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Is Finland Still an Education Superstar?

Halsey Rogers's picture

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.

Follow the World Bank education team at Twitter @wbeducation

Comments

Submitted by Xiaonan Cao on

Totally agree! China realized the importance of the quality of teachers and started to use various incentives to attract good candidates to the teaching profession. I won't say "attracting the best" because it's just not realistic. It introduced performance and responsibility based salary structure (you can call it some sort of accountability system) in the late 1980s and the system has been improved a number of times. In addition to make sure teacher salary increase should at least catch up with the inflation, good primary school teacher's salary could be equal to the salary of associate professor. And, school teachers' salary increase is more frequent than professors'. At the same time, the government sets up the minimum level and decentralized the decision power to local authorities. Local authorities assocaite teacher salary increase with local economic performance. So, you may hear complains from teachers in one area after comparing their salary with teachers' in another area, even within the same province! Such system has both pros and cons of course. But, in today's China, complaining teaching is a low pay job is much less frequently heard. Also, I agree that education is a much history, culture contextualized business. Something works in Asia probably is not going to work in other parts of the world. Also, it is more likely that Finland feels it's doing fine, it's education reform or improvement may be slower or stagnant while Asian countries have been making much more effort in education. Foundamentally, almost all Asian countries feel strongly the global competition and constently worry about being left behind. The only way they could comfort themselves is to make sure their education is improving and leads the world. Such drive is not commonly seen in other parts of the world, even with the deep financial crisis (e.g., Europe). How to motivate and mobilize the mass and help themselves and the country is something policymakers should not ignore. What's happening in Malaysia now may provide good lessons to us. Finally, Shanghai good results didn't appear magically. The Telegraph's article provides some clue: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10494678/PISA-educa....

Thanks for this very useful post, Halsey.

I thought your advice in the last sentence was very sensible:

>> We should continue to cast our nets widely for other lessons on successful policies and interventions.

Indeed, we should cast our nets widely both geographically *and* temporally. You mention in your post that Finland embarked on a comprehensive reform of its education system in the 1970s. I find that many people look at the places that are high in the PISA league tables *today* and make a simple equation between what those places are doing *today* and their PISA scores *today*.

In the Finnish case, many people point to things like 'good teacher selection and preparation' (which you of course mention in your post) as important factors behind the 'Finnish success'. Let's stipulate, for our purposes here, that this linkage is indeed correct. Even if we accept this 'lesson' (which seems rather reasonable to me), it is important to note that the way Finland selects and prepares its teachers in 2013 is a result of the accretion of changes and results that have occurred over decades, in response to specific contexts and challenges there. Now, whether or not these contexts and challenges were unique to Finland, I don't know (some probably are/were, some not.) But simply saying that Finland = good teacher selection & preparation -> good PISA scores (which is the message that one hears repeated time and again) really isn't terribly useful for policymakers today. (I know that you aren't saying something this simplistic, Halsey -- but lots of other folks sure seem to be!)

How was Finland able to increase selectivity and improve preparation, beginning with the reforms that started almost four decades ago? What worked, what didn't, and how did they know the difference? Answers to those sorts of questions are a bit more complicated, and fuzzy, and perhaps don't lend themselves as readily to the soundbites of politicians and reporters who offer up the PowerPoint-friendly advice that 'you need to be more selective in who enters the teacher profession, just like Finland is' -- but they might be more valuable to policymakers in the end.

Submitted by Jen on

Thank you for the article. Yes the golden days are over for Finland not on education but on business/economy as well.

The international community was silenced by Finland by its country-marketing through Team Finland to tell the world that Finland is so democratic, highly-educated, striving, and a place where santa comes from (usually disagreed by Sweden and Turkey). They (still) spent millions of euros each year "bribing" international journalists and newspapers to talk nicely about Finland BUT a the country is a big FAIL!

They silenced how minorities in Finland were discriminated (I am not talking about black people but foreigners in general). Now the Pisa scores are out. You know what the country's newspapers and politicians say? They say it is because of the migrants! Yes Pisa is Adolf's Arian race examination as opposed to evaluating the quality of society in education.

Finland was a big lame balloon and now it is popped. Let's keep this going...
After all why pay 20% corporate tax while paying much less in Estonia and being in the EU?

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