Finland is doing something really, really right with their schools, yet the U.S. education system is either ignoring what Finland is doing, or is incapable of seeing the value in what they are doing. I suggest we Americans take a moment and consider three key points in Finland’s approach.

In “quality of life” global surveys, out of all the countries in the world Finland ranks #1. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey, which compares 15 year olds from 18 different countries in reading, math, and science, ranks Finnish students at the top as well. Since 2001, they have either been ranked 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. PISA performance for U.S. students has been middling at best.


So what gives in Finland? Here are three keys to keep in mind.

1)  Finland is an education superpower because it values equality over excellence.
When Finland recognized in the 1970s that they had to fix their schools they decided to create an education system that worked for all of its citizens, and especially their children. Today there are hardly any private schools in Finland, and those that do exist cannot charge tuition. Their goal was not to focus on choice, but on equity; not on competition, but on cooperation.

2)  They view learning as a constructive process.
Finnish schools assign less homework and schedule more creative play. Except for a national matriculation exam at the end of high school, there are no standardized tests. Periodically, some tests are given to sample groups, but these tests simply provide a snapshot of how their education system is doing in specific content areas.

3)  There is no word for accountability in Finnish.
No wonder the Finnish approach to education is going completely over the heads of Americans. We are obsessed with accountability, and because of this we are always on the lookout for a strategy to keep track of performance and then apply the right carrot or stick as needed. Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, during an interview at Teachers’ College of Columbia University, when asked about accountability, shrugged as he pointed out that “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish.” He then explained that “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”


From a choice theory perspective there is so much here to think about. Equity over choice might alarm some, but think about the implications of this emphasis. Their goal is to have 100% of their schools be the kind of school that any student would want to attend. In America we don’t work to create excellent schools for all students, but then we use the idea of “choice” to wiggle out of this level of responsibility. We stress competition, even as the “playing field” heavily favors those with money. And no word for accountability? How can that be? As I have thought about it I have come to see the external control nature of accountability. Accountability is monitoring performance so that an external reward or punishment can be strategically applied.

I suppose that accountability does not have to be a bad word. Glasser used the word responsibility a lot to begin with, but then retreated from it when he saw how teachers were using it to pressure kids. He didn’t have good feelings about the word motivate either. He thought that it conveyed the idea of one person applying some sort of external stimuli to get another person to behave in a certain way. Maybe accountability is a similar kind of word. Maybe, though, there is a way to use it appropriately; may it can be used in a way that doesn’t attempt to control people. If we do like the concept of accountability we will need to be vigilant. External control can be so tempting.

Apparently, the Finns don’t have the word accountability in their dictionary. I wonder how we can get it out of ours.


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Today’s blog was based on an article in The Atlantic (Dec. 29, 2011) by Anu Partanen titled What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. There have been many other articles touting Finland’s school system since then.