When the first PISA results became public, and Finland topped the league tables, a steady stream of researchers and educators began trekking to Finland to see if they can divine the Finnish secrets of success. The Ministry of Education has had to create a unit devoted solely to helping foreigners interested in learning about their system. Since that first PISA administration, Finland has remained among the top-performing countries, though it has slipped to 13th in math, 5th in science and 4th in reading on PISA 2015.
The Finnish story was the result of a long, slow, and steady process, not the result of a single policy, program, or administration. Each step in the development of the modern Finnish education system built sensibly on those that went before, from the creation of a unified comprehensive education structure, to national curriculum guidelines, to a restructuring of teacher education, with responsibility for teacher training moving to Finland’s universities.
Most observers have come to believe that, if there is a key to the success of the Finnish system, it is the quality of their teachers and the trust that the Finnish people have vested in them. But, when one examines the way in which the intense focus on teacher quality is matched to the Finnish approach to accountability, curriculum, instruction, and school management, then one begins to see that teacher quality in Finland is not the result of an unmatchable culture, but rather of a specific, integrated system of policies and structures that other nations can emulate.
Finland is not resting on its laurels. Every four years, the government prepares a development plan for education and research, using that plan as a vehicle to make sure that the Finnish system is constantly adapting to the changing needs, including the economic needs, of the country. Though Finland’s population is very homogenous, that is changing and the Finns know that their education system will have to change to adapt to more diverse demographics. Lower-skilled work is also being exported to other parts of Europe and a greater proportion of Finnish jobs will require ever-more-sophisticated skills, another factor that is accounted for in Finnish education planning.
Most recently, in response to a rapidly changing global economy and the need to prepare students to innovate, particularly in the technology fields Finland emphasizes, the Ministry of Education implemented a new national curriculum. Released in 2016, the new curriculum aims to teach students “how to learn” instead of “what to learn” and to help students develop broad competencies across multiple subjects.
PISA 2015 Mean Scores by Country for Reading, Mathematics, and Science
Finn 93.4%, Swede 5.6%, Russian 0.5%, Estonian 0.3%, Romani 0.1%, Sami 0.1%
$231.4 billion; $42,200 per Capita
Services: 70.6%; Industry: 26.9%; Agriculture: 2.5%
Unemployment: 8.8% ; Youth Unemployment: 20.5%
Upper Secondary School Graduation Rate: 87%