Why must our schools always be compared with Finland?

“It may sound like rainbows and lollipops… but the data is unambiguous. This little country, with this simple idea, has made us look like the third world.” ~Dave Ross

In every education survey, Finland seems to come out on top. Finland. And I’ll bet you’re sick and tired of hearing how great Finland is. But I wanted to find out why, so asked the man who helped Finland do it — Pasi Sahlberg, from Finland’s education ministry — to reveal their secret.

“Forty years ago, when we started to build this current school system, we decided to invest heavily in equity,” said Sahlberg.

Which meant equal facilities and every teacher, even at the elementary level, getting a level of education similar to a medical degree.

They didn’t set out to be the best! In fact, there was a fear that equity would create mediocrity, but it turned out to be just the opposite. Equality…created excellence.

Because at the same time Finland decided the schools would also be responsible for eradicating poverty.

Dave Ross is co-host of The Ross & Burbank Show on KIRO Radio (weekdays 9-Noon).

“We understood that we wanted to make sure that everybody is ready to learn and that every child would be successful,” said Sahlberg. “School has to be the place where everybody goes to; why we integrate and better these things to our school system. It’s not socialism it’s realism.”

And Finnish realism says for education to be successful, poverty cannot be tolerated.

It’s a fundamentally different approach to the idea of school readiness. Here in the U.S. we ask “is the child ready for school?” Not in Finland.

Said Sahlberg, “In Finland when you speak about school readiness you ask whether the school, where children are coming is ready to host and welcome everybody as they are.”

It may sound like rainbows and lollipops… but the data is unambiguous. This little country, with this simple idea, has made us look like the third world.

Listen to the extended interview with Pasi Sahlberg on KIRO radio here.

See also: 26 Amazing Facts About Finland’s Unorthodox Education System

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Posted in Educational Opportunity


  1. Topi says:

    One major thing is missing in the points mentioned. Free food for everybody is provided in all schools and in every level until the end of high school.

  2. Antti Haikio says:

    Another question is that why Finland always joins US in the world hot spots as Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo – because we are good pupils and ready to learn 🙂

  3. HPetrus says:

    Yay us! Our system allows anyone the opportunity to become whatever they want – regardless of social status or parents’ income level. Can’t beat that. Oh, and the free food mentioned earlier is actually good and nourishing.

  4. Riikka says:

    Well, enjoy while it’s still working this nicely…

    Dark clouds are however already there. Increasing polarisation, especially in the metropolitan area of Helsinki, dividing schools to middle-class good ones and low-class/immigrant poorer ones, receiving moderate positive affirmation resources. Many assume that future PISA results are getting weaker in no time. Teachers are constantly reporting about their tiredness and frustration for instance for the plain fact that ‘everybody’ is welcome – even many ill children, incapable of participating and letting others participate, attend ‘normal’ classes, as many systems of special units have been dissolved. This autumn the mainstream media have regularly proclaimed how hard it is for many, teachers, parents and pupils. This is further giving speed for school-shopping, as decent parents want to offer their children a promise of the precious Finnish dream and choose allegedly a good school…

    The fact that our school is much better than most others doesn’t mean that is unproblematic. More importantly, it has been much better and more inclusive.

  5. Finnished says:

    “We understood that we wanted to make sure that everybody is ready to learn and that every child would be successful,”

    What a load of BS. These education surveys never take into account the growing number of young people dropping out of school because of mental problems and substance abuse. It is not uncommon of people starting to drink alcohol as young as 13 because alcoholism is seen as a part of finnish mentality. Nowadays people educate themselves straight to benefits because it’s near impossible to get a real job, I know lot of people who graduated with top grades and are now enjoying their skill set selling beer in grocery stores.

    And when it comes to “eradicating poverty”… Well, officially a median wage of a Finnish person is somewhere around 3000e per month but these oddjobs available for the youth usually pay so little you will have more money from just staying home and collecting benefits. Although, if you are officially unemployed you could be told to take a “work practice” which pays you a luxurious wage of 9 euros per day and is paid by the state, not the company you are working for. If you deny this work practice you lose your unemployment benefits for a set amount of time (usually somewhere between 6 months to full year). Lots of companies have stopped actually employing people altogether because they get free workforce from the state as “practice workers”. This can be also avoided by taking or being told to take “education courses” which actually boost your benefits for the duration of the course. One example of a such education course was “basics of social media” where they teached you how to use facebook. This is done because if you are on a education course, you are not officially unemployed on the records so the official unemployment numbers seem to be smaller than they really are. This “trick employment” is nowadays seen as “the way of the country” and amount of young people hidden into system are estimated to be anywhere from tens of thousands to hunderds of thousands.

    Example: I was unemployed for one year, half of this year I was in a education course on “how to use windows and MS office”, which means it was just browsing internet four hours a day. I collected a boosted unemployment benefit of 823e every month which was a lot of money for me, I lived like a king (or felt like it, because I could actually afford food AND pay my bills.) After this one year I enrolled into a school. Now I am a student and I receive 423e every month. As I dont want to take a student loan because of the economic crisis I receive half the money from doing something opposed to having more money from doing nothing. Also, if you work as a student, you are punished by reducing or collecting back your student benefits which can result in a situation where you make less money working and studying than you would receive as just studying. You could also lose your “credit information” because of being unable to pay back student benefits that are collected back from you because of working, and without credit information you cannot do anything e.g. rent a flat, take a loan, get a internet connection etc. But if you DONT work at all as a student it’s near impossible to find a job after graduating because you dont have enough work experience. Which mean you end up in “work practice” where you would have ended up anyway.

    Do not believe the hype, school system itself might be working when you only read the grades people get and official surveys which are made to look pretty to boost the ego of certain ministries, but take into account youth unemployment, trick employment and mental problems and Finland wont seem as a utopistic dreamland where everyone becomes “succesful” and poverty is nonexistent.

    • Frost says:

      In Finland, everyone truly has very similar opportunities. You don’t need to be rich to afford college-level education – you can be the child of penniless alcoholics and assuming you can keep it together yourself you can go on to get a college level education on grants and state-guaranteed student loans.

      Is society itself in Finland perfect? No. It’s very far from perfect, and the current push to privatize things like health care is extremely distasteful. Then again, nobody has claimed society itself is perfect or that all kids get jobs when they graduate – but on the other hand, it’s a much more equal society than most others on the planet and to get it to become truly excellent, it’s going to take serious changes. Changes like stopping the use of money and prioritizing society based on real-world need. And that’s a much bigger issue, granted one we need to solve world-wide, but – the fact remains that Finnish schools are in fact quite equal and they do in fact offer schooling opportunities to all citizens, even the ones who are penniless.

  6. Greetings from Fnland! What’s reasonable taxes got to do… That’s the “secret” of good results.

  7. tuire says:

    It’s sickening to see how complicated and expensive school system is in the US. Then they(or we) try to equalize the quality of education by busing the students back and forth to spread them “equally” to different schools and neighborhoods. This adds to the cost with no apparent benefits. Schooling shouldn’t be a burden to parents and every young person should be able to go to college if they are motivated and qualified.

  8. Alys says:

    It’s true. I’m an american who moved permanently to Finland.

  9. annemassey says:

    Went to school in Finland and have to concur the education I received long ago was at some levels higher than some of the universities elsewhere. I did go to school in Australia as well; they had rather high standards back then but not the hot meals and the variety of subjects. My kids have gone to school in the states (Tennessee) and here in Canada (BC). The Canadian system is falling behind these days, it was rather good up until about a decade ago. I think that North America would benefit building an education model that learns from the successful Finnish one.

  10. Esa says:

    I am a teacher in Finland. The secret of success has been that the teachers here are so highly educated that they/we can be trusted as the experts of our profession. No one has ever tested me. There is no system of evaluation for teachers in Finland. If they started to evaluate me, I would change my philosophy as a teacher.

  11. Reality check needed says:

    “Now I am a student and I receive 423e every month. As I dont want to take a student loan because of the economic crisis…”

    So the guy next door who is working his ass off is paying your education & benefits. You actually are receiving money for studying? You don’t “want” to take a loan, huh?
    Jesus Christ!

    • Pelle says:

      You are half right but you don’t know the whole picture. Sure students get a minimum amount of money plus free studies on tax payers behalf. Provided they get jobs when they graduate, they will pay it back in higher taxes pretty quickly. However, an unemployed who does nothing gets double the amount of money in unemployment benefits. Message for anyone who can do the math: do nothing and you get unemployment benefits, study hard and you will only get half. From a taxpayers view it would be better if people were incentivized to study and later be useful to society rather than take free money and spend on alcohol or the latest igadget. This is what the poster was protesting against.

      From practical experience I can tell that education in Finland, despite its advertized quality, does not pay off as an investment for most people. You may get a clean office job instead of a factory floor job, or more options to choose from but often no more money to spend.

      First of all, income differences are modest, secondly a higher salary has to pay proportionally more taxes. At the end of the day the difference is too small to ever cover the “lost” years at university where instead of accumulating wealth you accomulate student debt. A decent skilled electrician, plumber, truck driver, etc. makes more than many unversity educated ever will; teachers, librarians, many municipal white collar jobs. Even after 25 years with an above average salary (for a higher education, including several good years of better than that) I am still far behind where I would have been, had I chosen the vocational route. Even though I graduated faster than most and paid back my student loan a lot quicker than others, it took ten years to break even. I hope to pay my mortgage before I am 50!

      My advice to young people, unless you are a book worm type, is to seriously consider a quick vocational study instead of a university degree. If you choose wisely the job market is more secure (there is a lack of skilled doers and an oversupply of overeducated theoretics), and you’ll be better off financially. No, you can’t dream of getting rich, but then again for 95% of university graduates it is just that: a dream.

  12. Frost says:

    What this really boils down to is that cooperation is always the better approach. Always. The concept of healthy competition doesn’t really exist – all competition is going to get a worse total result than if everyone cooperated to create the best anything. Sahlberg quotes the Finnish writer Samuli Puronen, who said “Real winners do not compete.” – and that’s really it in a nutshell. America is built on enshrining competition and survival of the fittest, and that’s why things are going to hell in a handbasket all over the place. Finland too is way too competitive, as it too is a money-based and thus inherently broken society…but not nearly as, and especially not in schools.

    This lecture about competition vs cooperation by Alfie Kohn on the topic is fantastic, by the way:

  13. Finnish says:

    To “Finnished”: You complain that when you go to university in Finland you only get paid 423 euros per month…are you aware that other places in the world you usually have to PAY to go to university…!!??

  14. A Fin says:

    Just to put things into perspective here. Finland is a ridiculously expensive country (I travel a lot due to my work and I buy all my electronics and clothes abroad). Consequently, the value of money is very low even if the salaries sound high. And the real dealbreaker for many Americans is the taxes. For average Finn who earns, say, 3000e a month, the tax percentage is around 30-35. Then you must add one third for employee costs paid the company that hires you. In effect, your actual tax percentage is nearly 50. My son has gone to school in US and in UK, and he received better education in both places compared to what he gets in the best school in our middle sized town near Helsinki. He actually complains the Finnish school not being challenging and interesting enough and misses his school in UK because teaching was more engaging there. Of course, the average education is relatively good and that explains the high scores in PISA etc. If you go to school anywhere in Finland you will probably get an OK education, but it costs A LOT, and it will not help you improve your skills beyond average expectations, so there are no accelerated routes for the talented (I recognize this is also a problem in USA, the latest issue Sc. Am. Mind was complaining about this as only 4 states have accelerated programs). Bottom line: There are no free lunches, not even in Finnish schools.

  15. Petteri says:

    The situation here in Finland might change, however. There is pressure to create more special schools for gifted children (of affluent parents). Already the few private schools there are receive more funds than the public schools. The will for change is – in my opinion – largely based on ideological reasons and since the conservative currents are strong here there is a strong basis for change. For some reason the cause of our success in PISA, the equality in schools that so clearly comes out in this article, is not public knowledge in Finland. So maybe there will be change and in twenty years Finland is back to square one and 90 % of people wonder why did this happen.
    This may be a bit off topic, but in the seventies, when the current successful school system was created there was also a very popular system off school councils with active political participation from left to right. This was quietly quenched in the 1980’s by conservative forces in our society. Now there is concern of the lack of trust to political system in the younger generations who are surveyed to be more likely to resort to – even illegal – activity outside the political system to further their beliefs than older generations. There are some that believe this is due to the lack of political activity in schools – young people growing up no longer experience the way a society works through a political system.

  16. Manuel says:

    Comparing a very diverse, multicultural polity of 310 million to a relatively tiny, extremely homogenous (99% white, only 3.4% non-Finnish) nation with a mere 5.4 million people is not exactly apples to apples. Besides, it’s a heck of a lot easier to equalize an educational system in a homogenous society that is less than 2% of the population of the U.S.

    • Alex Stone says:


      In fact, we were comparing the Finish educational system to Washington state, which have comparable population sizes. As to your other point – homogeneity of the Finnish population – can you explain a bit more how that affects educational excellence? I agree that non-native speakers may have a more difficult time getting up to speed, but I fail to see how “99% white” is relevant.

      • Gunilla Holmberg says:

        I cannot see what colour has to do with learning/teaching abilities? If colour is an indication of income level or education of parents then that has something to do with “classes”…. We are a small nation and do not have resorces to waste, neither people nor money. Wellcome to see for yourself and I am shure we have something to learn from the others regradsless of PISA results….

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