No mater where you sit on the political spectrum, all parents can agree that our children deserve a high quality education. North American countries pride themselves on having a top-notch school system, and educational policy is always at the top of the list for political candidates seeking public office. But according to a 2016 poll from education policy journal, Education Next, almost half (46%) of the general public would assign a grade of C or lower to U.S. public schools. And this Gallup poll from August 2016 revealed that “the majority of Americans were dissatisfied with the education U.S. children receive.” While America remains a world powerhouse, its educational system is struggling to match the performance of smaller, often less powerful, countries. One shining example is Finland, which has continuously ranked among the top countries for education. So what can we learn from Finland’s renowned school system?
A Complete Turnaround
Although in many ways, Finland has become the proverbial “poster child” for educational systems, it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, if you turn the clock back about 40 years, Finland was mediocre at best, and by some standards sub-par. Then a major educational system overhaul took place, which has had a significant impact on the country’s educational performance in recent years. The positive outcomes took several decades to manifest, but no one can deny the impressive results.
What Makes Finland Special?
Why does Finland consistently rank among the top school systems, when compared with much larger countries with far stronger economies? There are several points of view on that, which include the relatively homogeneous population or near-absence of poverty in the country, or the socialistic tenets of its education system, including free preschool and college, and free lunches for all primary grade students. While many of these can’t be replicated in the U.S., here are five, more portable, policy applications for the U.S.:
- Attract more highly qualified teachers. In Finland, it has been said that teaching is a highly respected career, with a more stringent vetting process than careers in medicine or law. Teachers must have a Master’s Degree, which is fully subsidized, and candidates for the profession are typically selected from the top 10% of their graduating classes. Teachers are compensated well in Finland, and they are paid for up to 2 hours of professional development per week, while only expected to spend 4 hours a day in their classrooms. Being a teacher is a highly respected, revered career in Finland.
- Reduce pressure on students to perform. One major reform Finland made to its educational policy was to massively reduce standardized testing. This has in turn helped reduce pressure on its students, and allow for more organic learning to take place. In fact, in Finland, students only have to take one standardized test, when they are about 16 years old. Finnish students don’t start school until the age of 7, and there is no formal grading or measuring system in place for students under the age of 9.
- Restructure the learning schedule. Finnish students typically have longer classes (an average of 75 minutes for older students), similar to the “block” scheduling still prevalent in some U.S. high schools. In addition, students have mandatory 15 minute recesses for every 45 minutes of instruction (one recess per hour, essentially), which allows students to engage in free-play, get fresh air, and generally focus better when they return to the classroom.
- Implement more hands-on learning. Students in Finland spent less time in a traditional classroom than their U.S. counterparts; the remainder of the Finnish student’s day is spent engaging in hands-on learning activities. Class sizes for hands-on laboratory experiments, and the like, are also reportedly smaller.
- Offer more one-on-one tutoring. Finnish students benefit from more opportunities to receive one-on-one tutoring from a teacher. Unfortunately, this is simply not an option for most U.S. students. The good news is that tutoring and test prep services are readily available to students through organizations such as Club Z!, which offers one-on-one in-home and online tutoring services for grades K-12 and beyond. Club Z! also works closely with each student’s classroom teacher to ensure that tutoring lessons closely reflect the student’s classroom curriculum.
As the old saying goes, “if it were so easy, everyone would do it.” There are a number of reasons why the Finnish school system cannot be easily adapted in the U.S. But nevertheless, there are things we can glean from their successful model, and strive to find ways to help implement these successful strategies.