Editor’s note: This was first published on the author’s Substack, The Education Daly.
In part one, which you should probably read before continuing further, we learned that a streak of outstanding results on international assessments in the early 2000s made Finland the world’s envy. Waves of besotted visitors soaked up Finnish wisdom.
Then it got weird. So now we’ll retrace the decline of the world’s most celebrated school system and sort through explanations and lessons.
Just as Finland achieved hegemony, its performance slid. The first murmurs were heard after the 2012 PISA administration, when Finland found itself outside the top ten countries in math for the first time. They grew louder after the 2015 exam, which showed declines in all three tested subjects.
Then came the pandemic. Students around the globe suffered unprecedented setbacks after missing critical in-school instruction and coping with disruptions to learning habits. By the 2022 PISA administration, the results of which were just announced in late 2023, Finland’s incredible slide in student performance had become undeniable.
The tables below rank countries by their change in scale score on the PISA reading and math tests since they were first administered (2000 for reading, 2003 for math).[i]
In reading, Finland’s drop of 56 points over approximately two decades is exceeded only by Iceland’s. Poland, as a counter example, improved 10 points over the same time period, and is now performing on par with Finland despite trailing it by a massive amount in the initial PISA administrations.
However, it’s math where the bottom truly fell out. Finland’s average scale score went down by an incredible 79 points between 2003 and 2022—lapping the other laggards by miles.
As of 2022, Finland was no longer ranked number one in math among PISA participants. It was twentieth. And in reading, while Finland still placed a respectable fourteenth, it found itself trailing...wait for it...the United States.
You read that correctly. Over the course of twenty years, the poster child for what not to do had somehow overtaken (in reading) the country heralded as doing everything right.
In math, Finland still outperforms the U.S., but the gap between the two countries has shrunk by 75 percent. This is especially shocking given that the past decade has not been a good one for American performance in that subject.
You are probably wondering how the Finns took the news. Answer: hard.
According to the Helsinki Times, the Ministry of Education and Culture described the latest results as “extremely concerning.” The Minister for Education noted that results have “continued on a downward trend” and “eroded substantially.” Officials were particularly alarmed that the percentage of students with substandard math skills ballooned over time from 7 to 25.
In the candid, humble assessments from Finnish officials across the board, the days of junkets and embassy seminars seem worlds away.[ii] On Behind the Music, this is when the band splits up and everyone goes broke paying for their divorces.
Why did Finland plummet?
There are a few common explanations for Finland’s unprecedented change in PISA performance.
Explanation 1: Finland’s initial success was a fluke. Perhaps the vagaries administering an international assessment led to undetected biases in the early-2000s Finnish student sample, leading to an overly positive result. After all, only a small fraction of a nation’s students take PISA. Finland’s blockbuster rankings came when the test was new. Maybe there were bugs to work out. Through no fault of Finland’s, what if noise in the scoring functioned uniquely in its favor at first? One could imagine that Finland’s students did not change markedly in their performance, even if its rankings did.
How strong is this explanation? Not too persuasive. First of all, Finland wasn’t a one-hit wonder. It did exceptionally well in multiple years of PISA across multiple subjects: math, science, reading. No evidence has emerged in the past two decades that there was something odd about any of those results, let alone all of them. Also, Finnish officials have said that lower PISA results confirmed findings from national assessments and research that were “well known” by 2016, rendering PISA “not big news.” So the trend line seems to track.
However, PISA isn’t the only international assessment. Finland’s results on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMMS), given to fourth and eighth graders, have generally not been as good as its PISA results. Way back in 2013, Tom Loveless at Brookings was raising questions about Finland based on its less-than-elite TIMMS scores. So it’s fair to say there were a few cautionary signs that Finland’s performance could have been overrated.
Explanation 2: Finland’s initial success was real—but it was followed by a period of remarkable decline. The tests captured the picture accurately. For a relatively brief time, Finnish students who entered elementary school in the 1990s were the best performing in the world. But their peers who followed them just a few years later weren’t nearly so successful. If Finland’s education system was once uniquely elegant in its design and execution, this was probably no longer the case by the time pilgrims arrived en masse. Rather, visitors were taking lessons from schools that were an echo of an earlier prime.
How strong is this explanation? More plausible than explanation 1. Just as Finland’s early PISA results are very persuasive, its decline is also consistent across subjects and test years. The long-term drop raises the question of whether initial Finnish success may have reflected a lag effect of how its schools were organized and operated in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, when Finland centralized teacher training at major universities and employed national inspectorates to maintain school quality. They had their own NCLB moment. Over time, more authority was devolved locally, nominally to trust educators, but also driven by budget pressure. It’s difficult to know whether the early 2000s high scores were due in part to those discarded strategies.[iii]
Explanation 3: Finland’s performance drop was due to increased immigration and larger demographic shifts rather than weaker instruction. While Finland had previously been notable for its ethnic and religious homogeneity, global migration patterns led to more diversity. Recent arrivals presented more acute challenges that could not be ameliorated by Finland’s social safety net.
How strong is this explanation? Pretty unlikely. While immigration certainly increased, just 7 percent of Finnish students were immigrants in 2022, a far cry from 24 percent in the United States. Finland’s initial success was characterized by transcending global trends, with unusually small gaps between higher- and lower-performing students and demographics playing a smaller role in predicting outcomes. Over time, Finland has become more like the pack. Gaps have widened. Demographics are now more predictive. Finland’s ranking isn’t being weighed down by certain subgroups. It is simply down across the board.
What lessons should we take away?
1. It’s fun to recall that education was once a top-tier domestic policy issue. It drew governors to major summits and commanded consistent attention above the fold and on editorial pages of national papers. This hasn’t been true for a long time. Bipartisanship disintegrated by the end of Obama’s first term. The Trump administration had a narrow agenda around school choice. It’s difficult to tell if the Biden administration has any K–12 agenda whatsoever. Nobody’s junketing. Even a flawed search for new ideas is better than staring at the wall, watching paint dry.
2. Excellence is difficult to sustain. It’s fragile. Ask Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Actually, the Patriots’ NFL domination lasted much longer than Finland’s education reign. We have seen some of the same issues among U.S. states, with one-time leaders losing ground to hard-chargers (hello, Mississippi!) that have continued to improve their schools while peers have become complacent.
3. We should take reasonable cautions when making international comparisons. Let’s state the obvious: There is very little reason to believe that copying the structures or policies of the Finnish education system would have made American schools better. By the time Finland had become the object of obsession, it was declining. We were obsessing over the late era of something once great that no longer warranted imitation, like the episodes of The Andy Griffith Show once they switched to color. This does not mean that we can’t learn from other countries. We absolutely can. But there’s no excuse for the lack of common-sense scrutiny that characterized Finland mania.
4. Hype bubbles are real—and too common. Finland’s boosters, there and in the U.S., were completely sincere in their conviction that they were selling the real deal. They believed that Finland was the best school system in the world and that this was because of its distinct features. But Lucy Calkins is sincere that her reading program is effective despite decades of research showing that it shortchanges students with too little attention to phonics and a bizarre fidelity to word-guessing as a strategy. The hype surrounding her reading curriculum—and the educators who have attested to its success despite rigorous evidence to the contrary—has more than a few parallels to Finland. The Calkins program felt right to many. Finland felt right, too. It’s the job of education leaders to make good decisions by seeing through what feels right and adopting things with real evidence behind them that can be executed consistently in local contexts. Finland never met that standard. I can hear some of my readers saying “Wait! What about all the hype bubbles that school reformers pushed in the past few decades?” And you are dead right. There was hype about standards, charter schools, vouchers, community schools, extended da and year calendars, teacher evaluation, testing, technology, etc. All of it deserves more examination. Which brings me to my last point.
5. We need better post-mortems. I don’t know where all the Finland boosters went. They sort of disappeared. Or rather, they stopped writing about and discussing Finland when it tanked. Like it never happened. Like it was never promoted as the solution to all that ails us. Seemingly, everyone had an answer as to why Finland was a top performer and nobody had one for why it plummeted. I would genuinely like to hear more from the folks who visited Finland and engaged with its school up close during the mania. How does it look different in hindsight, if at all? Which lessons still seem applicable and which ones don’t? Where did Finland go wrong? Why didn’t we ask more questions? Where’s that book of Finnish lessons? If we don’t excavate this stuff, we will just circle around the same fads every few generations, making the same mistakes and ending up where we started.
Later this year, I’ll try to take my own medicine and post-mortem some topics that were near and dear to my heart. Maybe I was the breathless superfan.
[i] Countries are only included here if they participated in testing for both years covered by the tables. For reading, this means 2000 and 2022. For math, 2003 and 2023. If you are looking for a country that took PISA in 2023 and do not see them, it’s probably because they did not take it in the earlier year. You can access the full results here: https://www.oecd.org/publication/pisa-2022-results/.
[ii] Incredibly, there are still multiple websites selling education junkets to Finland. And no, you are not getting a discount just because they are no longer atop the rankings. Occasionally you may run across a contemporary account of a visit, like this cringe-worthy 2023 piece from a group of USC professors who only glancing acknowledge that Finland’s performance has “slipped some” since the salad days of 2003.