The Atlantic Monthly Article about Finland Mainly Leaves Me with More Questions

So, in case you didn’t hear, Finland keeps scoring at the top of PISA tests for education. It’s a big deal. Their kids don’t study like crazy. They don’t test like crazy. Their teachers are highly unionized. They are experiencing an expanding, yet equally well educated, immigrant community. They also have teachers that, on average, are paid less than U.S. teachers. The Atlantic Monthly just ran a piece, that mainly claims their key to success is their lack of private schools and lack of private universities. While the purely public hypothesis gives me food for thought, I don’t beleive it can be that simple.

I encourage you to read the article, it’s good fun with a mostly intelligent discussion in the comment section.

I’ll wait.

Letcombe /Foter

You can skip to the end if you actually read the article.

Ok, here are the highlights from the article:

  • All their schools are public, but the U.S. doesn’t want to talk about this contrast.
  • Finland reformed its school system some time ago by focusing upon equal access for all students – their high PISA scores were a surprise to them.
  • Although Finland is very homogoneous, 4.7% vs. the US’s 12%, are foreign born. Finland’s immigrants tend to congregate in a concentrated area, but they haven’t seen much change in variation between the finish schools, despite their recently doubling of immigrant population. So Finland is apparently educating their new immigrants just as effectively as their native citizens.

The Finnish results contrast with Norway, which has very similiar demographic and georgraphic makeup to Finland, but it has pursued a more U.S. like educational policy with more competition and more focus upon testing. Norway’s results were less than stellar.

Leo-setä /Foter

The article concludes with

Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.


The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed.

I’m left with a few outstanding questions:

  • I’ve learned, from other sources, that the average US teacher is paid more than the average Finnish teacher, but I would like to know if US teachers are paid equally well for their respective regions. For example, a teacher in NYC, or in DC, can be paid significantly more than their North Dakota counterpart, or their Finnish counterpart, but be still be paid badly for their region. Also, statistically, the large number of teachers in NYC will make it seem like teaching is a lucrative profession if you are looking at it through a mid-westerner’s low-cost-of-living lens of the world. I’m trying to determine if our teachers, when compared to Finland’s teachers, are underpaid. Maybe standard-of-living is a better metric? I feel like I don’t have enough data to have an informed perpective.
  • Several commenters suggested Finaland’s culture of raising their kids to be independant and self-reliant was crucial to their success. One person suggested it would be reasonable to send a 14 year old on a 3 – 4 hour train ride, on their own, to visit grandparants. Is there any data, or at least anecdotal evidence, that this translates well to academic achievement? It makes sense, but is it true?
  • One poster claimed many U.S. school districts spend 20% of their budget on special-needs children, implying that this significantly undermined the educational process for the remaining children. Is that number remotaly accurate? Is it significantly different than other systems with similiar demographics? What about other expenses, like athletics? We know the U.S. spends a lot on education, but is that whole number a bad proxy?
  • I have read, but can no longer find, articles that claimed that the US actually doesn’t have an education problem once you controlled for 1st and 2nd generation immigrant status. Is it true?
Leo-setä /Foter

In a future post, I’ll try to post updates as I find the answers to some of these question.

Sidebar – Did you know?
Finland is not considered a Scandanavian country – it’s Nordic.