports your assertion that being "relieved of the need for external stimulus" is a positive good?

"The lack of curiosity can translate into boredom, self-satisfaction, arrogance, prejudice, and more."

Again, where's your cite on this? It's a nice platitude, but you are arguing that the *national education system* should state that "lifelong learning" is a positive goal of the system. That needs more than platitudes.

"If I think I know all I need to know about a subject, then my misconceptions I become calcified and, at worst, glorified to a status of truth. "

That may happen to you. It's by no means a factual assertion. For example, I am quite sure I know all I need to know about addition and subtraction. I am quite sure I love hamburgers and frenchfries. I am equally certain I will never like overcooked asparagus. I am in no danger of glorifying addition and subtraction, my love of a good burger and fries, or my distaste for overcooked asparagus. Moreover, I am in no danger of asserting my values unto the next generation about the best (as opposed to the accurate) way to add and subtract, much less asserting my food preferences as absolute truth.

Perhaps some people are likely to confuse their certainty about a subject as absolute truth (for example, the inherent value of intellectual curiosity), but that's an individual trait, not a failing of hardened certainty.

Similarly, one may argue that certainty about food choices and basic facts is fine, but certainty about, say, religion or political beliefs is unattractive. There are two obvious responses to that. First, if intellectual curiosity is only valuable in certain areas of knowledge, then the mission statement should clearly define them. Second, of course, is sez who? Many people are perfectly content with their political and religious beliefs, and see no need to re-evaluate.

Finally, and this is very important: what evidence do you have that intellectual curiosity is a learned habit, rather than a genetic trait linked in some way to overall intelligence? I'm sure there is ample evidence that intellectually curious people do better in school, for example. But that may be correlation, not causation.

If intellectual curiosity is something we can teach, and it is also something that leads to better school performance, then we shouldn't be wasting that curiosity on something as fuzzy as "lifelong learning". We should be teaching it because it improves school performance!

So in building your case for the value of intellectual curiosity, please limit yourself to the assertions you made--that intellectually curious people are better people because they don't get arrogant and bigoted, because they don't require external stimulus (which is also proved to be a positive), and because they are happier in waiting rooms and train stations. And, as I mentioned, some evidence that intellectual curiosity can be taught would be useful, too.

I agree that a national education system mission should include a statement of values. These values should not be meaningless, however, and they most assuredly should *not* include the intellectual elite's fuzzy notions of how everyone should live their lives.

The reality is that we've all gotten along very nicely for generations without universal intellectual curiosity, and I don't think national education systems and their mandates should start with dreamy-eyed pretensions that simply aren't borne out by reality.

I realize that I'm arguing the absurd, of course, but I think it's important to make this point: you apparently assume that your posted sentiments were universally accepted truths. I think you believe that anyone who doesn't accept them is arguing that the elites are better than "the rest" (as you refer to the non-intellectually curious). You've accused me of that before.

But the reality is that I question that these are actually *values*. I don't find anything inherently attractive about them. Not only aren't they universal for all people, they aren't even universal for *educated* people.

And I'm about to start my second master's degree (not, I assure you, because I'm intellectually curious), so I don't think I can be accused of being a mental deadweight.


My name is Diana, not Diane.

I think we may have hit an impasse here. To me, not everything can or should be proven in hard data. Hard data has its place, but schools must not limit themselves to it. That would ruin the soul of education.

You clearly disagree, and want me to prove every single one of my points. If I fail to do so, then they are "platitudes" or a "dreamy-eyed pretensions."

But I say, no, they are not. I don't think either one of us is going to convince the other. So, good luck.


Sorry that my post offended you. We seem to agree on a great deal.

I did not mean to teacher bash. We have many talented and dedicated teachers across the nation doing heroic work.

But I have seen many things in many school districts across this nation. And some I cannot forget. I remember a professional development session that I was observing. Teachers were reviewing and discussing a lesson. Most tables were working away--one seemed to be stuck. I wandered over and saw that they had not progressed past the warm-up activity --graphing some simple data. This table of four teachers could not figure out, even collectively, how to graph this data. I quickly showed them the right way and moved along--to the hallway where I had to sit down because my head was swimming. What chance did the students of these teachers have if the teachers themselves could not complete the pre-activity? I want to add that this is not an experience from one of our "famous-worst" urban school districts (I have dozens of those too) but from the heartland where I grew up.

Now if you want to argue, as you seem to be doing, that simply drawing teachers from the top third of our college population, rather than the more typical bottom third, would not be sufficient to cure all ills--then I am with you. The system itself, in many places, is so dysfunctional that it limits what even the most talented individual can accomplish alone. (If you think about it, Teach For America, is almost this experiment and shows you what top talent can, and cannot, accomplish in isolation.)

This fits with my "No Silver Bullet" hypothesis. I don't think that there is one. Solving our education problem is going to require fixing many fundamental things--I think that our troubles are well beyond a tweak here and there. We have been discussing some of these things, standards and whether they should be national, tests and their externality, teachers and how to recruit, train, retain and remunerate them, curriculum, incentives (and how to remove some of the perverse ones), etc.



We do agree on quite a bit and I did not take your post as teacher bashing. But our schools are not performing poorly because we have “bad” teachers (despite your all too common anecdote) but because the school system is so poorly designed as to completely hamper any and all improvements in teaching.

Your point regarding Teach For America nicely illustrates how even smart, energetic college grads make little headway in our schools. It is not for lack of effort, but a school structure that severely hampers quality teaching.

These structural issues are difficult to delineate because they are implicit in our culture and how we think about schools and what teachers should do. The power of the international studies is in highlighting these implicit norms that completely hamper school improvement.

As an example of how a structural change can change the world. Consider the world prior to the mid 1700s. Monarchies dominated all forms of government. The loudest solution to poor royal rule was: we just need good kings and everything will be fine. But getting good kings would not have made it fine. People needed a different system of government.

With tremendous insight in how to build a quality system of government derived from examining what worked well/didn’t work well in other countries both in time and space, the founders of our country devised a different system of government, that didn't rely on the goodness of kings and yet allowed the goodness of people to flourish.

While our government has its difficulties, would you not say that it is better than what has existed elsewhere?

A different school structure CAN make a huge difference in what our teachers, administrators and students do. Consider, also, that a good school structure allows for flexibility. That is it does not have to mandate a "one size fits all" type of schooling. But what it does need is a primary focus on student learning.

It is not the people but the structure of our schools that needs to change.

Erin Johnson

Diana, sorry for switching that second "a" to an "e"! I hate it when people misspell my name.

I think you are missing the point of my request for hard data. As I pointed out, the questions were absurd. However, if you *can't* prove these assertions, then at the very least you should accept that they are value statements, and that other people disagree with them.

Instead, you view your assertions as axiomatic. So I guess that's the question: can you acknowledge that people who are passionately interested in improving education would nonetheless disagree with your certainty about the "value of lifelong learning" and its place in a national education mission statement?


Yes, I can acknowledge that not everyone cares about lifelong learning. My next questions are: (a) does everyone have to agree on every point in a mission statement, and (b) does everything in the mission statement have to be a goal for everybody?

I would answer both with a qualified "no." First of all, if we were to agree on everything in a mission statement, it would turn out rather generic and bland, like many an existing one. It seems fine, in that light, for parts of a mission statement to be somewhat controversial.

Second, educational goals are not all short-term, and what people do over the long term is up to them. So if the mission statement includes several long-term goals, such as participation in a democratic society, contribution to the economy, and lifelong learning, no one is going to come chasing after the alumni who don't fulfill those goals.

The school should make the long-term goals possible for all students. That does not mean that they will be mandatory. The students will be required to master the skills, knowledge, and concepts in the curriculum, and from there they will be in a position to continue with the goals that suit them.

One last thought. Back to your earlier demands for proof. I realize that you were arguing the absurd. But do you think we would have had a Declaration of Independence if Jefferson had been required to prove the "self-evident" truths?

There must be room for beliefs--not superstitions or prejudices, but convictions based on experience, study, and soul-searching. Those beliefs cannot be proven, nor does everybody share them. But they can serve as the basis for an educational community. Now of course I see the complications in all this--how could we ever create a national community, given the current fractures?

I don't know. But abandoning our beliefs and convictions, or deeming them trivial, is not any kind of solution. After all, those who trust only hard data have a belief system of their own. Why should theirs be made universal?

I think educating our kids about cultural differences and teaching tolerance, compassion and understanding of others is vital to our future.

I came across this really great site, www.givepeacenow.org, where a charity is raising funds to send teachers abroad. The idea is that by sending US teachers abroad to co-teach in local schools, they will bring back that experience to their own classrooms, spreading compassion and greater understanding of people and cultures worldwide. They believe that peace begins in the classroom....what do you think? I would encourage everyone to visit the site and see what this group is doing!


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