The Finnish Model

Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this article was published by Education Week

In Finland, there are virtually no private schools. Why not? Because the public schools in Finland function like independent schools in the U.S., and the results are very good.

Finland has been in the news of late, especially since the publication of the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) testing results revealed that students in Finland outperformed those of all other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) countries. How did they do it? An article in The Economist1— reporting on an analysis of the Finland system by McKinsey, an international consulting firm — offers some insights.

Here are the factors, according to McKinsey, that were not in play for Finland’s success:

  • It’s not high pay for teachers, since Finnish teachers are not paid particularly well, and the countries that do pay their teachers the most (Spain, Switzerland, and Germany) do not perform as well.
  • It’s not more years of schooling, since compulsory school education starts at grade 1 (age 7) and ends in grade 9 (age 16), after which virtually all (95 percent) of Finland’s students voluntarily attend either upper secondary academic school (headed for university) or upper secondary vocational school (headed for the workplace or to further higher education in polytechnic institutes).
  • It’s not small class sizes, since Finnish classes are often 30 students with only one teacher (and few specialists, and the teachers are expected to teach all skills and subjects).

Just after the McKinsey report was issued, I happened to be in Helsinki, attending the Microsoft School of the Future International Summit, and two fortuitous events occurred that allowed me to learn firsthand how the Finns educate their kids. First, I was so jet-lagged the morning I arrived that I followed a group with badges that looked like mine (from a distance), boarded their bus, and ended up, not at my conference, but at a Finnish school for a half-day’s observations. Second, after I took a taxi to rejoin the Microsoft School group, I wandered into a presentation by an official of the Finnish government who laid out the specifics for what drove the nation’s educational success. What I learned from both the accidental school visit and the official presentation were the other factors not in play for Finnish success: 

  • It’s not a longer school day or longer school year, since school runs from 8:00 am to noon or 2:00 pm, depending on the age of students, and the school year is no longer than in the U.S.
  • It’s not nationally centralized control (like that of the French) but rather national curriculum standards with local implementation. (A Finnish third-grade teacher told us that, of the 25 periods per week of classes, about five are dictated subjects/skills from the national standards; in the rest, she improvises.)
  • It’s not accreditation. There is none in Finland. The federal ministry, with some periodic sampling testing to assure quality control, trusts the local authorities to meet the national standards.
  • It’s definitely not high-stakes testing, since most of the testing that occurs is formative, not summative. As noted, the government does do periodic sample testing of students to make certain the students, their schools, and the system continue to perform highly (and intervenes aggressively if a school falls behind), but the government refuses to publish the test results for the press or public, eschewing the mania of League Tables in Great Britain and school rankings in the U.S. based on test scores.

So what exactly is it that makes the Finns so successful in educating kids? Very simply, as the McKinsey Report points out, three factors: “get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind.” Examining each of these imperatives dramatizes the Finland success story.

Get the Best Teachers

As we’ve known in the U.S. education industry for a long time, the single most important factor for student and school success is high-quality faculty. While the U.S. public system identifies “high-quality” as “highly-qualified,” meaning “certified” (i.e., having an education degree or having taken a battery of education courses), independent schools in the U.S. have long rejected that definition in favor of hiring “high-quality” teachers, meaning those who have a degree in the subject they love and teach (i.e., math and physics majors, not education majors, teaching math and physics). Part of the rationale for the independent school path for hiring liberal arts graduates from competitive and selective universities (also, incidentally, the strategy of Teach for America, which attracts the top echelon of graduates from America’s most selective universities to teach in public schools) is that education programs generally have the lowest status in universities and attract the weakest students. The Economist article quotes a South Korean official who notes that, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” and cites studies in Tennessee and Texas that have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, those students end up in the top 10 percent of student performers. Conversely, if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom. Also, the article cites The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce report (Tough Choices or Tough Times), which observes that American public schools typically recruit teachers from the bottom third of college graduates. I learned from the Finnish Ministry that “getting the best teachers” means that all teachers must have master’s degrees and that only 10 percent, the cream of the crop of undergraduates, are accepted into the teacher training program. The ministry deliberately restricts access to the program, believing that restrictions increase attraction (a strategy also employed by Teach for America, which routinely attracts five or more candidates for every position). In Finland, it’s not the money but the status and prestige of teaching that attracts the best and brightest into the profession. Ditto for Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, where teachers are also revered (and, I might add, in U.S. independent schools, where faculty status, power, and influence are high and unionization virtually nonexistent).

Takeaway #1: To improve educational outcomes in U.S. schools, we need to develop a winning strategy for attracting talent. In cultures like ours that don’t give high status to teaching, more money may have to do (until we successfully elevate the profession’s status). Interestingly, we have an opportunity to front-load higher starting salaries as our more highly paid veteran boomer teachers are about to retire. Alternatively, we can also recruit teachers on the campuses of our 250 or so highly selective colleges and universities for the undergraduate academic and leadership elite who “want to give back” or make a difference in the social structure of the nation.

Get the Best Out of Teachers

A second arena in which American education falls short, in both public and private segments of the industry, is in “professionalizing the profession.” While there is much talk and some progress in creating “professional learning communities” (PLCs) for teachers, and there is some promise in creating digital communities, we fall far short as a country of what our competitors in the world marketplace are committed to. In Finland, groups of teachers visit each other’s classrooms and plan lessons together, in a system called “lesson studies” that include “rounds” just like the medical profession. Teachers also get an afternoon off per week for professional development (including for school substitutes).

Takeaway #2: American schools are way too underinvested in annual professional training and could benefit immensely from creating true PLCs focused on peer learning, peer observations, and collaborative lesson-planning. In fact, a huge improvement in professionalizing the profession would occur if teacher evaluations were linked to engagement in PLCs and demonstrations of what is learned (which the Irish are moving towards doing with ePortfolios, as I learned at the Microsoft School of the Future International Summit).

Step in When Pupils Start to Lag Behind

A factor contributing to the success of the Finnish system is the use of early and powerful intervention when a student begins to fall behind. Frequent diagnostic testing (“formative testing”) at early stages reveals students who need extra help, and the Finns provide it intensively (with one special-needs teacher for every seven special-needs students in some schools). The McKinsey report points out that, in Finland, about a third of students receive remediation.

Interestingly, education spending in Finland is also weighted toward the middle school years: Finland spends about the same as its OECD counterparts in the lower primary grades (grades 1–5), a lot less (much bigger classes) in the upper secondary years (grades 10–12), but a lot more in the middle years (grades 6–9) because this is the time when kids begin to fail and drop out. How sensible is the Finn model to increase resources at that point to prevent kids from the disaster of failing at school? In Finland, there are no dead-end streets down the education highway.

Takeaway #3: It turns out that all kids can learn, given good teachers, early and intensive intervention, and a supportive school and peer culture. U.S. schools need to move from a medical model (learning disabilities) to a diversity model (learning differences), and re-orient themselves to identify, value, and use a student’s strengths as “workarounds” and palliatives to weaknesses.

Other Factors 

Finland is a small, homogenous country of five million, with a common value of high regard for education. Literacy and fluency are a national priority, contributing to good results in literacy examinations. Children see adults reading all the time, since Finns on average check out 18 books from the library per year. (It’s minus 40 degrees for long spells in the winter, so indoor activities like reading are popular.) The Finns, by policy, are committed to fluency in foreign language, as there are two national languages, Finnish and Swedish, taught throughout school. Just about everyone I met also spoke English, in part because Finnish TV uses no dubbing — only subtitles, so children hear English all the time.

Children feel safe and supported in Finnish schools: the environment is colorful and filled with light, the children have a single teacher in multi-age learning groups “where differences are taken for granted,” and no grading is used in assessments.

Few textbooks are used, the Finns preferring project- and problem-based approaches integrated with learning in the larger community, and tempered with lots of practical education elements and daily chores at the school. ICT (Information and Communication Technology) is integrated at all levels, including media literacy. The Finns are naturalists and the ecosystem important to them, so field trips focus on nature and produce a country of environmentalists.

Play is important, too. There is universal support for high-quality preschools, which most students attend, but whose emphasis is play, not early prep. Once in the compulsory school system (grades 1–9), kids go outside for 30-minute recess for unstructured play every day, including all winter long. After school, students walk to nearby recreation centers for more sports and play.

Aside from the reindeer jerky with lingonberries as an appetizer for most meals and the group “clothing optional” saunas in the hotel, what was there not to love in Finland? My most striking takeaway from the Microsoft School of the Future International Summit was how so many countries have adopted a huge commitment to re-engineering schools and developing the skills for the 21st century. The British are rebuilding or renovating all their schools over the next 15 years. The Singaporeans are emphasizing creativity and imagination. The Abu Dhabians are talking about leadership training for young women. The Irish are driving down the high-tech highway at full speed. And the U.S.? Tinkering with the No Child Left Behind Act, clinging to standardized testing, and complaining about the difficulties that diversity presents. Meanwhile, the Finns have got their act totally together.


1. “How To Be Top,” The Economist, October 18, 2007.

Patrick F. Bassett

Patrick F. Bassett is president of NAIS. After 12 years at the helm, he is retiring as of June 30, 2013. This is his 48th column for Independent School.