Just hours after the release of PISA test scores last week showed Finland’s students slipping in the international rankings from a ten-year perch at the top, a Finnish headline read “Golden Days Where Finland’s Education A Success Are Over". The Economist's headline was more concise: "Finn-ished." Is it time to relegate Finland to the dustbin of educational history?
Before we answer that, some background: Ever since international student assessments first flagged Finland as an apparent “education superpower,” the country’s experience has been mined for lessons. What did Finland do and achieve in education, and how relevant is its experience for other countries?
In the 1970s, Finland embarked on a comprehensive reform of its education system. The reforms engineered a shift away from a highly centralized “Germanic” system that tracked students early. With its reforms, Finland moved instead to a system that keeps all students in the same track through age 16. Another key feature is that the Finnish system draws teacher candidates from the top of the ability distribution, trains teachers well, and lets them design the curriculum around very lean national standards.
After the reforms, Finland’s education system indeed delivered strong results. Most famously, its 15-year-old students performed at or near the top of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) from 2000 through 2009. Today’s PISA report shows that in 2012, Finland slipped in the rankings—down to 12th place in math, as the top seven places were all claimed by East Asian education systems. Nevertheless, its students still rank 5th in science and 6th in reading, and they perform well above international mean even in math. In addition, Finland remains one of the systems singled out by the OECD for combining high performance with high levels of equity.
What can other countries learn from Finland’s successes of recent decades, and what cautions should they keep in mind?
Applying lessons from Finland
World Bank research and advice have certainly drawn lessons from Finland’s reforms and their outcomes. One lesson is of the importance of attracting strong candidates into the teaching profession and of educating and supporting teachers well. For example, the Bank's SABER-Teachers policy analysis framework benchmarks countries against several policy goals—including "Attracting the best into teaching" and "Preparing teachers with useful training and experience"—that are inspired in part by Finland's example. A second lesson is that there can be benefits in delaying tracking of students, as experience from other countries also indicates. Early tracking may reinforce inequality without even improving learning outcomes or employability. Instead, countries should focus on giving all students a chance to develop the cognitive skills that will make them more productive and adaptable, together with social and behavioral skills.
What sets Finland apart?
At the same time, education reforms have to be considered within the country’s cultural, historical, and economic context. Finland has many characteristics that set it apart from many of the countries that the Bank works with. It has a strong high-income economy with a flourishing information and technology sector. Its population is also small (at 5.4 million people) and is ethnically and culturally homogenous (with only 4% of the population of non-Finnish ethnicity), which may make it easier to develop and maintain widely shared expectations of performance.
These differences have implications for lesson-learning. Take the example of accountability reforms in education. Finland reinforces the idea that good teacher selection and preparation are essential, but we can learn this lesson without rejecting (as some advocates do) the idea that accountability reforms can also improve teaching and learning. Context matters, and Finland's schools don’t confront the problems that many of our client countries do—such as high rates of teacher absenteeism (which can reach 20-30% per day) and low rates of teaching activity, non-meritocratic hiring and promotion processes, and a lack of outcome indicators for schooling.
So even before the latest PISA results, there were reasons for caution about some apparent lessons from Finland. More broadly, these results highlight something we’ve long recognized: the importance of drawing from numerous successful country experiences, rather than striving to emulate any one stellar example. This is why education reformers should look at a variety of high performers in education rather than looking for a silver bullet from one country.
So, should we stop learning from Finland’s record of combining education quality with equity? No, but we should continue to cast our nets widely for other lessons on successful policies and interventions.
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