Philly Ain’t Helsinki: Debunking the U.S.-Finland Education Comparison

In the current ed reform debate, it is increasingly common to hear calls for the U.S. to emulate Finland’s high-achieving public education system. Finland has no regular standardized testing and  no core curriculum, yet they consistently have impressive results on international assessments; it follows, then, that we should avoid those reforms in the U.S. Though convenient, the comparison is flawed.

Don’t get me wrong–Finland is a lovely country. When I visited last summer I was extremely impressed by the pleasant citizenry, wonderful scenery, well-organized cities, and good food. (Though the language is not very friendly to English speakers. And the beer left something to be desired.) But it is a very different country than the U.S., and so we should be wary of simply importing their educational system as readily as some of their other exports. Their model is appropriate for their country, not for ours. A few key differences:

1) Well-being of children from birth is central to their welfare state. All kids have healthcare and access to full-day daycare and preschool, ensuring that all kids come in prepared for the first day of primary school.

2) School funding. All schools in Finland are funded at the same per-pupil rate. There is no such thing as a “rich” or “poor” school district. The budget crises that we are witnessing in places like Philadelphia simply do not happen.

3) Education as a human right. Education is free for Finnish citizens through college, and college students even receive a stipend. As a result, a quality, long-term education for everyone is part of the Finnish culture.

4) Respect and prestige of the teaching profession. Teachers are highly respected, and accordingly becoming a teacher is a difficult, rigorous, and competitive process: only 1 in 10 are accepted to primary school teaching programs. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S., where education is routinely ranked as one of the easiest, least selective college majors. It follows that teachers are more consistently smart, talented, and competent, making the best of their impressive autonomy.

I’m not saying that Finland’s model is not one to which we should aspire. I, for one, would love to see the U.S. replicate Finland in the ways mentioned above. But, given present differences in demographics, funding, value on education, and perception of teachers–all of which are important factors  in educational success–it is not reasonable to simply suggest that we bring the Finnish system here. All teachers know that different kids from different circumstances have different needs. Why wouldn’t the same be true for countries?


3 thoughts on “Philly Ain’t Helsinki: Debunking the U.S.-Finland Education Comparison

  1. varunbindra

    Really interesting article. While the Finnish model seems appealing, there are many flaws to the system that simply would not appeal to US politicians. For example, the high taxes needed to fund the social welfare detract from industry. It seems unlikely to expect corporatist US politicians to accept reduced corporate influence in the United States. Additionally, the highly socialist elements of the nation, unacceptable to a devoutly capitalist nation such as the United States, stifle economic growth due to decreased competition. In an ideal world, it would be possible to combine the best of Finland and the US. In reality, though, the US must choose between upholding the nation’s fundamental tenets or improving its education system. In my mind, its no choice: the US will never be able to fully emulate Finland’s education model.

  2. Jacob W Post author

    Agreed. While I would love to see the U.S. move towards greater social welfare and redistribution of wealth, it is a pipe dream at the moment. At this point, I believe the target of our inquiry should be what we can do NOW to improve our schools. Thanks for reading.

  3. Linda Meyer

    I agree that our current political, ideological, and capitalist society is one where this will be a difficult journey to achieve. However that does not mean that we shouldn’t try to get those policies in place. The only way to do that of course is through talking to friends, neighbors, community leaders and federal and state representatives. I don’t believe that the GOP is willing to give up their winner take all philosophy yet but the old white racists will die out in the next 20 years or so, and when that happens change can take place.


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