What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?

Fifteen-year-old students in Finland rank among the brainiest kids in the world, according to standardized test scores — outperforming their American peers by wide margins. In an article today, the Wall Street Journal asks, what makes Finnish kids so smart? A couple of key findings come through: It isn’t the amount of money spent on education. It’s the culture, stupid.

Finland, which has living standards comparable to the United States spends about $7,500 per student compared to $8,700 in the U.S. Finnish teachers get paid about the same. But Finland, population five million, is one of the world’s most homogenous societies. The article doesn’t say this, but I suspect it to be the case: There is much greater pressure for social comformity. When social conformity places a high value on education, that turns out to be a good thing.

Hannele Frantsi, a school principal, sets the tone: “We don’t have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have.” As a people, the Finns love to read. According to WSJ writer Ellen Gamerman, parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Libraries are attached to shopping malls. Book buses road neighborhood streets like the Good Humor truck. Finland also has a drop-out rate much lower than the U.S. — about 4 percent compared to 25 percent.

The Finnish cultural emphasis on education is reflected also in the popularity of the teaching profession. Teaching jobs are highly competitive: More than 40 applicants for a job is not unheard of. While salaries are comparable to the U.S., Finnish teachers generally have more freedom.

Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards. “In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs,” says [Andreas] Schleicher, of the Paris-based OECD.

Bottom line: Finnish teachers feel more invested in their work, and they are given more free rein for creativity. Compare that to the bureaucracy-laden, top-heavy approach to education in the U.S., where teachers function more like cogs in a machine.

When people say spending more money is the answer, look to Finland. When people say paying teachers more money is the answer, look to Finland. The multicultural U.S. may never be able to replicate Finland’s performance in standardized tests — especially when eight percent of U.S. students are learning English as a second language — but it is within our power to slash bureaucracy, put our cash in the classroom, give teachers more freedom and make their jobs more rewarding.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Sorry but the Finland comparison and value as an education model is a bit of a stretch. Finland has a small population and is highly homogeneous, making the spread of common values a lot easier. Finns never had slavery and do not suffer the ongoing debit of what that institution has caused. The U.S. had slavery on a massive scale, then Jim Crow and had to correct the mistakes it made with the resulting, long-lasting underclass of African-Americans who for decades were neglected as a student group. You mention English as a second language, but the numbers just aren’t there. You are thinking Mexican and ignoring the inner city where problems just don’t seem to go away. Want to see: Take a trip to Richmond.

    Finns are wonderful people related to Hungarians who are singularly brilliant. I spent a lot of time in Helsinki. But you might as well be comparing the U.S. to Norway or Sweden or Denmark.

    Peter Galuszka.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Here’s the single most simple thing about NCLB that most folks are either not aware of or don’t want to be aware of or are just plain ignorant of

    .. and that is that NCLB .. REQUIRES that the testing results be broken out into categories.

    Unlike Virginia’s vaunted SOLs which allow each school to essentially hide the disparities by only documenting the aggregate scores across the school population, NCLB – requires the reporting of whites, blacks, economically disadvantaged and english as a second language INCLUDING graduation AND drop-out rates per group.

    And the data clearly and unambiguously demonstrates where the low scores are – and where they are not.

    We have folks jumping up an down about “teaching to the test”, or decrying the lack of creativity and/or advanced academic programs support – but the reality is that our current Education … CULTURE…encouraged by parents who are well off to focus on program that benefit their kids – will and does walk away from kids in disadvantaged circumstances…

    … like it is the kids fault…

    the basic unsaid view is that if kids are born into poor circumstances – it’s tough cookies…

    In not only Finland, but most of the worlds other industrialized countries – the focus is on education for everyone who attends – and this is amply demonstrated by the scores….that comparatively leave this country ranked about 10th if I remember correctly against other industrialized countries.

    The news reports today that as a country, we have more people in prison than any other country in the world.

    Now take a look at who makes up the majority of the prison population. Guess what folks – it’s the same kids, now grown up, that we …choose .. to leave behind with our current Education Culture.

    We take a child in poor parental circumstances; we essentially abandon him.. in terms of education because his parents “are not there” (i.e. bad parental “culture”) .. then he grows up unable to get a decent job… gets involved in illegal drug dealing and eventually ends up .. not in a program to help bring him back – but in prison with veteran hardened violent criminals – even if HIS crime was non-violent.

    .. in the parlance of POGO – we have met the enemy..

    .. except that most of us will not admit it..

    .. and we want to kill NCLB – because it lays out numbers that we don’t want to know about…

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Peter, as a point of information, I base the “8 percent of students learning English as a second language” based upon the WSJ article. I don’t know how many are Mexican, but I expect there’s everything from Spanish to Cambodian, Farsi to Vietnamese in that mix.

    You’re absolutely right about Finland being a homogenous society — I mentioned that in my post as a significant difference from the United States, which as you rightly observe is still grappling with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Thus, I concluded, “The multicultural U.S. may never be able to replicate Finland’s performance in standardized tests.”

    But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from Finland. According to the WSJ, educators from some 50 different countries around the world have visited Finland to see how the schools work so well.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    But Jim,
    You are somehow using the WSJ story on Finland as some kind of conservative platform to say that teachers shouldn’t get raises or have unions. I ought to know what I’m talking about when it comes to teachers’ salaries, since I’m married to one. Sure wish she were a plumber, but frankly, she’s a pretty good teacher and society would suffer if she weren’t doing her job.
    As far as English as a second language, I’m not sure it’s the burden you are making it out to be. A red, Finnish herring on your part.

    Peter Galuszka

  5. Compare Fairfax County against the Finnish averages and tell me who comes out on top.

    Unfair, you say?

    Actually, with a population of 1M, Fairfax County is a lot more comparable to Finland – with a population of 5M. Indeed, we are also nearly as Socialist as Finland.

    Wait a minute ….

    Could it be?

    Liberal / socialist environments create the best educational environments?

    It’s not the money – it’s the liberal attitudes of the people living in the place.

  6. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    Finland is about the scale of, and has many of the characteristics of, a functional New Urban Region.

    See prior post on “real Regional Agencies”

    The US of A could do a lot worse than joining with Canada and Mexico and doing what EU has done to downplay the role nation-states (and “states” / provences) and focus instead on creating Balanced Regions.


  7. Anonymous Avatar

    And one more thing, Jim,

    When you argue that Finnish teachers make less than ones in the U.S., you are leaving something big out. Finland has universal health care. In fact, it probably has to most intensely socialized health care in Europe. So, Finnish teachers don’t have to toss out 35 or more percent of their net income for some for-profit insurance company.

    Am I making a plea for socialized medicine? No, not at all. But conservatives like you can’t have it both ways when they chose examples.

    Peter Galuszka

  8. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Peter, I don’t see how your last comment is germane to my argument. Go back to what I wrote and read it more carefully. I said, “Finland, which has living standards comparable to the United States spends about $7,500 per student compared to $8,700 in the U.S. Finnish teachers get paid about the same.”

    Finnish teachers get paid *the same*, not less than, U.S. teachers. My point was that *raising* teacher salaries, as many suggest is part of the answer in the U.S., may not be the optimal solution. The Finnish example suggests that giving teachers more autonomy may make the profession more rewarding. Is that an inherently *conservative* position?

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    folks – we don’t have SOME Finish students doing better – we have the students of FINLAND doing better.

    That implies a national curriculum and LESS teacher autonomy – not more.

    That’s the problem with the argument about salaries and autonomy that completely ignore the reasons WHY this country scores consistency lower in NATIONAL comparisons.

    Second Point – the homogeneous distinction means what?

    if a nation is more homogeneous then it .. serves as an excuse as to why they do not score well in comparisons?

    hmmm.. what does this ultimately mean with regard to your homogeneous society being able to get homogeneous jobs in a world economy and become homogeneous taxpayers instead of homogeneous inmates.

    I find all of the distinctions as non-germane to the essential fact that students in the US.. Nationally – homogeneous or not – do not stack up against their foreign counterparts – that WILL take the jobs if we don’t perform in this country.

    We’ve become apologists for failure.

    we have a gazillion excuses and no plan to succeed.

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry, It’s too bad I can’t link to the WSJ article. There you’ll find that the article makes a big point how teachers have more freedom in how they teach, although there are also national standards. It’s not clear how Finland reconciles the two.

    In any case, I don’t see how any reasonable person can defend the bureau-sclerotic system of public education in the U.S., which severely curtails teacher freedom.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    There is an article in the most recent (March 14th) “New Republic” that makes the issue that culture is a lot of the equation within the US. It is “Culture of Success” by Brink Lindsey, who quotes from “What Money Can’t Buy”** that “once children’s basic material needs are met, characteristics of their parents become more important to how they turn out than anything additional money can buy.” This article certainly isn’t arguing for less money to be spent on encouraging disadvantaged students to go to college – and neither am I – but it makes a good case that money isn’t the ONLY point. Worth a read but available on-line only to subscribers.

    Three or four years back, I met the mayor of a small WV town at a historical society meeting in Tazewell County. His “day job” was principal of a WV public school and he went on at some length regarding how so many of his students – mainly poor and working-class whites didn’t go on beyond high school. “It just never seems to occur to them that they CAN. That it’s POSSIBLE,” he said. That, I think speaks volumes.

    Growing up in a home and in an atmosphere in which NOT going on to college is unthinkable can’t be over-rated. If a child grows up believing that he must go on to college, he approaches school and learning differently from a child who grows up believing that college is an impossible dream or worse, four more years of dreaded school work.

    Deena Flinchum

    ** Susan E Mayer University of Chicago.

  12. Anonymous Avatar


    The above is the article, Jim. I didn’t see your last post before I did mine.

    Deena Flinchum

  13. Anonymous Avatar


    I’m always shocked and dismayed when I go to friends houses and observe that there is not a book or a bookshelf to be seen. We forget how much culture means to education. it is something you don;t get more of by throwing money at the schools.

    I think one of the green initiatives ought to be to encourage bookshelves on the north side of the house. Even if you don’t read them, they make great insulation and heat mass.


  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “Growing up in a home and in an atmosphere in which NOT going on to college is unthinkable can’t be over-rated. If a child grows up believing that he must go on to college, he approaches school and learning differently from a child who grows up believing that college is an impossible dream or worse, four more years of dreaded school work.”

    I could not agree more.

    The kids who DON’T get this much-needed.. virtually required parental support:

    * – are innocent victims
    * – deserve an equal chance at life
    * – we all benefit when they get it
    * – we all suffer when they don’t

    like it or not, part of education in America, must be the substitute of a surrogate for kids who lack this very important support.

    I know teachers – personally – who give out “hugs” to kids who don’t get them at home. It’s sad but teachers know that someone must “hug” these kids – even if it is not in their official job description.

    We need to recognize that these kids also need more than just “hugs”.

    We can do two important things – as a society and as our personal taxpaying responsibilities

    * – advocate for at-risk kids – insist that we have programs that are effective

    * – offer every at-risk kid – a free college education if they get the grades and make this part of their contract from the time they can understand the connection between grades and rewards.

    there ARE existing programs that do the two things above that have demonstrated rates of success .. much higher than ordinary public schools.

    if we can do this with private schools via vouchers.. I’d favor it.

    but what we’re getting right now with vouchers.. IMHO.. is classic bait and switch..

    the claim that vouchers will support better outcomes for at-risk kids… without specific programs and more importantly – without accountability.

    We need to be serious about – success

    The Fins do it.

    The rest of the industrialized world does it.

    What’s wrong with us?

    Our excuse de-jure apparently is that we have a non-homogeneous society.. that essentially justifies failure – a whopping 25%.. 1/4 of all kids don’t graduate ..much less score well on tests….

    remember when .. our other description of non-homogeneous was the non-pejorative – “melting pot”.. ?

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    Right on the money, Ray. Years ago I stopped giving anything but books to new babies.

    What is also so hard to take is, first, that the children in the homes you describe usually have every video/computer game around etc. so it’s not a case of economics, and, second, that so many of the parents – often college-“educated” haven’t read a book at home in years if not decades. Children learn what they see.

    Every year at Christmas I try to buy books for whatever “Santa” program we have for children here in SW VA.

    When I moved down here from NoVA, I gave the furniture that was still in decent shape to charity. Having ditched the rest, I had 110 boxes of “stuff” to move. I counted 85 of those to be books. Since they were expected to meld with almost an equal number of my husband’s, I have had to cull a bunch out; but we still have a formidable collection. We’re both voracious readers.

    I am thoroughly convinced that a lot – not all, but a lot – of what we call attention deficient disorder and learning disabilities are the results of the fact that children have not been trained to concentrate via reading for entertainment. Too much jumping from this to that on the screen.

    Deena Flinchum

  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: reading vs video games…

    sadly true…

    .. at risk kids.. some of who actually come to school in the winter without coats – all of them have gameboys…

    but guys…. you can’t rewind the world… it is what it is…

    but kids are still kids.. you can still reach them.. young people have a thirst for info.. they just don’t go after it the way that us old fogies grew up being comfortable with…

    you guys… I’m sure are aware of the spectacular success of the military’s use of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).. but were you aware that the best trainees to remotely pilot those planes are… you guessed it.. the kids who were good at gameboys and video games…

    my point is.. that we need to recognize that knowledge is not gained ONLY from the traditional ways.. involving books…

    we are no longer a book world.. we are an information content world … learning still occurs.. but different from what the way that we learned..

    it is OUR DUTY to recognize that the world does not stand still when it comes to educating kids…

    we have to adapt…

    check out classrooms these days.. blacks boards are NOW “smart” boards controlled by laptops.. each kid.. now “learns” by using a keyboard and viewing a screen…

    Deena.. I’d never call you an old dog.. but I suspect you are at the age with that term is applied…

    if you are logging in to the Internet… and using those fingers to tickle a keyboard.. you’re doing a world apart from your parents.. did.. so give kids their due… they’re a world apart from us.. in how they learn…

  17. Anonymous Avatar

    You are missing my point. You are giving a rather knee-jerk conservative view that teacher’s must not have salary raises since it is not the “optimal” solution. Then you use the Finnish example to try to bolster your point. When I point out that this is apples and oranges, given that the social, cultural and economic structure of Finland, is entirel;y different, you say I miss the point. Wonderful if Finnish teachers have more atonomy in the classroom; but then you get into salary issues. When I counter that Finns have a built in advantage, thatthey don’t have to pay big sums for medical insurance as American teachers do. You avoid the universal health care point because, as a conservative, you have nothing to say about it.
    No offense, but I’m not sure you understand how teachers have to operate. In American society, they are treated as a permanent underclass. Teachers generally make less than $40,000 and have to accept less desirable cheaper housing and have fewer other options. Who are you to say that their pay scale is where it should be? I don’t recall you having any great expertise when it comes to education.

    Ditto Finland. I’ve been there many times. Have you been there even once? If your understanding is reading one Journal article and then expecting us all to accept your spinning argument and theory based on that without some push back is rather naive.

    Peter Galuszka

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    Well, Larry, this “old dog” doesn’t take issue with your post regarding how children learn today. Some of us “old dogs” learn in those ways as well. Still nothing that you said precludes their turning off the boxes, sitting down with a book, and reading a couple of hours. Reading adds to the mix, not replaces it.

    Deena Flinchum

  19. As a Finn born, raised, and educated in Finland and now living in the U.S., again educated and raising children here, I’d have lots to say about the issue. Some pertinent points: Finnish people are much more individualistic than Americans as a whole and do their own thing; there are less rules but people abide by the ones there are by common consent, internalized, not by orders; and common good of the country and that of the world at large is generally the guiding light. Exceptions exist, of course, but by and large, all of the above is true at the same time.

  20. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Eeva, I would be very interested to hear your observations contrasting the education you received in Finland with the education that your children are receiving in the United States.

  21. When teachers had more freedom (1970s) and there was LESS emphasis on standardized testing, students fared better. I am glad to be a product of that era… but I watched as things were dumbed down for my much-younger brother’s class and steadily further downward until my kids are in an entirely different environment.

    It amazes me that educational leaders spend more time arguing and preaching rather than analyzing. But I guess they’re all too afraid to back off the strict conservative “solutions” like the one-punishment-fits-all zero tolerance craziness and revert back to that “soft” era…

  22. highly homogeneous

    Why didnn't Norway score well?

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