The magic of education in Finland

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Photo Credit: Barbara Bruns / World Bank

Anyone working in education is familiar with the story of Finland’s remarkable evolution into one of the world’s top-performing education systems. The country ranked fifth in science and sixth in reading on the 2012 PISA assessment, second on the 2012 PIAAC (the new OECD test of adult literacy) , and is routinely in the top five of practically every other international measure of education quality.  To visitors from standards-and-accountability-heavy countries such as the UK and the US, or from low-performing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), Finland’s formula can seem like magic.   All teachers have a Master’s degree. There is no student testing. There are no school inspections or rankings. Students have little homework and teachers work few hours. Teachers are trusted professionals with full autonomy in the classroom.               

My study tour to Finland in September 2015 convinced me that this formula is indeed magic.  Why?  Because the popular version of the “Finnish story” neglects elements of the institutional context that are so hard-wired into the system that the locals hardly register them.  Three crucial elements, in particular, create an accountability framework that makes it possible for the “magic” to work. 

First, teachers do not have job stability.  They are hired by individual schools – not school districts.  If a school director asks a teacher to leave – and it does happen – the teacher alone is responsible for finding a new position.  Just reflect on the incentives for performance that this creates. 

In LAC and the US, teachers are hired by municipal, state or national school systems and have civil service job stability.  If a school director is not satisfied with a teacher’s performance, it is the school system’s responsibility to transfer the teacher elsewhere, because it is virtually impossible to fire teachers.  The result? Over time, poorly qualified and/or unmotivated or “burned out” teachers sink like sediment into schools in the poorest neighborhoods with the weakest school directors.  Education loses its essential power to redress inequality by offering disadvantaged students opportunity. 

Second, school budgets depend on enrollments.  Finland runs a national school choice system where parents and students can choose freely between the 2,600 municipal and 80 privately-managed schools and funding follows the student.  While municipalities provide infrastructure financing to municipal schools, this appears to be the only major way in which the municipal schools differ from private schools.  Crucially, they do not guarantee teacher salaries or fixed costs if enrollments decline.  

As a result, about 100 municipal schools per year have closed over the past several years.  Reflect on the incentives for performance that this creates.  In public school districts in LAC or the US, if a school loses enrollments, the system continues to finance its teacher salaries and fixed costs.  In the privately-managed schools in Finland, principals serve at the pleasure of the governing board.

Photo Credit: Barbara Bruns / World Bank

​Third, students face performance pressure.  Sure, they do not have to take standardized tests (except on a sample basis in a few grades of primary school).  However, their futures depend in a significant way on a demanding set of matriculation exams at the end of ninth grade.  These exams cover the curriculum in Finnish, math, science and foreign languages (most students we met study at least two languages besides Finnish!).

Scoring highly is required for entry into the most competitive upper secondary schools and for the academic track in general; over 40% of Finnish students go into a vocational track for secondary education).  Think about the incentives for performance that this creates.  In the US and LAC, standardized testing may be onerous but it has no stakes for individual students. Most LAC and US students do not face high-stakes exams until the end of upper secondary school. 

​Visitors to Finland are invariably dazzled by school infrastructure, which reflects the close to seven percent of GDP the country invests in education.  We saw several examples of older schools that have been renovated with colorful, light-filled modern additions.  We also saw well-prepared teachers who managed class time seamlessly and kept all students engaged.  But what is dangerous for education policy elsewhere is the tendency for visitors to seize on single elements of Finland’s policies as solutions for their countries. 

A Chilean minister told me that a study group returned from Finland calling for abolition of the Chilean national assessment, SIMCE (Sistema de Medición de la Calidad de la Educación (Education Quality Measurement System) because Finland “does not use standardized testing”.  Another senior official wondered whether Brazil could raise the professionalism and prestige of teachers by also mandating master’s degree preparation, despite the much lower content, quality and effectiveness of these programs in Brazil, and the much higher academic selectivity of teacher preparation in Finland. 

In translating “Finnish lessons” into Spanish, Portuguese and English, it is crucial to recognize how profoundly the core institutional context in Finland differs from that of LAC and the US.  All of the actors in Finnish education face significantly higher individual accountability for performance – which may be the truly important ingredient in the magic of education in Finland.   

For more information about teachers in Latin America and the Caribbean, read this report.
Check out this previous blog about the Finnish education system.
Watch the video of a conversation our education experts had with Education Minister Krista Kiuru about Finland.


Barbara Bruns

Lead Education Economist, Latin America and the Caribbean

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