Which country is ranked first in primary education and third in math and science education globally by the World Economic Forum? Finland.
It helps that Finland is a tiny country, population 5.5 million or so. But they have some of the same issues as we do in the U.S.–children whose first language is not the one spoken by the majority of people, a need to bridge services to the rural people in a sparsely populated country with the urban dwellers, and a need for ongoing adult education.
Some might argue that because of America’s size and diverse population, we can’t possibly adopt Finland’s recipe for success. Yet we’d be foolish to let those differences be the crutch for not retooling for the U.S. what we can of the Finnish policies that work. Equally foolish is to ignore how Finnish investment in education is itself an economic driver, with a knowledgeable and educated workforce able to create and adapt to new jobs and industries.
The Guardian of London recently contrasted the school systems of Finland and the UK. One finding worth noting: “The most striking difference between the Finnish system and British is the fact that Finland has no private schools. There are a handful of privately run religious schools and Steiner schools, but places at these are state-funded, too.”
Finland’s success is due, in part, to the high status of teaching. Reforms in the 1980s transferred teacher training to universities and required every teacher to have a master’s degree.
A major contrast between Finland and the U.S. is in the training and status of teachers. According to a Finnish researcher who studies vocational/technical training, only 10% of every 5000 applicants to university education programs are accepted. Every teacher is required to have a master’s degree, and it’s a well-paid, highly regarded profession. In addition, the teachers are unionized and through the unions teachers participate in revamping curriculum. Within the confines of state-determined subjects, teachers have freedom to teach with methods they deem most productive.
Also noteworthy: there’s a strong social safety net with excellent free childcare and education through university is free. All children are provided a hot meal at school regardless of need.
I’m sure it’s not perfect. While Finland may be home to Nokia, they still don’t have a cultural, economic, and technological force with global impact like the U.S.’s Silicon Valley. But by minimizing inequality and giving social support to families with children, schools in Finland can focus on educating children. Too many of our teachers don’t have that luxury.
And in another few decades, who’s to say that Finland won’t be the hub of global tech innovation that eats Silicon Valley’s lunch?