How Finland Reached the Top of the Educational Rankings

Many people these days are pointing to Finland as the world’s top success story in student achievement. So what’s their secret?

In the latest issue of NEA Today magazine, we feature an excerpt from a book by Stanford University scholar Linda Darling-Hammond that tells the Finnish story. Basically, Darling-Hammond explains, Finland did the opposite of what we’re doing in America.

In the 1970s, reports Darling-Hammond, Finland’s student achievement was low. But in the decades since, they have steadily upgraded their education system until now they’ve reached the top.

What’s more, they took what was once a wide achievement gap between rich and poor, and reduced it until it’s now smaller than in nearly all other wealthy nations.

Here’s how:

* They got rid of the mandated standardized testing that used to tie teachers’ hands.

* They provide social supports for students including a free daily meal and free health care.

* They upgraded the teaching profession. Teachers now take a three-year graduate school preparation program, free and with a stipend for living expenses. In Finland, you don’t go into debt to become a teacher.

* The stress on top-quality teaching continues after teachers walk into their schools. Teachers spend nearly half of their time in school in high-level professional development, collaborative planning, and working with parents.

These changes have attracted more people to the teaching profession — so many that only 15 percent of applicants are accepted.

The Finns trust their teachers, Darling-Hammond reports. They used to have prescriptive curriculum guides running over 700 pages. Now the national math curriculum is under 10 pages.

With the support of the knowledge-based business community (think Nokia), Finnish schools focus on 21st century skills like creative problem-solving, not test prep.


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  • Ken

    Yes, from what I saw in Finland, although taxes are high, you can go from Kindergarten to PhD without paying a cent. All you have to do is pass. In addition, at university level, you get a small stipend. On that, you’re not going to live in luxury, but it means to don’t have to spend all your spare time waiting tables.

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  • Mark Gorrin

    Who pays for all these services? What’s their tax rate?

    >> standardized testing that used to tie teachers’ hands <<

    I really don't understand this, when I grew up the teachers taught, the students took tests and if you passed you moved on, if you did not pass it meant you had not learned the material. In the above system the teachers can do a mediocre job and not be held accountable.

  • Fred deMey

    Why are you censoring people’s comments, simply because some don’t agree with others opinions, there is no reason to “hide” them due to low comment ratings. Censoring people’s replies gives the image that the NEA is trying to hide something…a very bad example for teachers who are supposed to be open minded and educational.

    • Cynthia McCabe

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Fred. We aren’t censoring any comments. WordPress, the platform on which this site runs, allows people to vote on comments (like or dislike). When a comment is voted against by a number of readers it is collapsed. Anyone can read the comment by clicking on it though. It’s a WordPress functionality. Thanks again for your time.

  • Yvettte

    I hope the “powers that be” finally listen to teachers and positive results no matter what country. I’ve always known we need to address social issues (Social Emotional Learning) and societal issues (poverty, hunger) more than focus on one standardized mandated test score. No one can teach their best or reach their potential academically when basic needs are not met first. Statistics and demographics (Scores and socioeconomic groups)are addictive and sometimes used as excuses for Americans and easy to focus on rather than data that takes more time to analyze. Of course our government and tax system dictates whether a college education or professional development will be free. We can change this too if we really want. We choose to try what sounds good at the time and thus use our students and teachers as guinea pigs without research and pilots before we spend millions of dollars, teacher mandates and lose good educators.

  • Amy

    Among other things not mentioned in the current Finland frenzy are:

    -that Finnish students enter school later than kids do in the US (7, not 5)

    -that they receive a comprehensive education (not just reading, writing, and arithmetic), in fact, they get equal time learning handicraft, art, music, and religion.

    -that teachers are given ample planning time (think as much time to plan as you have to teach) to implement their training.

  • Kim

    First, what Mr. Gorrin said (on his covered remark) was he felt standardized testing = accountability. I don’t know how many ways to say it or how many ways it has been said: Standardized testing does not, nor has it ever, equaled accountability. It never will. It is nothing more than a snapshot of a student on a given day. It means nothing. It is certainly not something to say a teacher did not teach. Also, standardized testing never used to be used for advancement or retention of a student. It was just to see where your school ranked among the rest of the nation’s children at that grade level. The tests he was referring to that would hold you back a grade were the weekly, chapter, and unit tests teachers made and gave throughout the year.
    I think Finland has a great system. I also, seeing how the U.S. runs things, do not see it as feasible for this country any time soon. It will be a great day when the government of this country hands education back to the Educators. I don’t see it happening until they are so frustrated they walk away. Then they will leave the teachers of this country to pick up the pieces and the students and do what they have always known how to do: EDUCATE.

  • Al Frisby

    I watch Dr. Oz with my wife most days with our DVR. Yesterday I made the comment to her as we were watching–“Boy, if I had the resources he has, I too could be a great communicator as a biology teacher”. The special short clips of the anatomy on the screen behind him as he explains the concepts, the special demonstration tools that makes sense as he explains the concepts, the ability to tap into the “experts” that explain the importance of the concepts presented and finally inviting people into the conversation that actually experience the concepts being explained. Give the teachers of America the support we need and we can do wonderful things. Enough of NCLB demands! Bring in help and support from the business community. Bring in help and support from advertisement dollars. Just give us more support to do what Dr. Oz does with flare. After all, education should be fun and exciting–to do that we need financial support and individuals in the community to step up.

  • Responding to Al, it’s not enough to have funds (profit and nonprofits have donated generously (Gates Foundation, e.g.) to education, not to mention school budgets bloated by taxes) but money needs to be spent profitably! For example, what percent of your local school district budget is spent on administration vs. the schools themselves? In many districts too much money is being spent on the wrong things! You might be a great teacher if supplied with great media support, Al, but it doesn’t just take snazzy software and media miracles to do the job–Finnish teachers know their science and their students.

  • Barb Taber

    I have been a teacher for 36 years so, I have seen many band wagons come and go! I believe that if we had three teachers in a classroom of eighteen students like Finland; if we had our advanced educations fully funded by the government; if we were paid for the actual work that we do; if we police our ranks(out with the poor teachers); if we had full parental support and involvement;if we taught students who were not so mobile… that’s a lot of ifs! A pipe dream at best, we should focus on what we can do…teach students to solve problems and think creatively and do away with a single, state sanctioned, test that is based on memorization rather than a deep understanding of concepts.

  • Kirsi

    Barb, I grew up in the Finnish education system, and it is virtually the same now that I experienced. I can tell you that most of my years in public school, classroom sizes were about 30+, and there were no “three teachers” in one classroom, and parents were never (even allowed) in the classroom. I remember a wide variety of learning experiences as mentioned above and many more, and also two compulsory foreign languages. There was never this culture of standardized testing and competition between schools or school systems. I think the biggest reason for the Finns’ success is the teachers’ autonomy, frequent recesses, and the age of students when they start school. Also, the culture of respecting education, freedom to choose vocational school over high school, and competitive college entrance system also contribute to the student success. Thanks for reading.

  • Sarah

    The federal and state governments have become frustrated and fatigued with education reform. They have begun to hand over control to the likes of the Gates Foundation. Since Race to the Top winning states wrote merit pay tied to standardized testing in their grants, I don’t think we are looking to Finland as a model, but rather corporate style competition to improve schools.

  • Moses

    The story of Finland’s success should be a lesson of the distorted policies of NLCB and Race to the top that premise student improvement on standardized tests. America should tackle the underlying socio-economic problems such as poverty, poor housing, drug infested neighborhoods, lack of access to health services, and the hopelessness of poverty entrapment especially in the inner cities. These problems walk with the kids in schools and contribute to the high failure rates of students.

  • Teresa

    This article actually gives me more questions than answers.

    I’m curious about what else the students are doing. If you just look at more recess time, starting students out at 7 years old instead of 5, and giving teachers equal planning and teaching time, that doesn’t sound like it would equal well educated children. There’s more to the story and I’m curious what it is. Are parents better educated about what to do with children at home prior to beginning school? Are both parents working, or do they send children to daycares that have really good knowledge about what to do with children? What are the hours of the school day and how many breaks per year? I’ve taught in high and low SES group schools and there is a HUGE difference between background knowledge and the ability to teach and the outcome of a standardized test. We live in a society where some parents are “teaching their babies to read,” and others sit them in front of Cinemax to entertain them. There’s nothing wrong with a little TV (honestly, I think I learned how to read watching Sesame Street), but the quality of what some are watching is questionable. Going back to my original questions…. How much TV do they watch in Finland.?… I’m curious.

  • I have relatives that are products of the Finnish educational system and can tell you the other thing that they did (at least in the 80’s) was to practice homogeneous groupings. Students were taught with others of their ability group. There was little or no mainstreaming. Under these circumstances, I would be amazed if they DIDN’T come out on top. We, in the U.S., can’t teach like this and making any but the most basic comparisons is useless.

  • kali

    There are many things we can change without needing money. I think we need more time to plan as teachers. We need to educate parents about how the virtual games rob their children of creative play, which leads to creative thinking and problem solving skills. We need more music, art and religion intertwined with reading, writing, math. Using business money on a local basis to provide for necessities and extras, and including role models from business for our students is helpful. Bring the real world into the classroom. Inviting elders into the schools to read, story-tell with students of all ages is helpful. Service learning is valuable for all students. Most of all, don’t pit teachers against one another. Develop a culture of support, with a serious focus on doing your best every day as a teacher and student. All this is free.

  • Adam B.


    “How much TV do they watch in Finland.?… I’m curious.”

    Students in Finland are much like our youth in the U.S. they watch a lot of TV and spend time on the internet on play video games. One difference though is that much of their television is in subtitles from the U.S. this may give Finnish people a huge advantage in learning the U.S. as a second language and learning Finnish reading since all children have to read the subtitles if they want to enjoy TV.


    “I have relatives that are products of the Finnish educational system and can tell you the other thing that they did (at least in the 80’s) was to practice homogeneous groupings. Students were taught with others of their ability group. There was little or no mainstreaming. Under these circumstances, I would be amazed if they DIDN’T come out on top. We, in the U.S., can’t teach like this and making any but the most basic comparisons is useless.”

    False. Finland used to structure their education structure based off of groupings this is similar to other european education models such as Germany and France. However, in the late 70’s Finland changed their educational model to a more equitable system. The latest PISA results released on Dec. 9th found that Finland has an extremely equitable system. The difference between their highest and poorest performing schools was very small. They now teach everyone regardless of ability. Therefore comparison of that aspect of their educational system is possible. However there are other aspects of Finish education that is hard to compare Finland to the U.S. such as 1. Finish is a highly homogenious country in that they pretty much all citizens speak the same language we have a much more diverse culture. 2. Child poverty rates. Finland- 4% U.S. 22%. 3. Size- Finland population 5 million to U.S. 310 million.

    Despite the difference there is much to learn from the finnish education model. Things they are doing that we are not.

    1. Mandatory masters degree to teach.
    2. No standardized tests (they do take a test to graduate)
    3. Looping from grades 1-6. (remember they don’t start until age 7)
    4. They don’t grade from grades 1-3.
    5. Grades 4-6 they do grade the children but don’t share the grades with the children. (This prevents the inherent competition of grades between children)(as this point if a child is struggling these grades are shared with parents).
    6. Mandatory teaching of second language beginning in grade 4.
    7. Teachers have absolute automony to develop lesson plans and implement based to include ordering their own textbooks.
    8. Nationalized teaching objectives.
    9. Finland’s teaching profession is 100% unionized. They put complete faith in their teachers. From my research the only way you can get fired is 1. public drunkeness or 2. If a complaint is lodged by a parent their PTA equivalent sends a representative to observe the teacher and provides a report to the school board with recomendations. That’s it. Other than that they are free to do as they will similiar to entrepenurs in the classroom.
    10. Each school district is funded equally.
    11. no “gifted” courses.
    12. Free high quality lunches and healthcare to all children regardless of income level. (I found interesting that the teachers are expected to eat with their children and hold conversations at lunch with them in a group setting).

    All of this is done with average pay. (national average of $41,000 per year). Less paid per pupil than we do in the U.S. (Finalnd avg. $8500 per student, U.S. average $9,400 per student).

    Even with the dissimilarities of our populations I think it can be argued that Finland gets better results from their education model at less cost. All of this with out nationalized testing. Why are we doing the exact opposite?

  • Anna

    I could not agree more with Kirsi. I also grew up in Finland and received my education there. I am very thankful for many things that my education has given me – one for example would be the foreign languages that I learned in school. In third grade I started learning English (this is mandatory), in seventh grade Swedish (also mandatory), and eight grade I chose to learn French as well. I believe that when students are given some choices about their education they will be more motivated to learn and take school seriously.
    I also am a big fan of the recess that schools in Finland have – I used to get a 10-15 minute recess every hour! We went outside regardless of the weather circumstances. (Something about that fresh air and little movement….)
    I teach first grade, and I have been shocked that my students only get 15 minute recess per day – if even!!!!

  • skip weinstock

    I am a public school teacher who has taught students high school English for the past thirty one years.

    Many years ago I was a student of Professor Darling-Hammond at Teachers College. She gave me an A on a research paper I wrote on teacher tenure. She appeared to know quite a bit about educational policy.

    Fast forward twenty years to my recent reading of Professor Darling-Hammond’s article about Finland’s superb educational system. I would like to remind the good professor along with actual teachers in the profession what Jacques Barzun, Provost of Columbia University wrote in his collection of essays Begin Here: “No principles, however true, are any good when they are misunderstood or stupidly applied.” Professor Darling-Hammond fails to mention that the population of Finland is about 5 million persons, while the population of the United States is about 300 million. How can she possibly presume that what works for a tiny country with a relative homogeneous population, history, and culture can possibly work for a nation of 300 million with students from all over the world who speak dozens of languages?

    Her “scholarly” article is nothing more than an academic exercise in the ridiculous.

  • Deanna

    I think one thing that is overlooked, among the many differences, is the respect for education in Finland verses the United States. In the US, teachers are bashed, seen as working minimum hours/ days, while Finnish teachers are revered as influential members of society. How many times have you heard, “If you can’t, teach.”?

    Also, children in the US learn that social status, entertainment, and personal enjoyment far outweigh education in terms of priority.

  • To Al,

    Well Al, stop talking and start doing. Go out and recruit people in your community, hold fund raisers, write grants, be part of the solution! I agree that NCLB should be less about punishing and more about supporting. However griping doesn’t make things happen, only action does.

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  • curibe

    This article makes no sense. If they don’t have standardized testing how are we comparing each other? How does a daily free meal work in Finland but apparently not in the US. According other reports schools where less than 10% of the kids got a free meal did much better than schools where most of the kids got a free meal. How does health care help a child learn to read, do math and science better? How does not going into debt help the quality of teachers? If this is case I would prefer my doctor to not go into debt that my kid’s teacher. If teachers spend half of their time in professional development who is in the classroom? I will wager that the secret (if there is one) is the method of teaching not anything of these ridiculous assertions. I have a feeling they just practice more instead of discussing their feelings and recycling all day. Just a thought

  • Shannon

    Teachers spend half their time in professional development because they spend less time teaching in the classrooms. I believe students age 7-14 attend half days, now that doesn’t explain where secondary teachers get their time for PD, but overall less time is spent teaching in the classroom so they have more time to dedicated to prep. Finnish students do not write standardized tests as we do, however, there is a PISA study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that put out a test every year in 65 countries around the world for 15 year olds in literacy, math and science. That is how we know Finland is among the best in education. South Korea did better than Finland last year actually. Also as someone else said, teaching is the highest respected job in Finland and only the best get accepted to become teachers. It is something like the top 10% of university graduates become teachers in Finland whereas the bottom 20% from colleges in the US become teachers. I don’t think that is a great point but just something I read. Teacher autonomy is important… many states are not giving any freedom to their teachers, they must do this and teach that this way and use this book (so strict), the teachers are not allowed to really teach their students from the heart, which is important.

  • Sunny

    What this article fails to mention is that when parents have an issue with what is being taught at their local school in Finland, they are allowed to sit in on classes for a few hours. They then bring their concerns before the local school board. Issues are addressed with great transparency. I don’t know many teachers in this country who would agree to that. The union would be notified immediately! And that is really sad.

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  • Robert A. Yager

    I think that’s its interesting that we are generally accepting that Finland is doing a superior job of education based on their students’ scores on standardized tests, while at the same time rejecting the notion that standardized tests measure student knowledge, education. Can anyone reconcile this for me?

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  • Our educational system constantly stresses the need to bring those students that are failing up, while it completely dismisses those that excell in school. I believe that if we want to create a smarter nation me must quit striving for mediocrity. The United States public school systems are destroying the ambition of the smart students and instead try to bring up the stupid ones. We should advertise to both educational opposites equally instead of giving our failing students all the resources. We spend over 10,000 dollars a year on education so I think the clear problem here is the inefficency of our own government.

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  • perla palileo-Brame

    There’s so much more than just testing to become an excellent teachers. Too much emphasis on testing make our teachers dull and boring. I agree with the Finns approach. Teachers must be the highwest paid public servant. teachers created all the wonderful professions in the world.

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  • Heidi


    My understanding is that there are two kinds of tests — high stakes tests, the kinds we use in the US, that have a lot riding on them for students, teachers, and schools. These tend not to be valid measures of learning because of the way people “teach to the test.” There is a lot of research about this effect of high-stakes measures and it even has a name: Campbell’s Law.

    On the other hand, there are some international standardized tests that are NOT high stakes — no students’ names are attached to them, nor school names — that are pretty accepted as ways to measure achievement. Not perfectly, of course, but in general they have been shown to do a pretty good job over the years. These include the PISA and the TIMMS. The PISA is the test mostly being cited in terms of Finland’s strong record of achievement.

    Hope that helps!

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  • Embanking on recent newspaper articles, I have seen that China had reached the top two ranks as well as Finland. However, so many websites have been lying over which country is top. From newspaper article (which is generally true), it was stated that China was ranked no.1 and Finland ranked no.2 for their education system with USA in third place (though they are 7th now). Maybe lies…

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