Respect is basic at schools in Finland
New York Times
Apr. 11, 2004
Lizette Alvarez

SUUTARILA, Finland - Imagine an educational system where children don't
start school until they are 7, where spending is a paltry $5,000 a year per
student, where there are no gifted programs and class sizes often approach

A prescription for failure, no doubt, in the eyes of many experts, but in this case a description of Finnish schools, which were recently ranked the world's best.

Last year, Finland topped a respected international survey, ranking first in literacy and in the top five in math and science. Ever since, educators from all over the world have thronged to this self-restrained Nordic country to deconstruct its school system and, with any luck, take home a sliver of wisdom.

"We are a little bit embarrassed about our success," Simo Juva, a special adviser to the Education Ministry, said, summing up the typical reaction in Finland, where boasting and gloating over accomplishments do not come easily. Perhaps next year, he said, Finland will place second or third.

How did they do it?

The question on people's minds is obvious: How did Finland, a country hobbled by a recession in the 1990s, manage to outscore 31 countries, including the United States, in September's review by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development?

The rankings were based on reading, math and science tests given to a sample of 15-year-olds in public and private schools. U.S. students placed in the middle of the pack.

Finland's recipe is, of course, complex and unabashedly basic. It is also similar to that in other Nordic countries. Some of the ingredients can be exported (its flexibility in the classroom, for example) and some cannot (the nation's small, homogenous population and the relative prosperity of most Finns, to name two).

If there is one trait that sets Finland apart from many other countries, it is the quality and social standing of its teachers, said Barry Macgaw, director for education at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

All teachers in Finland must have at least a master's degree, and while they are no better paid than teachers in other countries, the profession is highly respected. Many more people want to become teachers after graduating from upper schools than universities can handle, so the vast majority are turned down.

Popular profession

"Teaching is the Number 1," Outi Pihlman, an English teacher, said about a recent survey asking teenagers to name their favorite profession. "At that age, you would think they would want anything but to go back to school."

Children here start school late on the theory that they will learn to love learning through play. Preschool for 6-year-olds is optional, although most attend. And since most women work outside the home in Finland, children usually go to day care after their first birthday.

At first, the 7-year-olds lag their peers in other countries in reading, but they catch up almost immediately and then excel. Experts say there are several reasons for that: reading to children, telling folk tales and going to the library are cherished in Finland. Lastly, children grow up watching television shows and movies (many of them in English) with subtitles. Nothing is dubbed, so they read while they watch TV.

As long as schools stick to the core national curriculum, which lays out goals and subject areas, they are free to teach the way they want. They can choose their textbooks or ditch them, teach indoors or outdoors, cluster children in small or large groups.

Students must learn two foreign languages (Swedish, by law, and for most, English). Art, music, phys ed, woodwork and textiles are obligatory for girls and boys. Hot, healthy lunches are free. There are computers scattered about the school, and students may attend after-school homework clubs staffed by aides.

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