Why Should Finland Matter to You: Excellence in Public Schools is Possible

Among people working in and studying education worldwide, the Scandinavian country of Finland is often held up as a model of public education, a place where the entire country is invested in the best possible outcomes for its children.

Last spring in my capacity as a member of the Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council, I was invited to take a trip to to Finland to observe their successes in education firsthand. Five other teachers and I would tour some schools and visit the Ministry of Education speaking with teachers and students along the way.

I was curious to see what Finland was doing right, but I also knew that this northern European country is tiny–it has less than a third of the population of greater Los Angeles–and I had some doubts about how well its methods would transfer to an enormous, diverse country like the United States.

Children begin school at seven, and the facilities–at least the ones I saw, a high school and an elementary school–are clean and bright: they reminded me of an Ikea showroom. After stowing their coats and boots in cubbies and changing into indoor shoes, chattering children padded around in carpeted classrooms full of comfortable, modern wooden furniture. There were separate wings for different age groups, joined in central common areas with couches and high tables and stools. Hallways decorated with children’s work have large glass windows, providing views on students and teachers at work. Instead of paper and plastic, cafeterias use real ceramic dishes and metal flatware.

These welcoming touches also support teachers in the student-centered educational model they told us about. Rather than using instruction based on specific grade-level requirements as we do in the U.S., teachers can adapt lessons to individual students’ developmental needs–an approach that’s emphasized by the multi-age classrooms. Every 45 minutes everyone takes a break outdoors, and all children and staff are required to help care for and clean the school.

As a teacher I couldn’t help but notice that the staff is equally well provided for, which probably helps in a job that requires so much compassion and dedication. Teachers’ lounges are stocked with coffee and personal coffee cups, dishwashers and real dishes, cubbies to work in and comfortable furniture for relaxing. One lounge even included a massage chair!

Eat your hearts out, American teachers. There’s no question that teachers and students in the U.S. deserve better. Our teachers need more preparation, additional resources, and more respect. And who could argue with the proposition that our students should have access to lessons that stimulate their creativity and prepare them for the global workplace? But how do Finland’s successes translate to an environment so different from theirs? Finland has less diversity, no poverty, and few of the other external factors that make our great nation so complicated and exciting.

As a country, the U.S. isn’t committed to the heavy investment of public funds it would take to improve public education. And while the federal government can direct policy and funding, decisions about how to apply them are made at the state level. Undergraduate and graduate programs for teachers follow requirements set by each state’s board of education, but how courses are delivered varies widely, and when teachers begin teaching, they often encounter teachers and administrators trained in programs completely different from theirs.

The Common Core standards are an effort to align our curriculum nationally, but implementation has been rocky. At least they allow teachers to move away from rote memorization in favor of more student-centered, process-oriented teaching, but we have a long way to go. Teachers aren’t give sufficient instruction, and assessments that evaluate students and teachers on content no one’s learned how to teach are really a morale killer.

As a kindergarten teacher, I am expected to give my students six hours of rigorous academic work daily–reading, writing, and math–with no naps and very little play. My students have only been on this planet for 60 months! Some are learning for the very first time how to function in a large group of peers. Nevertheless, social and developmental lessons are sidelined in the interest of testing and scores–to provide data the district can use in its own assessments and progress reports. By placing so much emphasis on testing, the schools completely ignore and devalue teachers’ real life experiences of their students and their needs.

What can we learn from Finland? We need to remember that children don’t exist for the schools’ sake, schools exist for the children’s sake. Public policy supporting well-educated children, gorgeous classrooms, healthy food, and happy and effective teachers isn’t just good for children and families, it’s good for the country.

It easy for me to say, that comparing Finland to the US, is like comparing apples to oranges, and it is hopeless to hope for similar conditions in our public school system because of our size, dynamic challenges and because of our cultural, linguistic and cultural diversity. I want to think however, that because we are so big, and so diverse, and require such a specialized approach to educating our youth, that any progress we make, in humanizing teaching and learning and improving academic achievement will be a model for the rest of the world. Everyone will look at us and say, “If they can do it, we can do it.” Yes, my friends, we can do it, if we want to.

What do you think?

The following two tabs change content below.

Angelina Sáenz

Angelina Sáenz


Angelina Sáenz piloted the acclaimed Aldama Elementary Dual Language program in northeast Los Angeles in 2008 and served as lead teacher from 2009-2013. She provides school-based support in elementary writing as a teacher consultant and fellow of the UCLA Writing Project. She served on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council and has worked on educational policy as a Teach Plus Fellow.

Sáenz received the 2014 La Opinion Exceptional Woman Award for her work in education and was a finalist for the Commitment to Excellence Award as a Champion of Change with President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

She graduated from Occidental College in 1998, with a bachelor’s in theater and anthropology and and received her master’s in education in 2001 from Claremont Graduate University.

More Comments