Strengthen Standards, Raise Requirements and Then Get Out of the Way: What I’ve Learned From the Finnish School Model

Dr. Jean Jordan is a former elementary school principle turned Fulbright Scholar; she utilized the grant money received from the Fulbright program to spend six weeks in Finland studying its education system.  Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Jean regarding her experience in Finland - a country that has become the worldwide poster child for school improvement and educational excellence.

Finland has routinely topped the international rankings for education in recent years, despite the fact that it was once one of the most poorly ranked countries among those categorized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) through their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  How was this accomplished?  Jordan and others site very specific strategies that fundamentally changed the educational paradigm in Finland.

First, the bar for teacher qualification was raised.  In a world where organizations like Teach For America embrace the notion that teacher training and certification are secondary to content knowledge, Finland has taken the opposite approach.  According to educational researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, those who become teachers in Finland are selected from a large pool of hopeful students, of whom approximately fifteen percent are granted admittance to a teacher licensure program.  Those individuals receive post-graduate training for three years, which includes extensive coursework on research-based practice and at least a full year of clinical experience.  Otherwise stated, every educator in Finland has the equivalent of a Master’s degree and is well trained in the art of teaching, in addition to content knowledge.

Second, Finnish education was standardized.  These standards are created by a Parliament that, in turn, fully expects them to be met at the local level.  However, those standards do not change as frequently as they do in the United States, according to Jordan.  She also notes that standards are deeply ingrained in Finnish teachers throughout their training, ensuring that each of them is conversant in the country’s robust and dynamic expectations for students. 

Finally, a bloated and congested bureaucratic system surrounding education was dismantled in the 1970s.  This may seem inconsistent with the previous paragraph on standardization, for how can less bureaucracy accompany standards doled out to municipalities from a central authority?  The answer lies in the notion of trust.  Because the Finnish government believes it has trained its teachers well, and because the Finnish government believes that its standards are rigorous and effective, teachers are fully trusted to execute standards on the local level, in their own way.  As Jordan notes, “The question of measuring college readiness is nonsensical to the Finns.”  The Finnish government does not feel like it needs more tools in place to measure the meeting of standards - well-trained teachers and spelled-out expectations are the only necessity.

So what can Americans learn from the Finnish approach to education?  Simply put, we need to impose centralized standards in place of impotent state standards, elevate teacher requirements, and then get out of the way.

I have discussed the creation of federal standards in previous blog posts. Those who oppose the centralization of standards often argue that doing so will result in a severe degradation of school quality, insofar as centralization resembles a monopoly and, as such, there is no incentive for improvement.  To those people, I simply respond, “See Finland.”  Individuals who oppose centralization also argue that the expansion of some of our most promising reforms (such as charter schools) would cease under a standards movement dictated by the federal government.  To those people, I simply say again, “See Finland.” Charter schools are only necessary when the traditional public school option is not meeting expectations and standards.  We should rejoice on the day that charter schools are no longer deemed necessary.  Is it possible that the roadmap to seeing that day arrive is simply to raise teacher requirements, provide centralized standards and then get out of the way?  Again I say, “See Finland.”

Dialogue regarding the elevation of teacher requirements is often met with just as much vitriol as is the conversation on centralization.  Teachers are fiercely defensive of their practice and the preparation it involves.  However, many teachers enter into the workforce ill prepared by their undergraduate degree programs.  Furthermore, top candidates are often shunted away from the profession because of the low pay and low appreciation associated with it.  What would happen if teacher requirements were elevated, both through the credentials required as well as through a stronger emphasis on rewarding excellent teachers with commensurate pay?  The result may be similar to that experienced in Finland, wherein teaching is a revered, and well rewarded, occupation.

To be clear, the Finnish education model should not go uncriticized.  Increasing immigration is threatening the homogeneity that has served as the foundation for its educational philosophy.  Furthermore, its small size is an asset in its fight for educational excellence.  As a much, much larger country, the United States faces a far more diverse set of variables in executing a plan for making its student population college and employment ready.  That does not mean that the lessons learned from the Finnish model should be ignored.  Finland provides an excellent reference for what happens when a country creates a trustworthy set of standards and equips teachers with the tools necessary to execute them with excellence. Let’s start seeing Finland, shall we?

(Special thanks to Dr. Jordan for taking her Saturday afternoon to discuss her experience in Finland)