NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?

August 29, 2011

The transformation of Finland's education system began some 40 years ago as a key part of the country's economic recovery plan.  Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world.  Three years later, they led in math, says Smithsonian Magazine.  

  • By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science.
  • In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.
  • By contrast, the United States has muddled along in the middle for the past decade.

Finland's schools were not always a wonder.  Until the late 1960s, most children left public school after six years and only the privileged or lucky got a quality education.

  • In 1963, the Finnish Parliament decided public schools would be organized into one system of comprehensive schools for ages 7 through 16.  
  • Teachers from all over the nation contributed to a national curriculum that provided guidelines, not prescriptions, and resources were distributed equally.  
  • The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master's degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities.  
  • From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers.  
  • By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation and control over policies shifted to town councils.

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students' senior year in high school.  There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.

  • Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union.
  • Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less than the United States.
  • Teachers in Finland also spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers.

Source: Lynnell Hancock, "Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?" Smithsonian Magazine, September 2011.

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