Comparing the American and Finnish Education Systems

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In the field of education, discussions of reform and policy often include topics such as teacher training and retention; differing teaching theories and philosophies; and the infrastructure that exists to support and maintain the education system. Finland made global news a few years ago when their reformed education system showed excellent results and other countries began examining their education system; including the United States. The United States education system is in a state of change, moving to a new nationwide curriculum called the Common Core, and as the adoption begins, many reformers are calling for examination of programs that are already successful in other countries. This paper examines the Finnish educational system in comparison with the United States educational system from varied aspects such as teacher training, selection and retention; objectivist versus constructivist theory; key classroom philosophy differences; results and proof of success; and the infrastructure that is in place. While the information regarding the Finnish educational system is accessible as the entire country functions in a single “district” (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2012, p. ii) the United States has over 13,000 separate districts with differing policies, philosophies, and programs. The results of the research, however, revealed that there are components of the Finnish education system that could be adopted in the United States to improve facets of the American education systems.

Comparing the American and Finnish Educational Systems

Educational reform has been in the news for the past decade in the United States with similar questions of how to train teachers, setting standards for students and arguing over whether or not a program was successful. While many countries continue to outperform U.S. students, many teachers and experts are studying what these countries are doing to improve the education in American classroom. There are many factors involved in an educational comparison, including: spending, teacher training, testing, national standards, homework, classroom time and the results of reform. While the comparison may seem far reaching because of Finland’s small size and homogenous population, the United States still has lessons to learn from Finland in the area of educational reform.

Teacher Training, Selection and Retention

In many calls for reform, the teacher training and selection is often one of the first objects of focus for reformers and in Finland, the teaching profession is considered to be a respected and elite field with individuals selected from the top ranking college students. Teachers in Finland are considered to be on par with lawyers and doctors; while they are not paid an exorbitant amount, they are admired by society for their work with children (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2012, p. 22). A school administrator explains in an interview that Finnish teachers are confident in their goal of being teachers and have completed college with the intent of becoming teachers, not as a career that they happen to fall into. In fact, in Finland, teaching is considered a competitive field, with teachers coming from the top 10% of graduating students (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2012, p. 5) and teachers are required to continue their schooling with a state-funded master’s degree in education (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2012, p. 5). While a Finnish teacher’s formal education may be completed after a master’s degree, teachers are expected to continue to deepen their understanding of teaching and educational theory.

Even though the field is competitive and teachers are requires to continue their education, there are structures in place to keep teachers from leaving the teaching profession. Beginning teacher pay is comparable to that of a novice American teacher; however, Finnish teachers have the opportunity to make more money over their career. After accumulating years of teaching, the average increase in pay in the United States is 62%; whereas, the increase in pay over time in Finland is 102% (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2012, p. 90). However, competitiveness has its limits for teachers in Finland, with no merit pay being offered for high achievement test or exam scores. In the United States, the practices of providing merit pay for teachers whose students have high standardized test scores is highly debated, with proponents stating that merit pay rewards effective teachers and encourages ineffective teachers to perform better. The practice of merit pay is so controversial that a limited number of school districts in America use merit pay because of the unfairness of teachers who work is troubled schools or with low-performing students. The aim of professional pay across the board is hotly debated.

Objectivist versus Constructivist Theory

Once a Finnish teacher begins teaching, their education never really stops, ashe or she must continue to do professional development and training on average of two hours a week (compared with the American 10-12 hours a year), increasing his or her knowledge on applied learning and application. To ensure a balance between classroom time and professional development, Finnish teachers spend only four hours a day in the classroom and spend the rest of their work day planning curriculum, contacting parents, setting up labs, working collaboratively with colleagues, and developing lessons (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2012, p. 110). The training and time allowances for planning give Finnish teachers the resources and time they need to develop a curriculum that is modern and effective.

The curriculum has also moved Finland to use a different theory for educational practices. Eila Jeronen (2001) of the University of Oulu remarks that Finnish teachers “have reconceptualized the teaching and learning process [and have moved toward the practice] of teacher education from objectivistic toward constructivist theory,” changing all aspects of education from the training of teachers to the training of students. This means that Finnish teachers, through the reform of the last thirty years, have changed the focus of education from teacher focused to student focused. In an American classroom, the objectivist theory is often implemented; that the teacher is the holder of the knowledge and that knowledge needs to be disseminated in a didactic style that is reminiscent of the education system in the 1950’s. However, in a Finnish classroom, they follow the constructivist philosophy which means that their students are involved in action learning (Jeronen, 2004) where teachers are facilitators of learning in a way that encourages students to explore, construct and think critically about ideas. While a single school or district in the United States may follow a constructivist approach, the entire country of Finland uses this style of learning as a standard for all public schools and classrooms (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2012, p.27). While different educational theories may suit difference locations, Finland has had a thirty year track record of success that has brought global attention to this small country.

Graduation and Continuing Education. In Finland, approximately 93% of students graduate from high school, whereas, only 75% of American students graduate from high school (“College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2012 High School Graduates,” 2012). High school graduation is considered one of the identifiers of student success so educational researchers consider this information as being key in understanding the strength of an educational system is (Kivinen, Ahola & Hedman, 2001). Part of the importance of this identifier is that if students graduate from high school they are able to continue their education; either at a university or a vocational school. Of the Finnish students, 66% continue on to college and 30% continue to vocational schools (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2012, p. 145) while 66% of American students continue to college and 15% move on to vocational schools in 2012 (“College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2012 High School Graduates”). The percentage of students who continue on to post-secondary education is remarkably the same, although with a smaller percentage of students eligible for post-secondary education because of high school graduation rates.

Key Classroom Philosophy Differences

There are also some key differences in how students are treated in the education system as far as starting age for traditional education, homework expectations and recess allowances for elementary students. While these aspects of education may not seem to be as concrete for proof of a country’s educational success, it does show a differing philosophy in how students are treated in schools for the goal of finding higher success.

Starting Age. In the United States, some states have pre-school or Head Start programs that help ready students for education and Finland also offers a similar program for children who are not ready to begin formal schooling. However, one major difference in starting education is that in the United States children begin kindergarten at age 6 (and in some cases, as young as 5) while Finnish students are 7 when they enter the public education system. The reason for this, says Finnish school Principal Kari Louhivuori is, “[there is] no hurry. Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?” (Hancock, 2011) Research also supports the reasoning behind what Lougivuori says, Elder and Lubostky’s study “Kindergarten Entrance Age and Children’s Achievement” (2009) examines this practice and the results of their study shows that students who are in the 6/7 age range are much more prepared for school than students who enter school in the 5/6 age range and were more likely to score higher on achievement tests.

Homework. Age is also considered when assigning homework, with American children as young as six are often given worksheets to complete for homework while Finnish students are not given substantial homework until they are teenagers. Joseph Simplicio explored the American reasoning behind homework in his article “Homework in the 21st Century: The Antiquated and Ineffectual Implementation of a Time Honored Educational Strategy” and examines the problems that assigning homework to young students have. He reasons that children were less likely to learn from the homework assignments because many times the students “as young as five or six, recount countless hours working on multiple assignments” and spent hours studying, reading, completing math problems, memorizing spelling words and practicing with handwriting drills (2005). Simplicio concluded that young students were rarely engaged in the homework activities and did not retain any more information than a student who did not have homework. Finland’s education system follows a similar trend, avoiding homework assignments for students until they are in their early teens and providing meaningful practice to concepts learned in class (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, p. 145). Since students are not regularly given homework, they have more time to engage in extra-curricular or family activities and engage in another important activity for children: play.

The Importance of Play. Play is an integral part of a child’s development and the schools in Finland embrace play time for children. Instead of emphasizing homework, Finnish schools emphasize play as an important part of a child’s day; and they allot 75 minutes of recess per day for elementary school students, compared to the 27 minutes of recess allows for their American counterparts. The philosophy of American schools may be that since students are in the classroom for a longer period of time, they will learn more; however, the Finnish model seems to disprove this idea. When interviewed for Samuel Abrams’ article “The Children Must Play,” (2011) the principal of Kallahti Comprehensive school explained that children not only spend more time outside they also mandate arts and crafts including knitting, sewing, and artistic projects. These differences; the starting age, homework and recess time, show how differently the two systems view the children, the American system focusing solely on the success of goals while the Finnish system focuses on education but also emphasizes the importance of allowing children the time to be children.

Special Education and Student Support. While the importance of play is embedded in Finnish educational philosophy, the underlying importance of succeeding academically is prevalent, even in their special education and student support programs. America’s special education and student support programs vary from state, city, district and school and range from fully exclusive to full immersion. Finland’s current goal is to mainstream all special education students during the primary grades and place them in mainstream vocational training for their secondary education. Teachers in classes where special education students are mainstreamed are supported by assistants to help students function in the regular class. If a student does need extra support beyond what the regular classroom can offer, the student is pulled out of class for a few hours a day to work with a specialist (Hancock, 2011). This is also true of students who need language support, since Finland has a small but increasing immigrant population who speak little or no Finnish.

Students who arrive at a Finnish school and do not speak Finnish are placed in classes that encourage them to learn the language but also maintain success in their subject areas. For example, if a recent immigrant from Somalia speaks little or no Finnish, the student is placed in a classroom with a smaller number of students and a teacher who is trained to work with students who do not have a strong grasp of the school’s language. In this classroom, the student will be taught the language while also continuing lessons in math, science and history so that the student can eventually be placed in mainstream classes without falling behind (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, p. 170). The United States education system varies in the education of language learners similar to the variation for special education; often depending on the state, city, and district following differing policies regarding both.

Results and Proof of Success

The result of these reforms are fairly clear, with Finland placing high on a standardized test that are given on a global scale to judge the efficacy of a country’s education as well as student success rates of Finnish high school students. The PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests measures the academic preparedness of students and allows a comparison between different countries in order to rate them. The United States, in the 2012 PISA results placed the U.S. at the middle while Finland ranked as the highest in the world (Hancock, 2011). These results are considered a reliable source of ranking education systems in different countries and have been for the last several years. Success beyond standardized tests are also vital to gauging the actual success of a country’s education system, and Finland’s students are more likely to graduate high school and attend college than American students.

The Infrastructure

Finland’s model of education, as well as their success, has brought global attention to the programs as well as how Finland reformed their education system. In the 1960’s, after Finland faced a crippling financial situation, the country decide to completely reform public education. Their simple plan had several components; one being that they would have a single system (no separate districts) that followed the same policies. Teachers would contribute the curriculum guidelines and the curriculum was not pre-scripted, although all teachers and schools would have equal access to funding. Standardized testing initiatives were non-existent; although teachers have the option to test students but only after the students are in the 6th grade. In the 1970’s, the ministry of education decided to implement plan that required teachers to complete a master’s degree in theory and practice (Hancock, 2011). From here, scores began to steadily increase and in 2010 the world took notice and began to examine the infrastructure that the Finns had put in place to achieve these results.

Spending. With the record of success that Finland has in student achievement it is surprising to note that their education system actually spends less per student than the American education system. In the United States, the average amount spent per students is $11,000 (“Country statistical profile,” 2013) while the Finnish system spends only $7,700 per student; a full 30% less per child (Hancock, 2011). While teacher retention saves some money, there are also two more ways that the Finnish education system spends less and achieves more; revised national standards and limited to know testing.

National Standards. To ensure that students are getting a similar education across an entire nation, standards are often written to create learning parameters for educators to follow. When Finland first began reforming their education system in the 1970’s, the original set of standards were 700 pages of information, whereas, modern Finland utilizes a much more condensed standard system that is about 7 pages long (Hancock, 2011). This broader approach also saves Finland money, since the standards do not have to be reformed, reviewed, or rewritten every few years as the curriculum changes.

Testing. When educational reform is mentioned in the United States, standardized achievement tests are a necessary part of the discussion while Finland eschews them completely.Louhivuori, in a common vein with the Finnish educational system says, “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test” and use the funding on student programs and support instead (Hancock, 2011). In the current American education system, standardized tests take place once a year and the upcoming Common Core curriculum calls for standardized testing in education to occur much more frequently. Children begin testing at the age of eight and there are even pushes to perform high-stakes testing on students as young as six and the cost of such testing can reach as high as $1.1 billion in 2008 according to the Pew Center.


The education of a nation’s youth is indicative of the future of the nation; if the children are given the opportunity to be successful in their education the country has a better chance of being successful. In the United States, the call for educational reform has been getting louder and reform is coming in the form of the Common Core. However, there are countries that have a very different perspective on education that is extremely effective, such as Finland. This small country has a very clear and simple view on education as Sahlberg & Hargreaves (2012) say, they will “do whatever it takes” (115) to ensure that their youth are educated adequately and prepared for vocational and post-secondary training. While the Finnish education system may not be a perfect fit for the United States, there are lessons from their reforms that could benefit America’s education system and, in turn, America’s students.


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