The PISA Results: Finland and the United States

On December 3rd the 2012 results of the (PISA) , Program for International Student Assessment) administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) were released.   Our conservative critics, including U.S. Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, would like us to believe that we have the most flawed system in the world. The Secretary of Education criticized America’s performance as a picture of “educational stagnation”. One might assume that after over 12 years of educational reform of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Obama’s Race for the Top with their increased emphasis on high stakes standardized testing and holding teachers accountable test scores would have improved America’s results.  But maybe they have been focusing on the wrong things.  Maybe Finland has the right answers.

But since 1900, America has gone from educating a small elite group to providing free, public universal education for most Americans through high school.  No country in the world tries to education a greater proportion of its children, or for longer periods than the United States.  That is not an argument for complacency but rather a way of noting how far we have come.

America’s education critics extol the nations, which are high scorers like Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. (Thomas Friedman recently published an article entitled, “The Shanghai Secret” where he describes what he thinks is the reason Chinese students have done so well on international benchmarks for learning. He summarizes his tour of select schools in Shanghai by stating they have, “A deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.”)

While Finnish students have consistently performed at above-average levels in math, science and reading the nation recently fell in the ratings which raised some concerns and headlines. ( “Are Finland’s vaunted schools slipping?”, December 3rd, Washington Post

Finland dropping out of the top 10 performers in math, with a score of 519, 22 points lower than the last ranking three years ago. Reading skills fell 12 points to 524, while the science ranking dropped nine points to 545. recent The test that is given to 15-year-olds in 65 industrialized nations, places Finland consistently near the top. (The Finnish Success in PISA – and Some Reasons Behind It, by Journi Valijarvi, Pirjo Linnakyla, Pekka Kupari, Pasi Reinikainen and Inga Arffman, published by OECD Pisa, 2000).  Reformers insist that if America wishes to compete in the global marketplace it must improve the performance of its schools.

What is Finland doing that we in America and the rest of the world doing that we can learn? What are we doing that we should stop doing?  What are we being told and what are we not being told?

  •  The population of Finland is 5.414 million in 2012 (World Bank).  The population of the United States is almost 58 times larger (313.9 million) (US Census Bureau, 2010).  But the population of Finland is far more homogenous and has fewer poor children According to a UNICEF study; Finland has the second lowest poverty rate at 5.3% (Iceland has the lowest at 4.7%) American poverty according to the same study is the second highest at 23.1%.  There is no higher correlation of school dropouts than poverty.
  • Finland funds its schools locally like the U.S. States in the U.S. are the primary source of funding of schools.  (The Federal Government supplies 3% of funding. (Federal education spending accounts for just 3 percent of the $3.5 trillion the government spent in 2012.  While the United States spends more dollars than most countries, the percentage of GDP spent on education in the United States (Gross Domestic Product) is 5.6% in 2010, while Finland’s is 6.8% of its GDP).  (  According to the World Bank figures from 2010, 27 countries including Cuba, Vietnam, Brazil, Namibia, the Netherlands and Norway outspend spending on education as a percentage of GDP.
  • Spending alone does not mean that schools get better results. If it did, Washington, DC which spends $7074 (which is above the US average of $6,478) would produce better results. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU,, Issued June 2012, Public Education Finances, 2010 (Issued June 2012).
  • Finland starts its children in school early, with state-run, high-quality day care beginning at six months. This ensures that children are ready to learn when they reach kindergarten and first grade.  In a recent article in the New Republic, Jonathan Cohn reported on the low quality of day care in the United States, (The Hell of American Day Care An investigation into the barely regulated, unsafe business of looking after our children “A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development deemed the majority of operations to be “fair” or “poor”—only 10 percent provided high-quality care. Experts recommend a ratio of one caregiver for every three infants between six and 18 months, but just one-third of children are in settings that meet that standard.”
  • Finnish schools frequently employ a second teacher in the classroom to focus on the struggling students. This allows those students to get specialized attention while remaining in the same class as their peers.  Second teachers in American classrooms are a rarity except in Special Education classes. While in the United States, there have been calls to remove tenured, senior teachers and hirer newer, less experienced (and lower paid) new teachers.  Tenure in K-12 systems does not provide lifetime employment as it does in America’s university system. It is designed to provide teachers with fair procedures that protect good teachers from personal, political and discriminatory actions by employers, while allowing for the dismissal of incompetent teachers.  Tenure in the K-12 system takes between 2 – 5 years and during that time a probationary teacher is observed while teaching and rated.
  • Finnish teachers are given much greater leeway to teach, including the ability to select their own textbooks in many cases and to customize lessons in order to prepare students to meet national standards. In the United States, textbooks are chosen for teachers by school administrators off of an approved textbook list or as in the state of Texas are selected on a statewide basis by the Texas State Board of Education for the entire state.
  • Finish teachers have few students who do not speak Finnish, while in the United States about 10% of students or 4.7 million are learning English, according to the United States Department of Education. (
  • The Finns spend about equal per-pupil funding (about $7,500) unlike the disparities between richer and poorer school districts in the United States. Beverly Hills, California spent over $20,500 per pupil in 2010, while Lynwood, California spent just over $11,000 per pupil.
  • Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades.  Fifty-three percent go to high school and the rest enter vocational school.  In the United States, everyone is expected to go to college and vocational education is frowned upon.  An increasing number of students are choosing to go to Community College in order to get vocational training because of the costs of college and the lack of being able to attain employment after attending a 4-year college.
  • ·      Nationally, 46% of teachers leave the profession after five years, and a U.S. Department of Education study found that new teachers who scored the highest on college entrance exams are twice as likely to leave as those with lower scores. (Incompetent Teachers or Dysfunctional Systems? By Ken Futernick ). The Alliance for Excellent Education stated in 2005 that the annual cost of teacher turnover (not including retirements) at nearly $5 billion to recruit, hire, and prepare replacement teachers. And that doesn’t reflect the nonmonetary costs and dysfunction caused by the constant churning of teachers that’s common in low-performing schools. (Alliance for Excellent Education. “Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States.” Issue Brief. Washington, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education, August 2005. ) Finland avoids this by getting the best teachers and giving them tools they need to thrive. It subsidizes the education of would-be teachers, helping to attract bright students who can begin their careers debt-free. It then puts them through a battery of tests, training seminars and internships to make sure that they are ready before they step into the classroom.
  • College is free in Finland.  In the United States, for the 2010–11 academic year, annual current dollar prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board was estimated to be $13,600 at public institutions, $36,300 at private not-for-profit institutions, and $23,500 at private for-profit institutions. Between 2000–01 and 2010–11, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 42 percent, and prices at private not-for-profit institutions rose 31 percent, after adjustment for inflation. (  Students and their parents are expected to pick up the costs of college above and beyond any scholarships that are given.  Student loan debt now exceeds the credit card debt. Student loan debt totals almost $1 trillion, twice what it was in 2007. Auto loan debt totals $783 billion, and credit card debt totals $679 billion. (
  • Teachers in Finland are admired, highly paid and respected. In the United States, teaching is a thankless profession, criticized and vilified by politicians and business people. They are treated as a disposable resource as opposed to a national investment.  They are leaving the field faster than colleges can prepare them.
  • Finnish students do not begin school until age 7.  School activities focuses on socialization and self-improvement rather than academics.
  • Finland doesn’t employ standardized testing or other means to gauge student’s abilities.  Tests are used as a tool to determine what needs to be taught to educators in professional development and to help teachers gauge student growth, never for accountability.
  • Students do not receive grades for their work.
  • Students who do not attend a university can attend “Polytechnics” which teaches them workable, skills in various vocational trades.
  • Finish schools offer free meals to all students.
  • Student learning is supported through a variety of means including mentoring.
  • All Finish teachers must possess a master’s degree.
  • Reformers vilify teacher unions in the United States, stating that they are the ones who wish to maintain the status quo and are responsible for America’s low educational performance.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35.4 percent of U.S. teachers are unionized.  While in Finland, “Nearly all of the teachers are members.” ( Teacher unions do not hire teachers.  Nor do they grant tenure.  If teacher unions were an inhibiting factor than states without teacher unions, like Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi would be the highest performing states instead of Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York and New Hampshire where there is a strong teacher unionized presence. (,

Source:  Ministry of Education and the Finnish National Board of Education,,
Make no mistake about it.  America’s schools need to improve.  Businesses already are operating in the global market. They are going to place where taxes are lower, regulations are not as strict and were workers are well trained and lower paid.  America’s schools must be globally competitive in order to draw back jobs.  But No Child Left Behind and Race for the Top is only producing a nation of test takers.  America prospered and thrived by creativity and innovation. We need workers who are problem solvers and know how to work cooperatively on teams. Not a group who know how to “bubble in” answers.

This is the information that some educational reformers in the United States don’t tell you.  They mine the data looking for America’s poor standing. The OECD admits to margins of errors and has numerous data caveats.  The question is why not?  Why is the funding of education and educators a secondary concern?  If they are going to compare American educators to those in top performing globally competitive schools, then we should be accorded the same respect and salaries.