Finland: Land of reindeer, snow, and a world-class education system.
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Finland—the tiny land of reindeer, snow, and more snow—burst onto the scene in the past decade as the unlikely poster child for the anti-reform movement in the United States. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t implore reformers to learn from Finland—a nation with low poverty, high achievement, and virtually no standardized tests—and abandon our support for standards- and accountability-driven reform. After all, Finland’s education system today is characterized by loose central regulations, broad teacher curricular and instructional autonomy, and virtually no centralized accountability. Given Finland’s success on international assessments, it must follow that American schools would do better if we Xeroxed the Finland model.


Not exactly.

First, there has been at least some evidence of late suggesting that Finland’s successes may not be as miraculous as once thought. But more than that, to understand what is going on in Finland, its perhaps important to start not with a snapshot of their test scores and existing education structures but, rather, with a November 2010 McKinsey study entitled, “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.”

As part of their research, McKinsey studied twenty school systems from around the world that had seen “significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes as measured by international and national assessments.” Among the most interesting findings of the report was the difference between the reforms needed to move a system from fair to good performance and the policies needed to support good systems working to become great. More specifically, systems moving from poor to fair rely far more heavily on policies that “tightly control teaching and learning processes from the center because minimizing variation across classrooms and schools is the core driver of performance improvement at this level.” Systems working to go from good to great, by contrast, “provide only loose guidelines on teaching and learning processes because peer-led creativity and innovation inside schools becomes the core driver for raising performance at this level.”

What does that have to do with education reform in America? A lot, actually.

As the McKinsey study demonstrated two years ago, school systems that aren’t working don’t magically achieve greatness by merely “trusting teachers” and loosening control and regulations. And Finland is no different. In fact, the autonomy and decentralization we see in Finland today came after more than two decades of tightly controlled, centrally driven education reform that systematically adjusted curriculum, pedagogy, teacher preparation, and accountability. It was only after this top-down systemic reform moved Finland from poor to good that they shifted to a more flexible approach aimed at turning the system from a good one to a great one. And so, as we look to emulate Finland, we should more directly ask ourselves whether our state and district school systems more closely resemble the Finland of yesterday or today.

A brief history of education reform in Finland

In the 1960s, Finland’s education system looked far different than it does today. Achievement was much more uneven and not all students had equal access to quality schooling. In 1968, as part of a nationwide focus on better preparing students to compete in the knowledge economy, the Finnish Parliament enacted legislation to create a new basic education system that was built around the development of a common “comprehensive” school for grades 1–9—a system that spread to every municipality in the nation by 1977. Three things characterized the new Finnish standard:

1. The development and adoption of a mandatory national curriculum that ensured all students were held to the same rigorous standards.

2. Dramatic changes in teacher preparation and certification requirements.

3. A central state inspectorate that evaluated school-level teaching and learning

National Curriculum

In order to ensure that every student in the nation was taught the same rigorous content, the Finnish government (working with teachers) developed a national curriculum that was the cornerstone of the comprehensive school system—and that was for many years mandatory for all schools in that system. Cited in a 2010 OECD report, one high-level education administrator explained how challenging this move from a loosely governed system of independent schools to a system of government-run schools was.

…There were lots of municipalities that were not eager to reform their system, which is why it was important to have a legal mandate. This was a very big reform, very big and complicated for teachers accustomed to the old system. They were accustomed to teaching school with selected children and were simply not ready for a school system in which very clever children and not so clever children were in the same classes. It took several years, in some schools until the older teachers retired, for these reforms to be accepted.

That’s hardly the story of a reform system built on teacher autonomy and professionalism. Instead, it sounds a lot like the debates we are having right now over Common Core and state accountability systems.

Teacher Certification and Preparation

A critical part of the comprehensive school reforms in Finland was a nationwide effort to improve teacher quality. Policymakers understood the importance of teacher quality in driving student achievement, and they invested heavily in it. In the early years, that investment included professional development aimed at existing teachers in the classroom, but Finland wisely took the long view and spent even more time improving its talent pipeline. For starters, they made it far more difficult to get a teaching job—the government now requires all teachers to earn a master’s degree as a condition of employment.

But perhaps even more importantly, teacher education in Finland is highly content driven. Even primary teachers majoring in education need to minor in at least two content areas—and their content-specific education is delivered not by the teacher preparation program, but rather by the content department in the university. (A math minor, for instance, takes her math courses in the math department.)

Second, courses devoted to pedagogy are grounded in content as much as in theory. As the OECD report explains,

Traditional teacher preparation programmes too often treat good pedagogy as generic, assuming that good questioning skills, for example, are equally applicable to all subjects. Because teacher education in Finland is a shared responsibility between the teacher education faculty and the academic subject faculty, there is substantial attention to subject-specific pedagogy for prospective primary as well as upper-grade teachers.

This clear focus on ensuring that teachers are content experts is critical.

Emulating Finland

Of course, a quick look at the existing Finnish education system tells a different story. That is because in the mid-1990s, partially in response to an economic crisis, the government loosened many of its regulations. In particular, the national curriculum was pared down, becoming more of a guide than a script, and the inspectorate was eliminated, thus giving schools far more autonomy. The teacher certification and preparation reforms, however, remain strong as ever.

These changes represent an evolution. Yes, Finnish educators now enjoy broad autonomy over curriculum and instruction, and schools are largely self-governed. But this happened only after decades of reform aimed at raising standards for both students and teachers and ensuring that teachers had the capacity to thrive under a more decentralized system. Finland followed the McKinsey playbook, whether or not by design. When it had a greater number of struggling schools and teachers with weaker training, their reforms were characterized by tighter control with an emphasis on standards and outcomes. Once the teacher workforce—over more than two decades—was better prepared and trained to teach the content articulated by the curriculum, and once student learning had improved, the state loosened its control.

More than that, though, Finnish leaders had the patience to see the reforms through. The national curriculum took five years to develop, and the teacher workforce took even more to prepare. But the state didn’t waver from its resolve to get it right.

Ultimately, Finland’s success is built atop a series of hard choices, rigorously implemented. And these choices were grounded in a unique set of value propositions that favored the overall welfare of the group instead of maximizing the success of the most naturally talented. The closer you look, the more you realize that Finland’s approach works not because it is a universal template of success but, instead, because it was a Finnish solution to which they committed. Americans shouldn’t be looking to slavishly copy these exact hard choices; rather, we should be looking to the spirit with which they made them and their resolve to see these decisions through.

Kathleen is the Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer at the Partnership for Inner-City education and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Before joining the Partnership, Kathleen served as the Senior Advisor for Policy and Instruction at the College Board, as the Director of Curriculum and Professional Development at Achievement First, and the Director of Teacher and Principal Professional…

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