Finland offers a comprehensive educational program that includes fully funded daycare, one year of preschool for 6-year-olds, nine years of compulsory comprehensive school from age 7 to 16 and post-compulsory school (high school) where students choose an academic or vocational track. Preschools align curricula and prepare students on similar tracks, assuring a grade-level start in first grade, consistent with the belief of equal opportunities for all students.
Higher education and adult lifetime learning is also provided and fully funded (with the exception of textbooks at the upper secondary level and beyond). Neighborhood schools are provided with the option of attending another school with transportation. Special education is inclusive within the traditional classroom setting with the necessary instructional support provided. Thirty-eight percent of Finland’s population has a college degree, compared with 30 percent of Americans.
In the 2015 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), Finland for the first time dropped from the top 10 rankings to 12th, while the U.S. ranked 36th, in the middle of countries tested.
Finland’s teacher training institutions, the most rigorous and highly selective professional schools in the country, admit 10 percent of its applicants for basic education (elementary schools) and 10 to 50 percent of applicants for its subject schools (high schools). Teachers are required to have earned at least a master’s degree. Effective teacher performance is the responsibility of the school principal. The teacher and student dynamic is enhanced by teaching the same students up to six consecutive years.
Leisure time and play is valued by the Finns. By law, teachers allocate a 15-minute relaxation period for every 45 minutes of classroom instruction. Meals are provided, and students eat several times during the school day. Homework time is approximately one-third less than U.S. students. The traditional school day begins about 9:30 a.m. and ends about 2:30 p.m. Extensive guidance and counseling is provided to keep students on track. “Intensified support” is provided for special needs students.
Finnish schools are known for less regimentation and more caring. The relaxed atmosphere is also provided for teachers whose school day includes extensive collaboration and planning time. U.S. teachers’ classroom instructional time ranks among the highest in the world. When Finland reformed its schools in the early ’80s, its objectives included balancing social inequity, easing access to health care and providing psychological counseling. Increasing test scores was not a priority.
Finland has one standardized test, the National Matriculation Exam, administered at the end of upper-secondary school (high school). The purpose of the exam is to discover “whether students have assimilated the knowledge and skills required by the curriculum for upper secondary school and whether they have reached an adequate level of maturity in line with the goals of general upper secondary education.” The exam determines qualification for college and other institutions of higher learning.
A major contributor to Finland’s educational success is the lack of politics in decision-making. The shared national belief of equal education opportunities contributes to a strong employment rate and productive workforce. And lifetime learning contributes a compatible society.
Finnish schools lack the stress, intensity and test-driven philosophy of American public schools. The best interest of students in Finland is not politically motivated. The major lesson that Finland offers American education is the belief of equal opportunities for every student.