Year after year, Finland's K-12 education has been at the top of PISA's international survey results for students' academic skills, and unlike the similarly high ranking South Korea, has done so without a cram school in sight. Sadly, this is in contrast to the United States, whose position continues to fall and consistently lags behind countries such as Slovakia and Barbados in several subjects, despite higher government spending on education.
If Finland's educational success is not due to rigorous schedules, scoring scrutiny and intense competition, what is its secret?
The results are surprising. Finland spends almost $1000 less per year per student than the United States, and many Finnish schools do not boast a great variety of extra-curricular activities or employment of the latest technology. Instead, Finland's schools differentiate themselves through more fundamental and very basic differences.
Finnish teachers are very well regarded in society, and share equal social status to doctors. 25% of young Finns select it as their vocation, but only 10-13% are admitted to teacher training programs, due to the high volume of applicants and the caliber of those seeking to join the ranks. In the United States, the bottom third of graduates enter the teaching profession.
Money is also not the answer. Finnish graduates are drawn to teaching because it offers great job security, a respectful and comfortable environment, and a very high degree of autonomy. Teachers are encouraged to be creative and self-sufficient in their teaching, and tailor the needs to their students. Successfully following this model is easier when the country's brightest graduates are the nation's teachers.
Parents and teachers teach children from a young age the benefits of being resourceful, and those new to Finnish society are often surprised by see young children walking through the woods to school alone, and carrying their own bags. Finnish parents show a keen interest in their children's education, and collaborate with teachers regularly.
Finnish schools emphasize comfort and respect in every aspect. Schools mimic a home environment, with comfortable furniture and wholesome free lunches. Finnish schools are not ranked against each other, and students are not streamed into special programs according to ability, but struggling students do receive extra tutoring. As there is little difference in standards from one school to the next, no schools are disadvantaged or have to cope with the issues that many urban US schools struggle with daily.
Finland's 96% graduation rate, compared to 75% in the US, means that far more students are prepared for higher education. Economic disadvantage not does prohibit college attendance, as college is free and grants are readily available. After ninth grade, Finnish students choose either an academic or vocational track, meaning they are allowed to specialize to their strengths from an early age.
Any teacher will explain that it is inaccurate to compare two countries' education systems and conclude that the systems alone are the reasons for differences. Finland enjoys a far lower crime rate, and while the country may face challenges, few countries in the developed world compare in cultural, racial and religious complexity to the United States. That being said, the United States can still learn from the Finnish experience. Respect for teachers and for learning can't be bought with money alone, and often state curriculum and bureaucracy yields poor results as a substitute for a fundamental respect and enjoyment for learning.