In the new millennium, Finland has gained a reputation for having one of the best education systems in the world. Many factors, including a well-educated teaching force, contribute to Finland's success, but some aspects of the country's educational policies and practices may be surprising to those living elsewhere. For example, although students score very highly on international tests, such as the PISA, Finland has very few external accountability measures, and teachers spend less time in classrooms than in many other countries.
The ways Finland has reformed its education system have significant implications for reformers in other countries, especially those facing the same problems Finland had before its remarkable success. To achieve its status as one of the highest ranking countries in education, Finland did not create charter schools, get rid of bad teachers, increase competition, or ban teacher unions (Sahlberg, 2011a). This article explores the current research on Finland's education system and focuses on the features that transformed the country into one of the highest-performing nations in international testing.
Every few years, international tests help educators to evaluate how well school systems in different nations are performing. To measure 15-year-olds' skills in mathematics, science, and reading, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) administers the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) every three years. The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) provides several similar tests, including the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which is given every four years to evaluate 4th- and 8th-grade students on their mathematics and science skills, and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which 4th-grade students take every five years to measure their reading skills.
Students in Finland tend to do very well on these tests (Tirri & Kuusisto, 2013). In 2009, for example, the PISA results showed that Finland ranked third in reading, fifth in math, and second in science (Stewart, 2012). These international tests are more demanding than some tests individual countries administer, because they measure more than just what students can recall and require students to apply information and defend their answers (Darling-Hammond, 2010a).
The Educational System in Finland
In 1972, Finland implemented peruskoulu, a new education system that was designed to improve many of the problems its old system created. In the older system, children were separated into two streams, one with an academic orientation and the other with a practical focus, and students needed to decide which option to take by the age of 11 (Sarjala, 2013). Under this system, many inequalities existed; some schools provided students with many more resources and learning opportunities than other schools. The old system was also based on the belief that talent in society is unevenly distributed, and, therefore, some students have more potential to be educated than others (Sahlberg, 2012).
When peruskoulu--a nine-year compulsory system--superseded the two-track system in the 1970s, many detrimental practices and beliefs ended and progress continued thereafter. Today, over 99% of the students finish peruskoulu. They generally receive the...