Why America Can’t Have the Success of Finland’s Schools

by / 1 Comment / 3998 View / August 12, 2014

When wistful thinking prevails, it’s easy for people to fantasize. Popular media perpetuates fantasies by continuing to compare the American educational system to those of other countries. With this, people are left thinking: America’s education system doesn’t work; why can’t we be more like Finland?

Finland does it differently. According to Stanford University, the entire education system in Finland is different. Finland’s students spend significantly less time in an actual classroom and more time in recess. Finland’s schools are funded by the government, not locally, as America’s schools are. Additionally, the disadvantaged schools end up receiving more money from the government, not less.

While teaching is a low-paying job in the U.S., in Finland, teaching is a sought-after job. Not only is it a high-status occupation, but Finnish teachers are also required to have master’s degrees (which are paid for by Finland’s government).

But what’s most amazing about Finland’s education system isn’t how different it is; Finland’s practices receive so much attention because they work.

Finland’s students have managed to rank internationally second in science and third in reading, according to the 2009 OECD Education Rankings. On the other hand, the United States ranks 17th in reading and 33rd in science.

Finland schools seem like paradise compared to U.S. schools, where standardization reigns supreme. However, a variety of factors inhibit the United States’ academic achievement. Even if we attempted to improve America’s education system by modifying our system to be more like Finland’s, we overlook one key point: educational outcomes do not exist in a vacuum.

Despite both being industrialized first-world countries, the United States and Finland are two very different countries.

Although Finland is an industrialized country in the same way America is, there are significant differences in their economies.  According to information published by the Heritage Foundation, Finland has a lower unemployment rate. Not only does Finland have a lower unemployment rate, but it also has a significantly lower level of income inequality than America. And although America has a higher average household income, it also has a significantly higher poverty rate.

Living in poverty is not conducive to educational development. Even before children begin elementary school, children from the lower income bracket come to school less prepared to learn. One of the most well-known reasons for this is because of the “language gap.”

The “language gap” refers to the fact that lower income infants of the same age have a significantly smaller vocabulary than their higher income peers. This gap is recognizable at 18 months of age. By the time that these children reach kindergarten, the difference in language ability is enough to have a pervading negative effect on their education long into their years of schooling.

When comparing education systems, it’s also important to consider how cultural differences may account for the disparity between American and Finnish academia.

Learning does not begin and end with the ring of a bell; a person’s culture contributes to their overall educational experience. Therefore, even if schools in the United States were to adopt Finnish educational policies, it is hard to believe that this would translate into academic achievement for American students.

Because America views education, especially university education, as a privilege rather than a right, school culture is different. The way that a country views university education has implications that affect even younger students.

The pressure not only to be admitted to college, but also to garner enough funds to pay for college, can and does make high school a toxic environment for students.

American students, even at a young age, are left thinking that if they’re not the “top of the class,” then they have no chance,and no place, in the university environment.

In Finland, this isn’t an issue. If a Finnish student wishes to attend university, the government pays for it. Without the fear of crippling student loans, Finnish classrooms are far less stressful than their American counterparts, leaving Finnish students with a healthier mindset for learning.

This more peaceful, eager mindset is conducive to academic success. But in the U.S., where there are GPAs, SATs, ACTs, APs, IBs, and various other abbreviations to worry about, the classroom is anything but peaceful for a college-bound student. Even for younger students, American students’ experience is permeated by standardized assessment.

The classroom becomes an extension of fear, insecurity, cutthroat competition, and a place for average students to feel like they’re drowning.

Instead of seeking to emulate a system that works for a country like Finland but won’t necessarily work for a country like the U.S.,it would be more productive to investigate how we can modify the current U.S. system to give our children the education they deserve.

America’s education system is different than Finland’s. With America’s push for more assessment and new curriculum standards through the Common Core and lower income students still lagging behind their wealthier peers, it’s clear that America doesn’t want to have Finland’s educational system. Finland’s system comes with social and cultural factors that promote education for all, but America doesn’t want that: the only thing America wants is Finland’s educational success.



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  • PH

    I can’t believe no one commented on this yet, it’s a hot topic and it’s been almost three months, but seeing how not many people are aware of Finland’s superiority overall, that might explain a lot… I think you should explain more of the specifics of the system in Finland, rather than numbers which don’t even tell the whole story. You look at Norway, who follows the United States’ ideas, and they’re scoring very close to the US on the PISA test all the time, which means sub-par or bad depending on how you look at it, clearly it is not the population or cultures, it is the system, which as you should know, in the US antagonizes teachers and everyone else involved including the students and doesn’t give any kind of space for teachers to teach properly, because the teachers obviously must be looking for ways to slack off or to not teach properly, and the corporations and hedge fund managers taking over the public education system, if not trying to eradicate it have to know better. Not a good learning environment.
    Finland also spends less per student and considerably less overall than the US on education to the point where you almost don’t believe it, $809.6 billion vs $10 billion, I don’t even need to label which number is whose, but as a side note, the second biggest spender overall is Japan with $160 billion. The US’ 316 million population isn’t ridiculously bigger than Finland’s 5.4 million or Japan’s 127.3 million, round off Finland’s to 1/60 of the US, if you were to say the US should be spending in proportion to the best, then the US should be spending only about $600 billion, which obviously means Finland is much more efficient and nothing notable is going to waste, otherwise they look none worse for the wear.
    Unlike money, you can’t look at numbers when it comes to things like education, you have to look at what works for the human brain. You ever use Rosetta Stone? Think about how much easier and faster that could teach someone a language (if you used it properly) along with the added benefit of retaining it forever. Common Core was pushed into implementation by these hedge fund managers and other businessmen. This is only furthering the problem of standardized testing that the US, along with many other countries, needs to get rid of.