CRF Blog

What We Can Learn From Finland

by Bill Hayes

Educational reformers have often cited Finland as the case study of how schools can be reformed. In the 1970s, Finland, like the U.S., had many low-performing schools, especially in lower income areas. The country embarked on ambitious education and social reforms, and today it maintains one of the best school systems in the world. Yet Finland did not embrace many of the reforms often called on by school reformers in the U.S.: It did not fire teachers, get rid of teachers unions, rely on standardized tests, privatize the system, or force top to bottom change.

Instead, it lowered the numbers of students in schools and classrooms (300 per school and class size in the 20s). It focused on individualized attention on students’ education and social needs. It emphasized higher-order thinking. And it empowered teachers and made teaching a much more desirable profession. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford, has written on Finland’s reforms in her book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. An excerpt of the book is in an article titled What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform.

From the article:

Beginning in the 1970s, Finland launched reforms to equalize educational opportunity by first eliminating the practice of separating students into very different tracks based on their test scores, and then by eliminating the examinations themselves. This occurred in two stages between 1972 and 1982, and a common curriculum, through the end of high school, was developed throughout the entire system. These changes were intended to equalize educational outcomes and provide more open access to higher education. During this time, social supports for children and families were also enacted, including health and dental care, special education services, and transportation to schools.

By the late 1970s, investment in teachers was an additional focus. Teacher education was improved and extended. Policy makers decided that if they invested in very skillful teachers, they could allow local schools more autonomy to make decisions about what and how to teach—a reaction against the oppressive, centralized system they sought to overhaul.

Below Darling-Hammond talks about how the U.S. education system can be improved.