Education in Finland

This is a very informative (and very long) article on Finland’s world-class education system, and you really should read the entire thing to effectively contrast it with the for-profit train wreck to which our public schools are being transformed. But I especially wanted to point out this one piece:

It was the end of term at Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo, a sprawling suburb west of Helsinki, when Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher and the school’s principal, decided to try something extreme—by Finnish standards. One of his sixth-grade students, a Kosovo-Albanian boy, had drifted far off the learning grid, resisting his teacher’s best efforts. The school’s team of special educators -including a social worker, a nurse and a psychologist— convinced Louhivuori that laziness was not to blame. So he decided to hold the boy back a year, a measure so rare in Finland it’s practically obsolete.


Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. This 13-year-old, Besart Kabashi, received something akin to royal tutoring.


“I took Besart on that year as my private student,” Louhivuori told me in his office, which boasted a Beatles “Yellow Submarine” poster on the wall and an electric guitar in the closet. When Besart was not studying science, geography and math, he was parked next to Louhivuori’s desk at the front of his class of 9- and 10-year- olds, cracking open books from a tall stack, slowly reading one, then another, then devouring them by the dozens. By the end of the year, the son of Kosovo war refugees had conquered his adopted country’s vowel-rich language and arrived at the realization that he could, in fact, learn.


Years later, a 20-year-old Besart showed up at Kirkkojarvi’s Christmas party with a bottle of Cognac and a big grin. “You helped me,” he told his former teacher. Besart had opened his own car repair firm and a cleaning company. “No big fuss,” Louhivuori told me. “This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life.”


This tale of a single rescued child hints at some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation’s staggering record of education success, a phenomenon that has inspired, baffled and even irked many of America’s parents and educators. Finnish schooling became an unlikely hot topic after the 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” contrasted it with America’s troubled public schools.


“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. The school where Louhivuori teaches served 240 first through ninth graders last year; and in contrast with Finland’s reputation for ethnic homogeneity, more than half of its 150 elementary-level students are immigrants—from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia and Ethiopia, among other nations. “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers,” Louhivuori said, smiling. “We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”


Whenever you point to another country’s track record where they’re outperforming the U.S., the response is always, “They don’t deal with the urban minorities that we do.” It’s just not true — and it’s also not an acceptable excuse. If we’re going to blame our poor performance on poverty, perhaps it’s time to stop starving the government programs that have helped eradicate poverty in the past.

4 Responses to Education in Finland

  1. quixote January 7, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    I’ve been a teacher for decades (college bio, not school, but still: in the profession). During that time, I’ve known dozens, maybe even a couple of hundred teachers, including many high school teachers.

    I’m sure the lazy unionized bums you keep hearing about exist somewhere, but in my experience I never saw one single teacher who didn’t go way above and beyond the call of duty to help as many students as they could in the time they had.

    Teachers measure out as smarter than the general population. We do actually know we’re going into jobs that pay relative peanuts for really long hours with no overtime. Nobody goes into teaching for the money.

    What teachers live for is the spark of understanding lighting up a student’s eyes. And that’s true everywhere, not just in Finland. All the Finns have done is gotten out of the teacher’s way.

    Which is, of course, more expensive in the very short term than cutting education for being full of lazy unionized bums.

  2. Tom January 7, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    i’ve been in education for over 20 years and became completed disenchanted with secondary ed due to the politics, the micromanagement, the buzz-word worship, shifting positions on basic subjects (usually to include the “hero du jour” and his/her “book” about what’s wrong with American education and the “solutions”), the flawed accreditation systems for both teachers and those that give the stamp of approval to all schools from pre-school through college.

    What’s wrong with American schools won’t be addressed for a lot of reasons, one of which George Carlin is well known for. Beyond that here are some other reasons our schools are failing: there’s too many students to each class, the buildings themselves are depressing (and reminicent of prison – especially now that there’s an overwhelming stress on security), the day is too regimented, neither teachers nor students have freedom (because this is America – so school mirrors the plight of its citizens), most of the students live in poverty now and the entire culture is designed to distract everyone 24/7 so studying is difficult.

    Beyond even that, our entire worldview was strapped on us before anyone had a chance to think about what it was we were doing, and now our world is roaring toward oblivion. We have been and are the most ignorant species on the planet and NOTHING is being done (in fact, now nothing CAN BE done because it’s too late) to avert the cataclysmic finale of our “adventure” into industrial civilization.

    We will become extinct within decades the way we’re misusing our biosphere. Schools were always about the status quo and “preparing students for the future” was a huge lie to keep us all going, you know, “productive.” It was always about jobs. Yeah, great – more of the same raping of the environment so that “we” all get our little piece of the pie. One generation after another. We were total sell-outs or we landed in the unemployment line, or jail or the mental ward (until they became too costly). So there will be no change of direction or “sustainable” education, no “free thought” in order to maybe adapt to the way it will be very soon. Nope. Just march ahead in the fog, knowing the cliff edge is out there somewhere and we’re gettin’ close.

    Human civilization was an enormous failure. We turned paradise into a dump where we practice killing each other and everything else while we’re at it.

  3. Allie January 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    Bob Somerby always has enlightening posts on this subject – there’s one today concerning Rhee. I have to disagree a bit with this post and say that our ethnic makeup and the brutal history minorities here have endured do contribute to the contrast with Finland to a large degree. Finland is tiny and comparatively homogenous.

    Tools like Rhee do not help the situation – she’s never taught in a classroom in her life.

  4. Mike the Mad Biologist January 7, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    It’s worth noting that we have U.S. models that are comparable in size to Finland that actually perform better. <a href="http://mikethemadbiologist.com/2012/12/12/instead-of-racing-to-tops-or-not-leaving-children-behind-why-dont-we-just-clone-what-massachusetts-has-done/"Why not just duplicate what Massachusetts does?

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