Pasi Sahlberg Comparing Finland’s Schools to the U.S.’s Schools

A couple of weeks ago, published an article by Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and a Finnish educator. The U.S. educational system is constantly debated in the U.S., and as a father of three young children I had more than a passing interest in the quality of our schools.

So when I saw the article, “Why Finland’s schools are top-notch,” I read it. There was much in the article that interested me. It’s obvious that the U.S. educational system should be doing better. We are an affluent nation, and yet our students seem to be far from the top in the world.

In the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Finland scored near the top in the three categories (reading, mathematics, and science), while the U.S.A. scores were much lower.
finland building
What is special about Finland’s educational system? Early in the article, Sahlberg describes the educational system:

“For some, education in Finland is utopia: a dreamland where teaching is the most desired profession, authorities trust schools and political parties agree on the direction of educational reforms.

“For others, they are surprised to hear that in Finland children don’t start school until they are 7 years old. They have less homework than their peers in other countries. A child’s socioeconomic background is less of an impediment to academic performance. And there is only one standardized test, which is administered in the final year of high school.”

If this is true, then this is incredible. I would prefer for my kids to get a strong education while spending less time in school. Who wouldn’t? I think any kid would be happier with more time for play and more time with his or her family.

Sahlberg’s Three Beneficial Aspects of Finland’s Educational System

Sahlberg lists three characteristics of the Finland educational system that he thinks contribute to its success:

1. Academic Equality: I know most conservatives are wary whenever someone –– especially someone from the Northeast, West Coast, or Europe –– talks about equality. But, if we are going to have public schools, why should we not try to make sure that even the poorest kids receive a strong education? Why should we be content with substandard schools in poorer neighborhoods?

(I wrote “if we are going to have public schools…” because many of my libertarian friends argue that education would be better if governments weren’t involved in it. I am happy to table that discussion and just argue that, if we are going to have publicly funded schools, then we should aim for equality.)

I do know that academic equality is not an easy goal. I don’t think that electing Democrats or left-leaning politicians will fix the problem. I also haven’t seen any evidence that providing more funding for the underperforming schools will improve the situation. I imagine that the solution to the academic inequality in the U.S. will involve addressing many different factors.

2. Teachers Collaborate: Sahlberg says that teachers in Finland have a lighter teaching load than their counterparts in the U.S. He only cites one study that compared junior high school teachers in both places, so maybe he is wrong. But, if he’s right, then I can see how this can improve education. Teachers work long hours, and their jobs are stressful. If you lighten the load, I would suspect that many teachers would use the time freed up to improve their curriculum, collaborate, and de-stress.

(Presumably, this would increase the costs of public education, since more teachers would be need to be hired to teach the same load.)

3. Play: In Finland, students have recess time between classes. The schooldays are shorter than the schooldays in the U.S. And homework is considerably lighter. According to Sahlberg, any U.S. schools are even widening the gap by reducing the amount of recess the students have. From what I’ve read, regular breaks and physical activity increases mental performance and productivity. So his claim seems reasonable.

So Sahlberg thinks that these three characteristics of Finland’s educational system contributes to it being more effective than the U.S.’s educational system. As I made clear in my comments on these three characteristics, I do think that they would improve our educational system. I’m not sure if they would substantially improve our educational system, but they would be an improvement.

Sahlberg’s Three Harmful Aspects of the U.S. Educational System

But Sahlberg also identifies three aspects of the American educational system that harm it.

1. Overemphasizing Testing: Sahlberg says that the American schools are too focused on testing and data. He thinks that preparing the students for the tests and administrating the tests take up valuable teaching time. I can see his point. We do need objective measurements, but there can be an overemphasis on this. There is more to being educated than being able to score highly on standardized testing. I haven’t seen enough research on this matter (and I don’t spend much time looking for such research) to know whether Sahlberg is correct.

2. Marketplace Choice: Sahlberg says that the U.S. “places too much faith in marketplace choice,” presumably referring to many people having the option of attending private or charter schools instead of the public schools. He says that this “weakens the public school structure.”

I find this the least compelling of his points. Why isn’t it beneficial for parents to have a choice for where their child goes to school? It is the only check and balance they have against a poor school. Voting is a slower and less precise method of addressing a problem. It can take years for the relevant election to take place, the new politician to institute the appropriate changes, and the changes to have the desired effect. During those years, the children will be receiving a poor education.

I know many people who send their children to a private school. The two primary reasons are: (1) to receive a better education than the local public school systems offer, and (2) to emphasize the teachings of their religious tradition. The latter should be allowed in a free country. The former is the result of the public schools being inadequate, not the cause of the inadequacy.

My parents sent me to private school for high school because I could receive a much better education at the school than I could at the public school I was zoned for.

So I’m not convinced by Sahlberg’s assertion.

3. Newer Teachers: Sahlberg says that the U.S. has a higher turnover of teachers than Finland does. That leads to less experienced teachers in the classroom, which reduces the quality of the instruction. (I know some of my readers who are teachers might bristle at this claim, but it seems reasonable. More experience usually translates to better work. I see no reason teaching is any different.) Sahlberg doesn’t explain why Finland retains its teachers better. If he’s right, though, then I think this would be a disadvantage to the U.S. educational system.


Sahlberg closes with the concession that the U.S.A. cannot become Finland. Mimicry isn’t the answer. But he does think that we can apply some of his points in a way that would improve our educational system.

I think he’s right.

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1 Comment

  1. I find comparisons with Finland a bit wearing, even if a few salient (and relatively obvious?) points emerge.

    If only we were a largely homogeneous (93%) nation with big taxes (53 vs 30%), a small population (Finland’s = greater Atlanta), and an even smaller defense budget (enjoy that comparison)…

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