December 3rd, 2013
12:35 PM ET

What Finland can teach America about education

Fareed speaks with journalist Amanda Ripley, author of 'The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way,' about what other countries can teach the U.S. about education. Watch the video for the full interview.

America is exceptional in many ways. Sadly, secondary education is not one of them. The most recent rankings for the Program for International Student Assessment has American 15 year-olds ranked 14th in reading, 17th  in science and 25th in math, among other developed nations.  Countries like Finland and South Korea always rank near the top.

In a 2011 GPS special, we went to those two countries to see what they were doing differently. Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley went one step further. She followed some American kids as they spent a year abroad in high school in those two countries and in Poland. The results are fascinating. The book is called The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.

Amanda Ripley joins me now. So what did you find about those three countries that struck you? You actually have three models that you say that they represent. What are they?

So, South Korea is the pressure cooker model. The extreme case of what you see all over Asia, where kids are working night and day, literally, under a lot of family pressure, to get very high test scores. Now, South Korea does get those high test scores, but at great cost. So that’s one, the pressure cooker model.

Finland is, in many ways, the opposite extreme of South Korea. Not in all ways, but in some.  And Finland is what I call the utopia model – they've really invested in quality over quantity and the kids are, on average, doing less homework than our kids, but still achieving at the very top of the world on tests of critical thinking and math, reading and science, with very little variation from school to school or from socioeconomic status from one to the other.

And why did you choose Poland?

Poland is the surprise. Poland is an example of the metamorphosis, a country that has a high rate of child poverty and plenty of trouble and trauma in its background, and yet has radically improved its education outcomes over the past 10 years.

So Poland is not yet at the level of Finland or Korea, but a place that shows that there is hope. You know, change happens, even in places with problems. So in a way, looking at Poland is almost like going back in time and looking at Finland and Korea 50 years ago.

Talk a little bit more about the Finland model, because that's the one that's the most intriguing. What makes Finland work? Why are those test scores so high?

It's remarkable to everyone, including everyone in Finland. They can't quite believe it, year after year. One thing that they've done that's very clear and is very unusual around the world is, in the late 1960s, they shut down their teacher training colleges, which were like ours, of highly variable selectivity and quality. And they reopened them in the top eight most elite universities in the land as part of a broader reform of higher education.

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When they did that, it set off a series of cascading consequences that I don't even know that they realized. One thing that happened is the obvious – you eventually have teachers who, themselves, have the advantage of a very strong education, which makes it easier to teach higher order thinking skills.

And they're, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think they draw their teachers from the top 10 or 20 percent of the graduating class. We tend to draw teachers from the bottom third.

Yes. Thank you. We educate twice as many teachers as we need. And in many, many of these colleges, there's a very low bar for entry. So you don't have to have very good grades yourself in order to get in. And that's true around the world, actually. That's very common.

So Finland is unusual.

Finland is unusual, yes, for doing that. But I think what's really surprising about it, and what I noticed when I spent time with kids in Finland, is that the kids pick up on this. So there's a signaling effect, like economists would say, where you know how hard it is to get into teacher training colleges.

And that alone isn't enough, but it sends this message to everyone – the parents, the taxpayers, the politicians and the students – that this is serious, that you are serious about education and that teaching is really hard, not just in rhetoric, but in reality. And so it adds this credibility to the whole enterprise that helps kids buy into the promise of education.

You also point out something about all these countries – and this is true of all three of them – which is, there is almost no sports in the best schools in the world.

Right. Kids play sports, but not in school. It's sort of separate from school – pickup games or community rec centers, but it’s not a part of the core mission of school. This is controversial. I get in a lot of trouble when I talk about this, because Americans love their sports and American kids love their sports. And when I surveyed hundreds of exchange students, you know, they all agreed that sports were more important to their American peers than their peers back home.

But many of them actually really like that. They liked that there was this school spirit and this bonding. The problem is that sports can sometimes, if you don't constantly keep it contained, eat away at the mission of school, which is supposed to be education, right?

So when we are routinely spending two to three times per football player what we spend per math student, when we routinely have teachers leaving to go coach away games and have to bring in substitutes, and we're spending tens of thousands of dollars on buses for the marching band, that's something that should be weighed against the benefit.

It seemed to me, what you really said is that the systems are quite different in all these three countries, the structures are different. The one thing that's true is there's a psychology that says school is hard. You've got to spend a lot of time at it. You've got to work hard. You've got to succeed. And that's missing in America.

It's almost exactly the same attitude many of us take towards sports, towards academics.  It's literally: this is important, there's a big contest at the end, not everyone is going to win. To get better, critically, you have to practice and work harder, you know, and get more help. But you're not innately just bad at math.

So that's a really powerful combination, when you take that intensity on education, when you make it rigorous through highly trained, highly supported teachers and then back it up. Kids know if this is bogus or not.

Did it leave you depressed about America?

No. Actually, oddly, I felt more optimistic when I came back than when I left. I feel like, you know, we have 45 states that have now adopted the common core state standards. Big fights still happening and still to come about that. But those are more rigorous in math and reading, which is much more aligned, particularly in math, with what these countries are doing. It's an obvious first step. Not enough, but exciting that it's even happening in 45 states. I mean that's a huge deal for America.

And I think, you know, more and more people are starting to talk about the quality of our education colleges. To get into education college in Finland is like getting into MIT in the United States. And imagine what could follow if that were true here. I mean you could make a case to pay teachers more, to give them more freedom in the classroom, and to finally give that profession the respect it deserves.

Good luck getting sports out, though.

Yes, forget about that. That's never going to happen.

Amanda Ripley, a pleasure to have you on.

Thank you.

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Topics: Education

soundoff (206 Responses)
  1. Sandra Sandu

    Some eye opening statistics....time for a lot of countries to wake up. Glad i come from Singapore where education levels are
    high and teachers are respected and highly qualified...look forward to more articles.

    July 4, 2014 at 9:43 pm | Reply
  2. Raf Feys

    View of Finnish teachers versus view of Pasi Sahlberg
    Oxford- Prof. Jennifer Chung ( AN INVESTIGATION OF REASONS FOR FINLAND’S SUCCESS IN PISA (University of Oxford 2008).
    “Many of the teachers mentioned the converse of the great strength of Finnish education (= de grote aandacht voor kinderen met leerproblemen) as the great weakness. Jukka S. (BM) believes that school does not provide enough challenges for intelligent students: “I think my only concern is that we give lots of support to those pupils who are underachievers, and we don’t give that much to the brightest pupils. I find it a problem, since I think, for the future of a whole nation, those pupils who are really the stars should be supported, given some more challenges, given some more difficulty in their exercises and so on. To not just spend their time here but to make some effort and have the idea to become something, no matter what field you are choosing, you must not only be talented like they are, but work hard. That is needed. “
    Pia (EL) feels that the schools do not motivate very intelligent students to work. She thinks the schools should provide more challenges for the academically talented students. In fact, she thinks the current school system in Finland does not provide well for its students. Mixed-ability classrooms, she feels, are worse than the previous selective system: “ I think this school is for nobody. That is my private opinion. Actually I think so, because when you have all these people at mixed levels in your class, then you have to concentrate on the ones who need the most help, of course. Those who are really good, they get lazy. “
    Pia believes these students become bored and lazy, and float through school with no study skills. Jonny (EM) describes how comprehensive education places the academically gifted at a disadvantage: “We have lost a great possibility when we don’t have the segregated levels of math and natural sciences… That should be once again taken back and started with. The good talents are now torturing themselves with not very interesting education and teaching in classes that aren’t for their best.
    Pia (EL) finds the PISA frenzy about Finland amusing, since she believes the schools have declined in recent years: “I think [the attention] is quite funny because school isn’t as good as it used to be … I used to be proud of being a teacher and proud of this school, but I can’t say I ’m proud any more.”
    Aino (BS) states that the evenness and equality of the education system has a “dark side.” Teaching to the “middle student” in a class of heterogeneous ability bores the gifted students, who commonly do not perform well in school. Maarit (DMS) finds teaching heterogeneous classrooms very difficult. She admits that dividing the students into ability levels would make the teaching easier, but worries that it may affect the self-esteem of the weaker worse than a more egalitarian system Similarly, Terttu (FMS) thinks that the class size is a detriment to the students’ learning. Even though Finnish schools have relatively small class sizes, she thinks that a group of twenty is too large, since she does not have time for all of the students: “You don’t have enough time for everyone … All children have to be in the same class. That is not so nice. You have the better pupils. I can’t give them as much as I want. You have to go so slowly in the classroom.” Curiously, Jukka E. (DL) thinks that the special education students need more support and the education system needs to improve in that area.
    Miikka (FL) describes how he will give extra work to students who want to have more academic challenges, but admits that “they can get quite good grades, excellent grades, by doing nothing actually, or very little.” Miikka (FL) describes discussion in educational circles about creating schools and universities for academically talented students: 3 Everyone has the same chances…One problem is that it can be too easy for talented students. There has been now discussion in Finland if there should be schools and universities for talented students… I think it will happen, but I don’t know if it is good, but it will happen, I think so. I am also afraid there will be private schools again in Finland in the future … [There] will be more rich people and more poor people, and then will come so [many] problems in comprehensive schools that some day quite soon … parents will demand that we should have private schools again, and that is quite sad.

    Linda (AL), however, feels the love of reading has declined in the younger generation, as they tend to gravitate more to video games and television. Miikka (FL), also a teacher of mother tongue, also cites a decline in reading interest and an increase of video game and computer play. Saij a (BL) agrees. As a teacher of Finnish, she feels that she has difficulty motivating her students to learn: “I think my subject is not the … easiest one to teach. They don’t read so much, newspapers or novels.” Her students, especially the boys, do not like their assignments in Finnish language. She also thinks the respect for teachers has declined in this past generation. Miikka (FL) also thinks his students do not respect their teachers: “They don’t respect the teachers. They respect them very little … I think it has changed a lot in recent years. In Helsinki, it was actually earlier. When I came here six years ago, I thought this was heaven. I thought it was incredible, how the children were like that after Helsinki, but now I think it is the same.
    Linda (AL) notes deficiency in the amount of time available for subjects. With more time, she would implement more creative activities, such as speech and drama, into her lessons. Saij a (BL) also thinks that her students need more arts subjects like drama and art. She worries that they consider mathematics as the only important subject. Shefeels countries such as Sweden, Norway, and England have better arts programs than in Finnish schools. Arts subjects, according to Saij a, help the students get to know themselves. Maarit (DMS), a Finnish-speaker, thinks that schools need to spend more time cultivating social skills.

    August 6, 2014 at 8:21 am | Reply
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