The Secret to Smarter Schools
If Americans want better schools and smarter students, they should think F-for Finland.
Finnish 15-year-olds score at or near the top in reading, math, and science in the prestigious Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, offered every three years by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2003 (2006 results aren't yet available), Finland ranked first among 40 industrialized nations in reading literacy, first (with Japan) in science, and second in math. The United States ranked 18th, 22nd, and 28th in those subjects, respectively. Finland also boasts the smallest gap between its best and weakest students, and the second-smallest difference among individual schools' performances.
In the early 1970s, Finland scrapped its old education system, which steered students into either vocational or academic tracks at the end of fourth grade. In its place, Finland developed a system of "comprehensive" schooling-free public education for all children from grades 1 through 9 that combines students of all academic abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds in the same rooms. This heterogeneous approach focuses on equity for all.
Training teachers. Students start primary school during the year they turn 7, with free preschool as an option before that. Classes are relatively small, averaging 20 to 25 students. Schools have enormous flexibility at the local level in choosing textbooks, designing curricula, and allocating funds. Free school lunches, textbooks, healthcare, and transportation for students offer them holistic support in their learning process. In 1998, a new law gave parents more freedom to select schools for their children. And most students with learning disabilities are integrated into mainstream classrooms and still receive intensive support through special education. (Almost 20 percent of Finnish students get such help, compared with an average of about 6 percent internationally.)
Perhaps the most potent secret weapon in Finland's success is well-trained teachers. In 1970, as the country began to overhaul its system, it mandated that teachers for all grades must obtain at least a master's degree. Today, teacher-education programs at universities are highly competitive, in part because teachers enjoy high prestige in Finnish society. "The status of teachers is comparable to doctors and lawyers," says Jouni Valijarvi, director of the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyvaskyla.
So what can the United States learn from Finland's success? "'No Child Left Behind' should be reality on all levels of the society, not only a slogan," says Valijarvi. "This means big investments in teacher education, special education, and supporting children and families at an early age. The return can be high."
That idea deserves an A.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.