Finnish Miracles & American Myths


My work to move Citation Machine, Class Blogmeister, 2¢ Worth, et al, over to my new “uber” server is winding down. I’ve learned so many truly geeky skills – most of which I’ll probably never use again.  It’s okay.  It makes me feel young.

One advantage of this kind of work is that I can run videos on my iPad, which stands just left of my work screens – and I believe that I’ve already mentioned the thrilling tidbits I’ve been learning about prominant actors (via Inside the Actor’s Studio).

One of the most interesting videos I watched, however, was a talk by Pasi Sahlberg formerly of Finland’s Ministry of Education (notes here).  He’s just published a book called “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” that apparently explains a lot about the “Finnish Miracle” in education.  Here are just a few items that resonated with me.

  • Education has long been important in Finland.  For hundreds of years, according to Sahlberg, literacy has been a requirement for matrimony.  You can’t get married without proving that you’re literate.
  • Education in Finland is free – everywhere for everybody.
  • Students track down two branches, starting around year 10, with about 55% of students going to upper secondary school and on to university or polytechnic and 40% going to vocational schools and apprentice training.
  • Contrary to the “more is more” approach being promoted here in the U.S., Sahlberg said that Finland has followed a less is more strategy, with
    • Less per-pupil spending,
    • Teachers spending less time in instructional supervision and
    • Students spending less time being taught than in the United States and other industrial countries.
  • Also less attention is paid to grades (it is apparently illegal to apply any grade to students before 5th grade) and NO reliance on standardized tests. (Sahlberg, 2011)

Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist based in New York, wrote a piece for the Atlantic, where she confirmed some of my own observations about conflicts between Finnish education and the American institution. According to Partanen, in What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success, Sahlberg told her that “..there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.”

Our particular tinted glasses seem to be canceling out what is one of the most central elements of the Finnish solution – the most important of the top two, according to Sahlberg – equity.  There are almost no private schools in Finland and the few that do exist are financed by their government.  No one pays tuition, ever.  Even though equality is part of the American story, I sometimes wonder if we really believe in it?

Recently a presidential primary candidate defended his privileges in a victory speech, saying that this country (U.S.A.) is being divided by “the bitter politics of envy.”  Deciding not to include the long passionate political commentary I’d originally written here, I will simply say that we seem to believe that some people deserve a better education than others. The Finnish ideal and investment in equitable education is so foreign to our national story, that it simply does not register. This may be one of our greatest barriers.

Sahlberg says, according to the Atlantic story, that Americans consistently “obsess” over three questions.

  1. How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly?
  2. How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?”
  3. How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? (Partanen, 2011)

The first of these questions puzzles me.  I left classroom teaching more than 20 years ago, but we tracked student performance the same way that teachers had for decades.  Teachers evaluated student understanding and mastery as part of the learning/teaching process.  Are our teachers no longer being prepared to evaluate the progress of their students?  Have we completely turned this over to the “testing industrial complex?”

Which brings us to question two.  I know that marketplace competition is part of the American narrative.  It works for apples, oil, shovels and automobiles to compete in a fair market.  But is this where I children belong?  I believe that we are forcing our schools to compete because it’s cheaper than taking the responsibility of providing the best education we can imagine for all citizens.

And this segues into question three.   Sahlberg says that “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish.”  He later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University that,

“Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

Aren’t teachers responsible for quality education in sufficiently supported schools? Isn’t that why they chose the profession? A while back I was having dinner with a group of education administrators (all from union states).   They had been or were at that time school principals.  After sharing some stories about teacher’s they’d known, they all agreed that,

“Getting rid of bad teachers is easy.”

“What’s hard, is keeping the good ones.”

Can we benefit from the Finnish model.  I believe that we can.  But we will not do so by trying to fit their miracle on top of our current institution.  We must first disassemble some of our fundamental beliefs and practices, construct a new American ideal of equity and quality, and then look to the miracle in Finland.


Sahlberg, P. (Writer & Performer) (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?[Web]. Retrieved from

Partanen, A. (2011, December 29). What americans keep ignoring about finland’s school success. Retrieved from



5 thoughts on “Finnish Miracles & American Myths”

  1. THanks for laying out the argument so well David,
    I’m reading Finnish Lessons now and it’s hard to read what I believe and walk through school hallways around me and feel the tension.
    Over the entrance of one of their schools, maybe all reads:
    I’ve never totally appreciated the polling subject:
    Wrong Track/Right Track until I started reading Ravitch and real ed reformers.
    Sad for us,
    Bonnie K.
    Bonnie K.

  2. We as American’s can learn quite a lot, not only from the Finnish education system but, from several other countries. After reading the attached articles and this blog one of the most important things we can do is get rid of standardized tests and the competition in our schools. We compete so hard to finish in the top of our classes, to get into the best colleges and why, many of the best and brightest will end up dropping out of college because of the cost. Currently, with the Federal government running our education system we cannot implement any of these ideas that the Finnish have. I believe that if implementing a plan that says when you get to this grade, you can choose college or a vocational school track and it’s free, then the cost of education would also go down. However, education needs to be more state specific to have this happen. Also, having teachers assess students instead of a general catch-all test that we have implemented is a great idea the Finnish have. The Finnish have realized that no one knows a students abilities better than the teacher that instructs them daily. I agree we have turned into a “testing industrial complex,” where we let McGraw-Hill and Prentice Hall decide who is intelligent and who is not. One thing is, I’m not convinced that private schools are bad, if you want to pay for your kids to go there then that’s up to you, however we do need to make sure that all American citizens have a proper education that can compete in the global marketplace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *