Advocates of education reform have pointed to Finland consistently over the past few years, urging the U.S. to take note of its educational success. The country has “consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA),” writes Atlantic contributor Christine Gross-Loh, yet their system “break[s] a lot of the rules we take for granted.”

In her interview with Finnish Education Chief Krista Kiuru, Gross-Loh highlights many of Finland’s most successful policies, and contrasts them with U.S. education reform policy to great effect. Through the interview, several of Finland’s best educational measures (some with rather conservative values) stand out:

Encouraging the principle of subsidiarity

As part of a series of educational reforms in the 1970s and ’80s, Finland “shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation,” wrote Smithsonian Magazine contributor LynNell Hancock in September 2011. ”Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines.”

Additionally, Finland has eliminated mandated standardized testing, with one exception: the National Matriculation Exam, which all students take at the end of upper-secondary school (similar to an American high school). “Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves,” wrote Atlantic author Anu Partanen in December 2011. ”All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.”

“There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions,” writes Hancock. Because of this, Finnish educators are somewhat puzzled by the U.S. “fascination” with standardized testing—Louhivuori told Hancock such tests are “nonsense”: “We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”

Instead of requiring a state inspections, veteran teacher and principal Kari Louhivuori told Hancock, “Our incentives come from inside.” Teacher accountability and inspections are the responsibility of teachers and principals, not federal officials.

Hancock compared Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, in which states compete for federal dollars using tests and standards like Common Core, to Finland’s flexible, decentralized system. Helsinki principal Timo Heikkinen told Hancock, “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” And indeed, the “human aspect” seems very important to Finnish education.

Focusing on the human element, rather than numbers

Teachers spend fewer hours at school and less time in classrooms than their American counterparts. Rather, they use this extra time to create curricula, assess students, and continue their own education. Children spend more time playing outside, and homework is minimal, according to Hancock.

This reminded me of an Independent article a teacher passed along to me only a week ago: research biopsychologist Peter Gray pointed out that “Most problems in life cannot be solved with formulae or memorized answers of the type learnt in school,” but rather “require the judgement, wisdom and creative ability that come from life experiences. For children, those experiences are embedded in play.” Gray sees the modern emphasis on greater testing and homework as dangerous to child development, and pointed to research that demonstrates such measures give students “little opportunity to be creative, discover or pursue their own passions, or develop physical and social skills.”

In Finland, compulsory schooling doesn’t even begin until age 7. Partanen finds the success of this especially intriguing when compared with “the stereotype of the East Asian model—long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization.”

In a piece for the National Education Association, Linda Darling-Hammond points out the importance of inquiry to learning in Finland: students are encouraged to cultivate “active learning skills” and to ask open-ended questions: “In a typical classroom, students are likely to be walking around, rotating through workshops or gathering information, asking questions of their teacher, and working with other students in small groups.” This independence and activity, she argues, “allows students to develop metacognitive skills that help them to frame, tackle, and solve problems; evaluate and improve their own work; and guide their learning processes in productive ways.”

Making teaching both profitable and reputable

Finland has worked hard to make teaching an appealing profession for their smartest college graduates. In 1979, education reformers decided that every teacher must earn a fifth-year master’s degree—and that the state must pay for it. “From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers,” says Hancock. “Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive.”

Darling-Hammond points out the high competition surrounding teaching jobs:

“Prospective teachers are competitively selected from the pool of college graduates—only 15 percent of those who apply are admitted—and receive a three-year graduate-level teacher preparation program, entirely free of charge and with a living stipend … Slots in teacher training programs are highly coveted and shortages are virtually unheard of.”

Teacher Linda Moore wrote for the Guardian that Finland “has the same number of teachers as New York City, but only 600,000 students compared to 1.1m in the Big Apple.” Although Finnish teachers have a lower starting salaries than U.S. counterparts, high-school teachers with 15 years’ experience “make 102 percent of what other college graduates make. In the U.S., the figure is 62 percent.”

Additionally, Kiuru told Gross-Loh: ”We don’t test our teachers or ask them to prove their knowledge. But it’s true that we do invest in a lot of additional teacher training even after they become teachers.”

Focusing on Equality

The Finnish education model doesn’t square perfectly with conservative values. The country has little to no private institutions, instead bolstering a rather homogenous public system. Partanen notes that even Finland’s independent schools are publicly financed: none are allowed to charge tuition. ”There are no private universities, either.”

As Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, put it, ”…In America, parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

This concept does not appeal to conservatives who believe education should be governed in the private and/or local sphere, and that parents should have the choice to pursue alternatives methods of education—like home schooling, for instance. But despite the fact that Finland’s schools are publicly funded, they are surprisingly free to educate via their own methods. And the government agencies that preside over Finland’s schools are run by educators—”not business people, military leaders or career politicians,” writes Hancock. This helps differentiate from the sort of federal governance we’re probably accustomed to.

The U.S. could definitely benefit from a system which fosters better education options for those with less monetary resources. The biggest problem with educational “choice” comes when the poor have no options at all. Finland fixes this with a uniform public system. If the U.S. built a stronger public system by following Finland’s example, private schools may take note and mimic their success—and even better the model, perhaps.

Prizing Student above Profit

According to Smithsonian, 93 percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools and 66 percent go on to higher education—”yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.”

How have they been so successful? Perhaps some of the above reasons—decentralized oversight, teacher incentives, educational flexibility, and a fostering of creativity—have contributed to their success. But also, at root, the Finnish model is focused on helping students, and encouraging their happiness and prosperity. Indeed, for them, educational excellence is a mere byproduct of helping students flourish—when the Finnish students scored highly on the first PISA survey in 2001, writes Partanen, “many Finns thought the results must be a mistake.” The country was unwittingly “producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.”

In a country that has strived to produce quantifiable academic excellence for global economic and power gains, Finland’s focus on student equality and happiness should serve as a check. At the end of the day, academic excellence is a mere byproduct of student flourishing: the happy result of healthy, creative, and curious minds.