Smartest Kids in the World: Finland

Finland is the model for Amanda Ripley. In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way she celebrates the high performance of Korean schools, but notes that it comes at a terrible cost to parents and teenagers. We can learn a lot from Poland, but they are relatively new to the high-performance education world.

Ripley follows Kim, a student from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, to a small dark village in Finland.

During her three months in Finland, Kim had collected a small catalogue of differences between school here and in Oklahoma. The most obvious were the things that were missing. There were no high-tech, interactive white boards in her classroom. There was no police officer in the hallway. Over time, though, she had begun to notice more important distinctions—the kind that a visiting adult would not see. Take the stoner kid, as Kim had nicknamed him in her head. He’d walked into class that day looking hung over, with glassy eyes, as usual. He had short blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and a nose that was always a shade redder than the rest of his skin. He didn’t talk much in class, but when he was with his friends, smoking cigarettes outside, he was louder. Kim had seen plenty of kids like him in Sallisaw. Somehow, she hadn’t expected to see stoner kids in Finland. But there he was. Every country had its stoner kids, as it turned out. That was lesson one. There was only one major difference, as far as she could tell, and this was lesson two. The Finnish stoner kid was a model student. He showed up to class, and he was attentive. He took notes. When Stara assigned essays, which was often, he wrote them, just like everybody else. In Oklahoma, the stoner kids didn’t do much schoolwork, in Kim’s experience. They didn’t care. Here, all kids complained about school, too, and they had teachers they liked and disliked. Yet most of them seemed to have bought into the idea of education on some level.

After class, Kim had a free period—a full seventy minutes with nothing scheduled. This was the other big difference she’d noticed about Finland: the inexplicable stretches of luxurious freedom. She kept finding herself released into the ether, trusted to find her way through long stretches of time. She could even walk out of the school in the middle of the day and go to a coffee shop in the village until her next class began.

Parents in general seemed to trust their kids more. Kim routinely saw eight-year-olds walking to school alone, wearing reflective vests to keep them visible in the dark. At the high school, she rarely saw parents for any reason. Teenagers were treated more like adults. There were no regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences. None. If teachers had a problem with the student, they usually just met with the student.

When Kim’s school day in Finland ended at three forty-five, it was already dark. Her classmates all headed off in different directions. A few boys in a garage band went off to practice; some of the girls went shopping. No one Kim knew went to afterschool tutoring academies. Finnish kids had more free time than American kids, and not just because they did less homework. They were also less likely to play sports or hold down jobs.

As one U.S. exchange student to Finland explained in the survey conducted for this book: “My Finnish school fostered a great deal of respect for the institution and faculty in the students. This can be partly explained by the academic rigors that teachers had to endure in their journeys to becoming educators. The students were well aware of how accomplished their teachers were.”

How does one get to be a teacher in Finland?

Finland’s landscape used to be littered with small teaching colleges of varying quality, just like in the United States. That helped explain why the first phase of reforms in Finland were painful, top-down, accountability-based measures. Finland, it turns out, had its own No Child Left Behind moment, one that today will sound familiar to teachers in the United States and many other countries. In the 1970s, Finnish teachers had to keep diaries recording what they taught each hour. National school inspectors made regular visits to make sure teachers were following an exhaustive, seven-hundred-page centralized curriculum. Central authorities approved textbooks. Teachers could not be trusted to make their own decisions. During the same time period, the Finnish government did something else, too—something that has never happened in the United States or most other countries. The Finns rebooted their teacher-training colleges, forcing them to become much more selective and rigorous. As part of a broader reform of higher education, the government shuttered the smaller schools and moved teacher preparation into the more respected universities. It was a bold reform, and not without controversy. Opponents argued that the new system was elitist and would, as one editorial warned, “block the road to our rural youth when their inner calling beckons them to a [teaching] career.” Some university leaders objected, too, fearing that the inclusion of such preprofessional, practical training might dilute academic standards for the rest of the departments and lower their institutions’ prestige. Interestingly, these same arguments were also made in the United States whenever anyone tried to make teacher training more selective.

When Kim was starting kindergarten in 2000, ten out of ten new Finnish teachers had graduated in the top third of their high school classes; only two out of ten American teachers had done so. Incredibly, at some U.S. colleges, students had to meet higher academic standards to play football than to become teachers.

Like Kim’s math teacher back in Oklahoma, Stara was a veteran teacher, approaching two decades in the profession. Both teachers had jobs that were protected by powerful unions, and neither could easily be dismissed. This pattern held true in most developed countries around the world: Teachers’ unions held a lot of power, and teachers rarely got fired anywhere. The similarities ended there. From the moment she had decided to study education in college, Stara had entered a profession completely different from that of Kim’s Oklahoma teacher. To become a teacher in Finland, Stara had had to first get accepted into one of only eight prestigious teacher-training universities. She had high test scores and good grades, but she knew the odds were still against her. She’d wanted to teach Finnish, so she’d applied to the Finnish department at the University of Jyväskylä. In addition to sending them her graduation-exam scores, she’d had to read four books selected by the university, then sit for a special Finnish literature exam. Then she’d waited: Only 20 percent of applicants were accepted.

At that time, all of Finland’s teacher-training colleges had similarly high standards, making them about as selective as Georgetown or the University of California, Berkeley in the United States. Today, Finland’s education programs are even more selective, on the order of MIT. It was hard to overstate the implications that cascaded from this one fact. Just one out of every twenty education schools was located at a highly selective institution in the United States. Far more than that had no admission standards at all. In other words, to educate our children, we invited anyone—no matter how poorly educated they were—to give it a try. The irony was revealing, a bit like recruiting flight instructors who had never successfully landed a plane, then wondering why so many planes were crashing. [emphasis added]

In Finland, all education schools were selective. Getting into a teacher-training program there was as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States. The rigor started in the beginning, where it belonged, not years into a teacher’s career with complex evaluation schemes designed to weed out the worst performers, and destined to demoralize everyone else.

Is there something magic about Scandinavia? Apparently not.

Norway, for example, shares a border with Finland and spends more on education. But Norway is not choosy about who gets to become a teacher, and the quality of preparation varies wildly, just as it does in the United States. Norwegians have fretted about the quality of their teacher-training colleges for decades, and the government routinely interferes in the training to try to make it better. As in many countries, teachers are made to attain ever more amounts of training and education, without much regard for quality. Partly as a result, Norwegian fifteen-year-olds perform at about the same middling levels as teenagers in the United States on PISA, and even the most privileged among them perform poorly in math, compared to advantaged teenagers worldwide.

After you stock the schools with teachers who were good at school, do you need brilliant management techniques?

The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously. So, that’s what they did. It was a radically obvious strategy that few countries have attempted. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, something magnificent happened. Finland evolved to an entirely new state, unrealized in almost any country in the world. It happened slowly, and partly by accident, but it explained more about Finland’s success than almost anything else. With the new, higher standards and more rigorous teacher training in place, Finland’s top-down, No-Child-Left-Behind-style mandates became unnecessary. More than that, they were a burden, preventing teachers and schools from reaching a higher level of excellence. So Finland began dismantling its most oppressive regulations, piece by piece, as if removing the scaffolding from a fine sculpture.

The government abolished school inspections. It didn’t need them anymore. Now that teachers had been carefully chosen and trained, they were trusted to help develop a national core curriculum, to run their own classrooms, and to choose their own textbooks. They were trained the way teachers should be trained and treated the way teachers should be treated.

By the time Kim got to Finland, teachers, principals, union leaders, and politicians routinely worked together to continually improve the education system. They sometimes disagreed, but collaboration was normal, and trust was high. The government conducted standardized testing of targeted samples of students—to make sure schools were performing. But there was no need to test all students, year after year.

Do you need cultural and economic homogeneity to achieve good results? (repeat of some of the same quotes from earlier posting on U.S. schools)

To find out how diversity changed the culture of rigor, I went to the Tiistilä school, just outside Helsinki, where a third of the kids were immigrants, many of them refugees. The school enrolled children aged six to thirteen. It was surrounded by concrete block apartment buildings that looked more communist than Nordic. In a second-floor classroom, Heikki Vuorinen stood before his sixth graders. Four were African; two wore headscarves. An Albanian boy from Kosovo sat near a Chinese boy. There was a smattering of white kids born in Finland. Vuorinen gave the class an assignment and stepped out to talk to me. Wearing a purple T-shirt, jeans, and small, rectangular glasses, Vuorinen proudly reported that he had kids from nine different countries that year, including China, Somalia, Russia, and Kosovo. Most had single parents. Beyond that, he was reluctant to speculate. “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much,” he said,

When pressed, he told me about one of his students in particular. She had six brothers and sisters; her father was a janitor and her mother took care of other people’s children. Money was very tight. But she was, he said, the top student in his class. Vuorinen was visibly uncomfortable labeling his students. “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them,” he explained, “because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.” He seemed acutely aware of the effect that expectations could have on his teaching. Empathy for kids’ home lives could strip the rigor from his classroom. “I want to think about them as all the same.”

At Vuorinen’s school, all fifth graders had been tested in math two years earlier. Compared to the rest of Finland, the Tiistilä kids performed above average.

Does it cost a lot more to have teachers who are well-educated? Not as much as you’d think, because well-educated teachers are given larger classes and require less administration, according to Ripley.

As I listened to teachers like Stara and Bethel, I started to suspect that all these differences interacted, in chronological order. Because teacher colleges selected only the top applicants in Finland and other education superpowers, those schools could spend less time doing catch-up instruction and more time on rigorous, hands-on training; because teachers entered the classroom with rigorous training and a solid education, they were less likely than American teachers to quit in frustration. This model of preparation and stability made it possible to give teachers larger class sizes and pay them decently, since the turnover costs were much lower than in other countries. And, since they had all this training and support, they had the tools to help kids learn, year after year, and to finally pass a truly demanding graduation test at the end of high school.

What is this “demanding graduation test”?

It happened to be the week that the seniors got the results of the big matriculation exam they’d taken earlier that year—the one that determined where they would likely go to college. Kim’s Finnish teacher, Tiina Stara, was worried about her students. “They are feeling a lot of pressure. It’s not like in Japan or Korea, but still.” The test had been around for more than 160 years and was deeply embedded in the system. The countries with the best education outcomes all had these tests at the end of high school. It was one of the most obvious differences between them and the United States—which had a surplus of tests, few of which had meaningful effects on kids’ lives. Matriculation exams like Finland’s helped inject drive into education systems—creating a bright finish line for kids and schools to work toward. Teenagers from countries with these kinds of tests performed over sixteen points higher on PISA than those in countries without them.

Finland’s exam stretched out over three grueling weeks and lasted about fifty hours. Teachers followed students to the bathroom to make sure they didn’t cheat. The Finnish section took two days. On the first day, students read several texts and wrote short essays analyzing each one, over the course of six hours. On the second day, students chose one topic out of fourteen options and wrote a single, very long essay, over the course of another six hours. One recent topic was, “Why is it difficult to achieve peace in the Middle East?” Another was, “I blog, therefore I am.”

Ripley expresses amazement that Americans (1) are repeating the top-down command-and-control approaches to improving public schools that were tried without success in the 1970s in Finland and (2) don’t copy the Finnish approach to teacher education and selection.

The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to worry that the reforms sweeping across the United States had the equation backwards. We were trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis. It made sense to reward, train, and dismiss more teachers based on their performance, but that approach assumed that the worst teachers would be replaced with much better ones, and that the mediocre teachers would improve enough to give students the kind of education they deserved. However, there was not much evidence that either scenario was happening in reality. What if the main problem was not motivation? Was it possible to hammer 3.6 million American teachers into becoming master educators if their SAT scores were below average?

For all the time and energy that American educators had spent praising Finland, it was remarkable that they did not insist upon this most obvious first step. It was almost as if we wanted the prestige of Finland’s teachers—but didn’t really believe that our teachers needed to be highly educated and unusually accomplished in order to merit that prestige.

12 thoughts on “Smartest Kids in the World: Finland

  1. Right now with the overall lousy job market may be a good time to up US standards for teachers. But, I still think that your average public school would have a hard time competing for MIT grads who can go to Google, Apple, consulting, etc.

  2. I was born in 1952. I had tons of freedom from a very early age, as did all the kids knew. Certainly by the second grade I could stay out past dark and wander all over the place.

    Nobody wore a bicycle helmet, and seat belt use was minimal.

    In high school (1966-1970) I usually had a 45-60 minute ‘study hall’ during the day, and as a junior and senior the study hall was adjacent to the lunch period. I recall in 1969 I had enough time to travel from my school to the University of Texas, where I observed an anti-draft riot, and return in time to not miss my class.

    I wonder how these super schools overseas handle kids who disrupt the class by yelling, jumping around, and throwing things? These behaviors are common in public schools here.

  3. Izzie, your suggestion has more merit than you might think. I know quite a few humanities PhDs that are still strongly motivated to stay in academics, but can’t find reasonable work despite having good or excellent CVs. They would probably entertain the idea of teaching high school if their colleagues were as interested in the subject matter are they are. I think it is the complete indifference to mastery and excellence in the average K-12 environment that drives them away.

  4. My son and daughter attended private schools where a number of the faculty had PhDs, not just humanities but things like physics, math and chemistry. One of the teachers went to MIT (but I don’t think he had a PhD). The pay and benefits at private schools is lousy – much worse than public schools with their unions and infinite taxing power. The difference was that the students were highly motivated and not disruptive. Anyone who wasn’t was “separated from the school” – there was considerable attrition. Whatever these teachers lost in pay, they (apparently) more than made up in job satisfaction of teaching kids who actually wanted to be there. But this kind of model is not easily duplicated in large urban schools.

  5. Thank you for your intresting article. I value highly your clear observations. In teachers we trust! Did you know every university that provide teacher education has a teacher training school where teacher students can do their teaching practice. I am a principal in a university school like that in Lapland.

  6. Phil, I have been reading Ripley’s book thanks to your discussion and it is interesting and edifying and you have summarized it well in your excerpts. However, I am disappointed that so far she has not discussed what I consider to be two 800 pound gorillas in the room about US education:

    1. Boys do remarkably poorer in school than girls. One statistic that comes to mind is that IIRC women make up 60% of incoming college classes.

    2. Some ethnic groups like Asians and Jews do much better than other groups like Blacks and Hispanics. Ripley touches on this issue somewhat as you mentioned but what are the overall statistics? Are there subgroups in these countries that do much better or worse than others?

    I will continue to read the book but it would be extremely interesting to see whether these disparities are repeated in other countries.

  7. Another interesting question is how they educate teachers so that they are able to work independently, without micro management.

    I know of some engineers who are not very independent thinkers, despite the good grades that they must have had. So it must be more then just the selection process.

  8. Michael: “some engineers” in the U.S. wouldn’t have made the cut to become teachers in Finland (where getting into teacher training is today about as difficult as getting into M.I.T. is for an American, statistically speaking).

  9. Michael: Ripley does not suggest that Finland has eliminated managers and other administrators in their school systems, only that the higher quality of the current teachers, compared to the 1970s cohort, has enabled a reduction in management and managers. I.e., the Finns did not set for themselves the goal that 100% of their teachers would be fully autonomous. They still have principals, for example, in each school.

    [For reference, the trend in the U.S. has been from 1 non-teacher for every 2.37 teachers in 1950 to a roughly 1:1 ratio today (but as high as 1.83 non-teachers for every teacher in Virginia). See ]

  10. > Finns did not set for themselves the goal that 100% of their teachers would be fully autonomous

    I agree, but they do teach them to be able to work on their own.

    Some more details:

    Here it says that even Finnish basic and high school teachers must have a MA; preschool and kindergarten teachers can do with a BA; An aspiring teacher is supposed to be trained in doing research on his own; so they do teach them to be independent.

    Really impressive. I wonder who was the person who pushed for such massive change, and how did he/she succeed to persuade decision makers.

  11. No, this Finnish study says that there is no secret sauce, also this is all not quite applicable to the rest of the world.

    – Finnish society is a strange mix of authoritarianism and collectivism (like Russia – well Finland was part of Russia until 1917). Finland has a history of a ‘agrarian and per-industrialized society, the ethos of obedience and subjection that may be at its strongest in Finland among late modern European societies’

    So there is just no problem with maintaining discipline in class.

    – Finland’s teachers were always conservative and identified with upper middle class (no leftist teachers even during the civil war)

    Professionally they are also very conservative: “Finnish teachers spoke to their pupils mostly as adult models and keepers of order and safety in the classroom. Rather than encouraging intimacy, some experienced Finnish teachers emphasized how important it was to keep a certain professional distance from their pupils and their homes and problems”. Unlike Sweden most Finish teachers are said to be standing in front of the class and are strictly following the textbook.

    – The reforms of the 70ies: unified the school system; raised the entry bar + requirements for teachers (must have an MA);

    The side effect of raising the status of teacher: “people have been awakened to the fact that it is only through education that it is possible to climb the social ladder, or even to keep up one’s position.”

    – Reforms of the nineties: no individual teacher assessment, but the results are measured; Therefore teachers are stressed as they are measured by results, not by compliance with instructions.

    The ‘paradox is that the politically and pedagogically progressive comprehensive school reform is apparently being implemented in Finland by politically and pedagogically rather conservative teachers’

    – as a whole Finnish teachers are still very satisfied with their job.

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