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Why Finland’s Educational Model Is More Conservative Than Ours

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 [1], 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 [2]. “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 [3] 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 [4] 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 [5], 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 [6] 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 [7], 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.

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#1 Comment By Johann On March 18, 2014 @ 6:55 am

I still say reading and intermediate math skills should be force-fed to students, if needed. Those two things are required to enable students to self-learn.

#2 Comment By Fulton On March 18, 2014 @ 7:37 am

I’d be interested to know how much time the average Finnish parents devote to helping their children learn versus the average American parents. I can’t help wondering if the Finnish system works because you have a small relatively homogeneous country in which most families are invested in their child’s education and so culturally everybody is pulling in the same direction. I don’t know that those conditions, if important, are replicable in most of the US.

#3 Comment By Falconer On March 18, 2014 @ 8:12 am

Since when are small class rooms, well paid teachers and minimal testing conservative ideas?

If you think these are conservative ideas, I am not sure understand conservatism as it currently exist in the US…

Union Busting, not paying teachers, shoving as many students as possible in a classroom, teaching nothing more than the three R’s, not spending money, regimented drilling and testing on regular basis now those are nice Conservative ideas which are supported and implemented by the Republican Party when ever possible.

#4 Comment By History Teacher On March 18, 2014 @ 9:59 am

Is the title of this article a joke? The fact that Common Core and Race to the Top have taken place under a Democratic Administration does not mean that the ideas are not conservative ideas. Everything, everything…about the current reform movement has roots in the Republican Party, American conservatism, and business model of education. Vouchers, religious school, privatization, budget cuts, de-professionalization of teaching…all of it started with the Republicans…show me ONE conservative in the U.S. who would support the state funding masters degrees for teachers…

#5 Comment By MClark On March 18, 2014 @ 10:18 am

The idea of letting local municipalities seems good on paper, but I’m reminded of a friend’s experience. His son needed remedial tutoring, but the only tutoring the school offered was English as a second language- not needed in this case. The school said they had no money for after school tutoring. The school has four football teams. He lives in Texas. If the local town decides “Friday Night Lights” is the important thing about high school, that’s what they’ll focus on.

#6 Comment By M_Young On March 18, 2014 @ 10:28 am

Finland scores high on international measures of academic performance because its students are overwhelmingly Finns. But of course their government is working to change that.

#7 Comment By collin On March 18, 2014 @ 10:34 am

This article sounds the key to making great schools is almost liberal utopia: Pay teachers more, less testing & homework, pay for the 5th year of college for Master Degree. It is likely that Finland pays and respects teachers a lot more than the US.

To be fair, it would fair to compare Finland to Massachuetts or Connecticut where the populations and school effectiveness is more comparable.

#8 Comment By Richard W. Bray On March 18, 2014 @ 11:19 am

Before “Liberal Lion” Ted Kennedy crafted the No Child Left Behind legislation, there had been a longstanding historical consensus in this country that “eight broad categories” must be considered in order to fully educate our children: Basic Academic knowledge and skills; Critical thinking and problem solving; Appreciation of the arts and literature; Preparation for skilled employment; Social skills and work ethic; Citizenship and community responsibility; Physical health; Emotional health. (See Richard Rothstein’s Grading Education, page 7)

Now, the federal government sees our children as test scores, not human beings. And it has mandated that (for the greater glory of the state) these scores must go up and up forever. This is a Bolshevik approach to education, which puts a tremendous strain on teachers and administrators who face termination if these scores don’t continuously rise. This stress is passed on to our nation’s children

Today the hedge fund operators rule our schools just as they rule our justice department. This does not bode well for the future of our democracy.

#9 Comment By Jerome Dancis On March 18, 2014 @ 2:06 pm

Actually, it’s Finland Beware – NOT Beware of Finland. Details in:
What does [students’ answers on] the International PISA Math Test Really Tell Us?” is the title of my article, which appeared in the American Association of School Administrators Journal of Scholarship and Practice. See Pages 31-42 at

Abstract ends with:
Students need instruction in multi-step Arithmetic word problems. Do not rush students into Algebra I in Grade 8.
What does PISA Math not tell us? Students need instruction in Arithmetic and Algebraic calculations. Students need the opportunity to develop “number sense”.
Is PISA valid? The question rarely asked. Answer: NO!
It’s Finland Beware – NOT Beware of Finland. Finnish engineering students have difficulty with fractions and simple algebraic expressions.

#10 Comment By Nina Smith On March 18, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

The other roots in Finnish education are emphasizing learning over teaching, focusing on students’ well-being (free healthcare,free pre-school, free or inexpensive daycare and free hot lunch for every student)and directing the efforts on supporting the learning process over the “products” of learning (worksheet, graded homework, test result). I was trained in Finland as a teacher, and am currently living, working and studying in the U.S. [9]


#11 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 18, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

Once again, anything that is good or successful in the world (Finnish schools, Pete Seeger, John Lennon, Frank O’Hara, the film “Mud,” etc) must have the “conservative” label slapped on it by TAC writers, no matter how dubious that claim. Otherwise, I suppose, conservatives will not consider it? I agree with many of the other posters, and see virtually nothing in the list of factors in the main article or in poster Nina Smith’s comment that is remotely similar to what “conservatives” in the USA say they want, or push for when in office, when it comes to education. But why is that even the focus? Shouldn’t the focus be on identifying the factors that make Finnish schools successful and replicating them, if possible, and with appropriate modification given the differences between the USA and Finland? Not on shoe horning the successful Finnish system into the “conservative” box?

#12 Comment By Johann On March 18, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

Nice blog Nina Smith. Hard to disagree with any of it. Teaching students to learn has to be the most important part of teaching.

#13 Comment By terrymac On March 18, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

What kind of so-called “conservative” believes in force-feeding math and reading skills to children? Are these skills valuable or not? If they are valuable, then you simply make that obvious; there is no need to brutally sadistically force anything on anyone.

If “conservative” does not mean “nostalgic sadism”, if there is any such thing as “values” and “principles”, then the idea of Finnish children walking around, asking questions, cooperating with each other, should be attractive. It’s a model commonly used by people who call themselves unschoolers – and it is widely misunderstood by nostalgic sadists.

Children learn most effectively when learning to solve *their* problems, when able to own the problem, own the process, and own the solutions. The difference in efficiency is mind-blowing. Children who own the process of learning to read or do arithmetic will master the material and leap through grade levels in mere weeks.

To replace that highly efficient process with force-feeding is not merely brutal and pointless, it wastes vast amounts of time – time which could have been used far more productively.

#14 Comment By Jules Grant On March 18, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

Very intriguing. My only real critique is that the conservatism of a particular system should not be our goal, it’s the success of a system.

It also important to note as Nina has already, that Finland is much kinder to her citizenry than we are at times in the United States. Finland is, like the other Scandinavian nation-states, a welfare state, meaning it provides free public healthcare, cheques to defray the cost of raising children, and generous pensions, among other things. A generous state makes for happy citizens willing to work harder.

On the Continent, as well, student generally study fewer subjects but more in depth. There’s no tradition of liberal arts universities or very broad curricula. Students study fewer things but in much more detail, giving them a very solid foundation.

Culture also has a very large role. In European welfare states, there is a strong tradition of family, communitarianism, and collectivism, all concepts that emphasize the individual within their community over the individual alone. Because of this, there is likely more of an emphasis on the future and the role in the community that an educator plays than the economical merits of the profession.

#15 Comment By Rachel On March 19, 2014 @ 8:49 am

Speaking of Finland, did you see the Atlantic article on the rise of Finnish goalkeeping, Gracy? The article hypothesized that some of their success was due to improved training methods, but a lot of it was a unique “Finnish outlook” that allowed goalkeepers to mentally keep a clean slate after the opposing team had scored a goal. Apparently, they are less prone to dwell on their failures than Canadian/American goalies, and that’s a powerful edge. I wonder is their educational system has anything to do with that.

#16 Comment By vato_loco_frisco On March 19, 2014 @ 9:32 am

Quote — And the government agencies that preside over Finland’s schools are run by educators—”not business people, military leaders or career politicians,” writes Hancock. — Unquote.

Do you mean to say that a Finnish Mark Zuckerberg would have no say in how schools are run in Helsinki?

#17 Comment By Johann On March 19, 2014 @ 10:26 am

Reading skill seems to be one of those things that’s best imprinted prior to some critical age. If a child misses it, I believe he or she is handicapped for life.

#18 Comment By Richard W. Bray On March 19, 2014 @ 11:45 am

@ philadelphialawyer

I spent a good chunk of my life schoolmarming, and I’ve noticed that the profession tends to attract people who are politically liberal but temperamentally conservative. Perhaps The Conservative American would be a more accurate title for this magazine.

#19 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 19, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

Richard W. Bray:

“I spent a good chunk of my life schoolmarming, and I’ve noticed that the profession tends to attract people who are politically liberal but temperamentally conservative.”

My own experience with educators, which is more limited, is line with yours. They do seem to be politically liberal, but pretty conservative in their personal lives, their outlook, and so on. I think that’s a great insight.

“Perhaps The Conservative American would be a more accurate title for this magazine.”

Maybe, but I’m not seeing the connection. I think the TAC people wanted to emphasize country over party and politics. Hence “America” First. But I still don’t get why either conservative Americans or American conservatives feel the need to slap the “conservative” label on anything laudable.

I’ve mentioned this before, but liberals don’t do this. We don’t say, “Hey I saw this movie, read this book, etc, and boy is it liberal!” Or, “Who knew, but John Ford was ‘really’ a liberal!” Nor do we say, “Wow, here is the best way to make popcorn, it must be the ‘liberal’ way!”

#20 Comment By Richard Wagner On March 19, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

@Falconer I think I can settle your confusion. This magazine is devoted to actual conservative ideas, not corporatist Faux News propaganda. I hope that clarifies.

#21 Comment By Lucas On March 19, 2014 @ 9:56 pm

Political Correctness and thought/speech and wordsmithing has created a bizzaro land.

In america, whenever you a politician says its for the betterment of children or society its real meaning is…there is a business or union lobby that wants something and has made a sizable political donation.

In america, whenever a teacher or school board or board of education says its for the kids…its real meaning is…the board wants to hire more administrators and dish out more consultant contracts so they get a kickback and the unions want a rubber stamp union contract.

I listen to these liberal idiots painting a Dickensian picture of conservative education as if children are going to work in the coal mines during lunch recess to keep the school boilers hot during the class day. Please…spare me the drama.

The only thing conservatives want are school choice and school vouchers. Putting Parochial and Charter and Private Schools on an equal playing field of parental choice will not result in 500 kids to a class nor will the kids have to practice math in sand pits.

Parochial, Charter and Private schools do just fine academically at much lower cost and they dont accomplishing it by cutting corners on students or student performance.

#22 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 20, 2014 @ 9:47 am


“Putting….Charter…schools…on an equal playing field”

Around here (NYC) charter schools have, until now, gotten their spaces rent free from the City. Hardly a “level playing field.”

“…will not result in 500 kids to a class nor will the kids have to practice math in sand pits…”

Perhaps not, but there has been overcrowding in public schools as a result of these parasitical, rent free charter schools being housed in the same buildings.

“Parochial, Charter and Private schools do just fine academically at much lower cost and they don’t accomplishing it by cutting corners on students or student performance.”

Perhaps, but in the case of charter schools, here in New York, it is because they are actually subsidized by the city or State, as with rent free facilities. In addition, all three types of schools you mention, including charter schools (despite claims to the contrary) cherry pick their students, in terms of academics and behavior, and have much freer rein when it comes to removing troublesome and non performing students. And motivated parents know that, and are more likely to send their kids to one of the three types you mention. Super motivated parents, and wealthier parents, choose the private and Catholic schools.

Public schools are left with the students whose parents care the least, and have the least money, and with the students already shown to be troubled, troublemaking, academically behind, and less likely even to show up. And their hands are tied when it comes to removing even the worst students.

Then folks like you turn around and say the playing field has been “leveled.” LOL!

“The only thing conservatives want are school choice and school vouchers.”

Not quite, but it is perhaps the main thing that US conservatives want. So, one wonders, given that Finland not only does not have “vouchers” and “choice,” but, according to the article, doesn’t even have much in the way of private or religious schools either, what this talk about the successful Finnish system being “conservative” is all about. A public school system without any “competition” (how conservatives love that word, in the context of public education, anyway) at all is wildly successful. Sounds, to me, more like a refutation than an endorsement of “conservative” education policy.

#23 Comment By Zippy On March 20, 2014 @ 10:26 am

And another article about education leaves out those two mysterious letters: “I” and “Q.”

Compare American ethnic Finns with Finns in Finland. If the Americans do just as well, the success may not be due to any particular schooling method, but instead . . . something else.