Finland's Success with Literacy

  • 12 December, 2010

Like many who are interested in U.S. educational reform, I rely upon the international comparison data provided by PISA. But, as much as such statistics concern me, I’m always circumspect in their use, since there are real problems with such comparisons. For example, I trust the data on kids up to about 13-14 years of age, but not so much the secondary school data (since kids often get shifted around at those older age levels and they don’t all make it into the comparisons).

  Many anti-accountability types, like the teachers’ unions, for instance, have been touting Finland as a model of what should be happening in the U.S. And who can blame them? For the past couple of decades, the Finns have been tearing it up. Their kids are doing great at all levels in reading, math, and science, and they are learning multiple languages. Very impressive and anyone against aspiring to that kind of success is a real Grinch!

  But, of course, there are some pretty big social differences that have an influence on learning, so just trying to adopt practices from someplace else is likely to fail. For example, Finland has a very small population (it’s about the size of Ireland or the Chicago area), and it is very homogeneous: almost no differences in race, religion, language, or income levels, and no adults are illiterate (though Finland is beginning to experience immigration and the success of their second-language students is in question). I know of classrooms of 20 children in Chicago that have higher levels of diversity than the entire nation of Finland.

  How do you sort that out so that you are not drawing specious conclusions from such data, as the Finns’ great success could be due to their terrific schools, but it could also simply be because of their lack of diversity, the nature of their language (their writing matches Finnish phonology very closely, unlike the complexities evident in English spelling), or their history (reading has long been a major pastime at all levels of income)?

  The right way to do that is to not pay so much attention to the experiences of individual countries, but to identify patterns across countries. That means instead of focusing attention on Finland or Japan, you look at the entire group of countries that are ahead of you and then try to find correlations that have some consistency across different cultures and histories.

  That hasn’t stopped the rhetoricians from spinning their webs, however. For example, I often hear that the reason Finland outperforms U.S. schools is because they don’t have high stakes testing. I’m not a high stakes testing guy, but I’m skeptical about this kind of shallow analysis.

  Recently, the Finnish government published a booklet that crossed my desk (The Finnish Education System and PISA;, a kind of primer for those who want to see how the Finn’s are doing their magic. Unfortunately, the differences with U.S. schools are so profound that I don’t think anyone here would gladly embrace such “reforms.”

  For example, the teachers’ unions would certainly rally around the idea of dropping high-stakes tests, but they haven’t exactly championed the adoption of common core standards in reading and math. The Finns long ago adopted common core standards in all instructional areas, and all local curricula have to match with these centrally-imposed curriculum frameworks.

  The unions would even be more loathe to adopt a system that only provides 9 years of compensatory education, even though it is clear that if we ditched preschool and kindergarten and the final two years of high school as the Finns do, we could save enough money to pay for many other reforms. Teachers there generally earn about as much as U.S. teachers do, but the typical Finnish teacher has a master’s degree (we pay such teachers more) and they teach about 10 more days per year than U.S. teachers. I’m not sure how they make it all work, but even though they spend just as much on teachers, they spend about 14% less per child on education, so I assume that means class sizes are either bigger or there must be other economies (fewer principals, counselors, computers, etc.).

  I was curious about their teacher education system and it certainly looks better on paper, but that doesn’t mean we’d get many buyers here. For example, they only have 8 institutions that can prepare teachers (compared to our 1,354 teachers’ colleges); to bring our system into sync with the Finn’s on a per capita basis, we’d close more than 2 out of every 3 schools that now prepares teachers. What would that buy us? With that kind of stranglehold, we would be able to be highly selective in who could become teachers (the Finns turn away 90% of applicants, a figure that we are nowhere close to matching).

  When students have completed two-years of secondary school in Finland they apply to continue with their academic studies or they are shunted into vocational education, a system that makes some sense, but which doesn’t match well with American social aspirations and ideology. Finally, the Finns apparently don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether their kids like school; in the various surveys their children reveal a strong dislike of school (whether this is due to something unlikeable about Finnish school practices or just the depression that goes along with living in a place like Finland with its astronomical suicide and alcoholism rates is unknown).

  So, it does matter that places like Finland are outperforming us in literacy as it represents a threat to our economic position in the world. And, we definitely can learn from the successes of other countries such as Finland. But the way to think about this is not to look to see what Finland is doing specifically because those practices are going to be a reflection of their history, geography, and cultural situation, but to seek patterns across the entire set of nations that is currently kicking our educational butts.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Jul 02, 2017 12:15 AM


Are you aware that Finland has incredible strong teachers unions?

Timothy Shanahan Jul 02, 2017 12:16 AM


Yes, it is true that Finland has strong teachers' unions, as do most of the nation's who outperform the U.S. or who have been improving their educational outcomes. It is just as difficult to remove an ineffective teacher in Finland as in the U.S., though ill-prepared or ineffective teachers are much less likely there (they are doing a better job at the front end).

Looking at educational reform elsewhere, you see that teachers' unions have played varying roles in the nation's successes, including in some cases being full-fledged partners in making schools better.

Anonymous Jul 02, 2017 12:17 AM


They also don't test students until the end of high school. Also, NYT article just came out with article about the Gates Foundation research. Check that out. Very interesting.

As a former administrator, I know it is difficult to remove a teacher, but it can be done. I worked with my union.

Let's try this. It isn't just about firing. It's about hiring. That is a principal's most important job. Understanding teaching is a critical piece to this. And you need to make the job attractive. It's not at all now.

Value added test especially in charters will create a bias against special populations with needs that will impact the test. These kids will not be served and punished. I really don't think a system that punishes it's most needy is really the one we all want.

Yes, unions are capable of change. Testing to punish teachers does not work. Testing to punish kids doesn't work.

Working to improve the poverty that's a conversation we need to wrap our heads around in order to improve literacy. Paolo Freire where are you?

Timothy Shanahan Jul 02, 2017 12:17 AM


But now you are doing what I said we had to be careful not to do--cherry-picking details from the Finnish experience. You are correct that Finland does not have high-stakes testing until kids are about 14-15 years old, and at that point the test determines their entire future (whether they can continue in an academics school or not). Finland is different than any of the other high scoring or high improving nations; all the rest test, and they are really high-stakes tests; meaning decisions are made with these test scores).

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Finland's Success with Literacy


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.