Finnish flag Photo courtesy of sbamueller

When I was 17 years old, I ‘studied’ abroad (it was only for the summer) in Finland. This is an experience that my mother has never let me forget, mainly because I found Finland to be such a wretched place that I came home a month early. It’s always a surprise to me, then, when North Americans say “we should be more like Finland.” Yes, Finland has some admirable social policies — lots of summer vacation, fairly flexible family leave — but so do many other European countries, like Denmark and Sweden. Why don’t we want to imitate them?

The answer, of course, lies in the all-important PISA scores. Finland sits at the top with South Korea, Japan, and Shanghai, apparently managing it all via an astonishingly successful public schooling system. The nation’s success is often attributed to high levels of teacher education and respect (shared with its Asian PISA peers) and commitment to a whole-child approach (arguably disappearing in North America). In other words, Finland seems laid-back and attainable in a way that the legendarily difficult Asian educational systems do not.

Last week, a Canadian newspaper ran a laudatory account of what it’s like to visit a “real” Finnish school. Here’s just a taste of the article:

“At once we were in a high-intensity 45-minute class. … We then had a greeting ceremony — Tim has been encouraging development of social skills, which most Finnish kids aren’t taught. So everyone shook hands and said hello. … I realized I’d been inserted into a very well-prepared, tightly scripted lesson plan — far better organized than the way I’d have taught my own post-secondary students.

Tim passed me along to a Grade 3 class in the Finnish-language stream taught by vice-principal Juha Säämänen. I didn’t need to understand the language to recognize a real professional. But he was not a sage on the stage, demanding the kids’ attention. … I was struck by the serenity of the students. One very poised boy introduced himself in English: he was from Seattle, via California, now living in Helsinki. Another boy, speaking equally good English, was from Hyderabad.”

Interestingly, this academic paradise where third-graders (or even sixth-graders) speak three languages* fluently was far from the Finland I knew 15 years ago. In my host family, only two of the four members spoke English: the mother, who was a professional translator, and her adult daughter. I found much the same to be the case in my everyday interactions in Helsinki. Most people spoke some English, but amounts were limited; there was no clear difference in English knowledge between children (taught in the new, reformed educational system) and adults (taught in the old one).

The mystery was resolved upon re-reading. In the description of the school itself, the writer noted “[it] is a slightly unusual school, offering the International Baccalaureate program and English immersion, and recruiting students who are 20 per cent expatriates.”

In other words, this school is in no way representative of the typical Finnish school, just as visiting a top-tier, wealthy school in the US or Canada would not offer insight into the general state of public education. The IB curriculum is supposed to be particularly challenging and rigorous — even more so than the US AP curriculum. It is known for its intensive student involvement, fostering of critical thinking skills, and whole-child development philosophy.

In other words, the praiseworthy attributes of this Finnish school are due to an international curriculum developed in Switzerland, not to Finland.

Why does this matter? For one thing, we shouldn’t forget that there is a lot of money on the table for all involved. Pasi Sahlberg has a book. The Gates Foundation has invested millions in public education. So has Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. And teachers are increasingly annoyed by the business-style metrics used to assess them.

More importantly, the media tends to ignore one crucial difference between Finland and North America, particularly the US: income diversity. According to the OECD, Finland has a wealth disparity of almost 4:1. This means that the richest ⅕ of Finns earn almost four times as much as the poorest ⅕. If that sounds bad, it must be compared with the US, where the ratio is 8:1, and with the UK and Australia, where it is 6:1 (data for Canada is not available).

Finland’s former director general of Education and Culture seems to realize that income disparity plays an enormous role in education. He explains that Finland’s academic excellence springs from social policies that promote “early childhood education for all children, funding all schools so they can better serve those with special educational needs, [and- access to health and well-being services for all children in all schools.” Finland’s success comes from trying to level the playing field.

But why Finland? Yes, the OECD ranks it as #1 for education, with “Korea” (meaning South Korea) as #3 and Germany as #5. But what about countries #2 and 4? Why aren’t we trying to imitate Poland or Estonia? Yes, both are poorer than average. Yes, both have lower life expectancies. On the other hand, both also have a far stronger sense of community and civic engagement, another key factor that we complain about in North America, and high levels of education and workforce participation. Their PISA scores are in the 520s, on par with Finland’s.

While the optimist in me would like to see a reason behind this choice, the pessimist in me is biding its time. Education reformers like to chase trends. Soon enough, we may well see “Polish Lessons”.

(*) Finland’s official languages are Finnish and Swedish; when I was there, students learned the two official languages and English in elementary school, and a fourth language of their choice in secondary school. My host sister told me that most students at the time chose German or French.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.