A Conversation with Finland’s Minister of Education

˙ PREAL Blog

This post is also available in: Spanish

I recently had the privilege of commenting on a presentation at the World Bank by Finland’s minister of education, Krista Kiuru. For me, this was a dream come true. Finland’s much-praised success in providing high-quality education to all students, rich or poor, has prompted policy wonks all over Latin America (and the world) to ask how they did it. Everybody wants to be like Finland.

But the explanations I’ve read have often left me scratching my head. Too many key components were discussed largely as desirable results (e.g. “only the most-talented youths become teachers”) with no explanation of how the Finns managed to make them happen. Some issues that are crucial in Latin America, like how much power teachers unions have, were left out entirely. So I was delighted by the opportunity to raise these issues directly with the Finnish minister of education.

Building on comments I had published on the Finnish education model on PREAL’s blog a couple of years ago, I decided (in the seven minutes allotted me) to suggest some lessons based on Finland’s experience, and then ask some questions—emphasizing issues I thought might be of particular interest to educators in Latin America.

I began by expressing my appreciation for two aspects of the Finnish model:

  1. The emphasis on systemic rather than programmatic reform—which suggests that getting the whole system to function well is key to getting each specific piece to function well. This is important in Latin America, where reformers and governments often fail to attempt systemic reform, preferring instead to concentrate on specific programs, like modernizing the curriculum or revamping in-service teacher training. The impact of these programmatic reforms is often subverted by failures and deficiencies elsewhere in the education system. Finland, however, started its reforms decades ago by establishing a vision for the entire system and then set about to implement it.
  2. Emphasis on going beyond reading, math and science to include creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and other non-cognitive skills. Educators are increasingly realizing how crucial these “soft” skills are to personal success, and how far behind poor children often are in acquiring them. But the emphasis on non-cognitive skills, apparently a central part of Finnish schools, is only beginning to emerge in the education policy debate in Latin America.

In response, Minister Kiuru stressed the importance of taking a systemic approach. She pointed out that Finland decided to establish a truly universal education system, where all students attend the same kind of school, and receive the same quality of education. This comprehensive common school would have a core curriculum from kindergarten through high school, and would not separate students into academic and vocational tracks. A fundamental objective was to promote equality; every school was expected to be a good school, include all kinds of students, and give everyone the opportunity to reach the university. Perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that private schools (as we know them in the U.S and Latin America) are not permitted. All schools are publically funded and prohibited from charging tuition. A small group of “private” schools exist but are private only in the sense that they may add to the national curriculum elements that might be of interest to certain groups, such as religious instruction, specific pedagogical techniques or teaching in a foreign language like English, Swedish or Russian. But all of these schools (which comprise just two percent of enrollments) are publicly funded, and none charge tuition.

Minister Kiuru acknowledged the importance of non-cognitive skills in the Finnish system, but did not elaborate on how those skills are transmitted, and what policies have been adopted to promote them.

I then suggested three lessons that might be drawn from Finland’s experience, and asked the minister whether she agreed.

My first lesson was that good teaching requires good policy, and does not happen by chance. I suggested that Finland has deliberately established a set of teacher policies designed to guarantee that every student has a good teacher. These include:

  • High standards for entry into the profession,
  • Recruiting teachers from the top 25% of the talent pool,
  • Requiring extensive training, including a graduate degree,
  • Training in pedagogical techniques and in pedagogical content knowledge,
  • Providing teachers with the ability to diagnose learning difficulties,
  • A year of clinical experience before entering the profession,
  • Supervision of novice teachers by a master teacher,
  • Annual in-service training.

The minister agreed that policy in Finland deliberately and systematically sets high standards for becoming a teacher, requires extensive training, emphasizes clinical experience and provides substantial support to teachers once they begin work. Providing all students with highly competent teachers is a key part of Finnish education policy.

My second lesson from Finland is that student assessment is crucial to making sure students learn. Although Finland has not historically had an external, national system of standardized tests, it has instead developed a classroom-based student assessment model. Teachers are expected to devise their own student assessments. They generate large amounts of data that enable them to know how much their students are learning, and identify those who are lagging behind. An important part of Finland’s success depends on having a robust system of student assessment.

Minister Kiuru agreed that Finland places a strong emphasis on student assessment. On the one hand it does not really believe in standardized testing. The only national standardized test is at the end of upper secondary school. But on the other hand Finland places a great deal of emphasis on non-standardized testing. Teachers are required to test their students all the time to determine how they are doing. I found this fascinating because it places so much responsibility on each individual teacher, and suspect it can only work in systems that, like Finland, recruit the best and the brightest to become teachers. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to discuss what those assessments look like and how they operate.

My third lesson was that accountability is a key part of the Finnish model. Although some analysts suggest that accountability is not central to the Finnish model, there is in fact lots of accountability in Finnish schools. But it is accountability of a particular kind. Teachers have a strong sense of individual responsibility for making sure all their students learn, and schools feel a similar sense of collective responsibility for the success of all students. It is, however, not clear to me how this kind of accountability works, and I suggested at least two explanations:

  • The peer pressure model. Accountability is primarily to peers. Any teacher (or school) whose students fall behind would be so humiliated in front of others that they do all they can to make sure their students learn. The fact that the Finnish system is highly decentralized, with substantial power and responsibility devolved to the municipal and school levels, increases the pressure on teachers and schools to produce. No one wants to let their colleagues, team or community down. Peer pressure is a powerful form of accountability.
  • The Jesuit model. If you recruit the smartest and most idealistic youths to become teachers, they bring with them a deep sense of professional responsibility, and will do what’s right without much external oversight. Many organizations rely at least in part on this model. In it, people are accountable in important ways to themselves (or perhaps to God). But it’s a form of accountability, and it works.

Whether the mechanism is peer pressure or commitment to a higher good, I argued that Finnish students do well in part because teachers and schools are held, or hold themselves, accountable for their success.

Minister Kiuru agreed that teachers are accountable but did not say much about the details. She seemed to feel that, given the high standards for entry into the profession, and the strong system-wide emphasis on making sure all children learn, teachers “must be accountable” and therefore need only minimal supervision and evaluation.

I then asked two questions.

First, How does Finland manage to attract teachers from the top 25% of the talent pool? In Latin America, teachers come from the bottom 25%. What does Finland do differently? Obviously it’s not because salaries are high. Everything I have read suggests that teachers’ salaries in Finland fall in the middle of the range. I suggested three possible explanations:

  • Raising the bar for entry into teaching has raised the prestige of the profession, making it more attractive to talented, achievement-oriented youths. Teaching has become an exclusive, merit-based club.
  • The promise of substantial professional autonomy and responsibility attracts higher-quality applicants. Top people want to be treated as professionals and not as blue collar workers.
  • Merit pay attracts talented, achievement-oriented youths (in fact, I have no idea whether Finland offers merit pay).

The minister did not really address these explanations, except to say that teachers are “not paid really well,” and that opinion surveys show that young people prefer a profession that is interesting to one that pays a lot of money. She pointed out that many distinguished government, political and business leaders began their careers as teachers. I wondered whether teaching has been a highly regarded profession for so long in Finland that it is difficult, particularly for Finns, to identify what the key explanations might be. My own impression is that high standards for entry into the profession and the promise of professional autonomy (which is clearly substantial in Finland) act over time to attract much more talented applicants to the teaching profession.

Second, Why aren’t teachers unions a problem in Finland? They are, of course, a major problem in most Latin American countries (the notable exception being Cuba). They shut down entire school systems with national strikes, and resist efforts to raise standards and to evaluate teacher performance. They can do this because they have a lot of legal and political power. Do teachers unions in Finland have that kind of power? For example, can they require that all teachers join the union? Negotiate national salary agreements? Call a national strike? Can municipal governments, or even individual schools, decide which teachers to hire? Can teachers be dismissed? If so, can that be done by a school or a municipal government?

The minister responded only to a few of these questions. She said that teachers unions have considerable power, and that the only way to survive is to get them on board with policy decisions. She consults regularly with the head of the national teachers’ union. She also said that this is a “two-way street”, and that she “can demand” and “can fight back”. She noted the long tradition of cooperation in Finnish society. She said that local authorities have the power to dismiss teachers if necessary. Perhaps most interesting, she said that teachers unions “make common negotiations with local authorities that are paying their salaries,” giving me the impression that they cannot negotiate a national salary contract. If negotiations are at the municipal rather than the national level, teachers unions would not be able to shut down large school systems—a power that they commonly have in Latin America.

The conversation with the minister was only 90 minutes, and there really wasn’t time to go into all the detail I might have wished. I came away with a greater appreciation for Finland’s accomplishments in education, and for the power of a system based on recruiting top-quality professionals and giving them huge amounts of autonomy, but surrounding them with a formal, system-wide commitment to quality and equality. I also suspect that there are many more important aspects of the Finnish model that we did not discuss. Less clear to me, however, is whether any country in Latin America is currently in a position to adopt and implement the Finnish education model. The Finns themselves point out that it took several decades of sustained effort to raise quality and reduce inequality.

And I’d still like to know how much power teachers’ unions have in Finland.

A video of the conversation is available here.

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