What Makes Finland's Education Top the Charts?

September 7, 2017

Michael Moore has a knack for the heart throb, even with subjects like education policy, which can tend towards mundanity. In Moore's most recent film, Where to Invade Next, he visits Finland to learn about their education model - a seemingly unbelievable mixture of short school days, little to no homework, curricula based on egalitarian principles of self discovery, all accentuated by Finland near the top of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)'s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam (i.e. the international, triennial exam taken by a random cross-section of 15-year-olds' aimed at testing skills in mathematics, science, and reading through asking students to apply theory to problem solving, rather than memorization). 


However, just like Moore's exaltation, when Finland's high rank on the PISA is extolled, it is often used to craft a particular argument for what the rest of the world ought to do or what the US ought to do.  When I have been made aware of a particular piece of Finland's education story be it Finland's rigorously trained, highly paid teacher stock or a stunning facts about its system like students are assigned nearly no homework, it is used to argue for a particular reform program elsewhere, rather than being introduced as a gateway for a systematic review of the contributions to Finland's success.


While I hold no hard feelings towards Moore for doing just this - he is a skilled dramatist of policy, it would misplaced to expect him to get every argument right - I would like to consider whether Finland's beautiful, idealistic education system is the chief instrument in fostering such lofty test scores and can be transplanted (or at least pieces can be transplanted), or if Finland's egalitarian social system and the parents and society that crafted and were crafted by this social system are more responsible for this country's achievement, at least as measured by the PISA. 


Moore crafts the following narrative arch: Finland, once upon a time, prior to the 1972 education reforms called peruskoulu, had average educational outcomes as measured by the PISA comparable to the United States. However, coinciding with the effects of the 1972 education reforms, Finland positively diverged from the US, as Moore shows in the figure below.  


This new system aimed to abolish the strict tracking that begun at 11 and reinforced class divisions. In place, Finland instituted two streams that students choose to take at 16, a vocational track and an academically orientated track. Today after 16, 95% of students opt to pursue one of these tracks. After students finish upper-secondary education, they can take a national exam to enter a university.


Outside of this national exam to enter university, Finland, as Moore emphasizes, is devoid of standardized tests - tests which now account for more than 25 hours of the school year for a typical American 8th grader (this does not even account for the time preparing for the test). See the figure below for the distribution of testing hours by grade level. 


While this fact about standardized testing is a positive lessen and an obvious lesson, it does not explain why Finland stands at the top of the list of average PISA scores by nation (the figure below shows PISA results from 2015, where Finland ranked 4th in reading, 5th in science, and tied in 12th place for math with Denmark). No European country orders the melange of tests that the US commands. Most European countries ask for three high-stakes standardized tests. But not all European nations are situated in the same station as Finland. 

Beyond the lack of testing, Finland is remarkable because whatever it has achieved through education policy has been achieved through unconventional means or, at least, via means that are at odds with the current education trend in the US - e.g. student and teacher centric education; professionalized teachers that are required to go through one of the most selective university tracks, are paid salaries commensurate with such a station, and consequently are allowed an enormous amount of freedom in the classroom; and no school choice, with private education by and large illegal and children required to go to their neighborhood school. Additionally, unlike the  East Asian nations that see comparable PISA outcomes to Finland (again, see the figure above), the culture of Tiger Parents, intensive after school programs, and very long school days do not exist in Finland's education universe. These confluence of facts has drawn so many, like Moore, to exalt Finland.


However, the chief concern of  Where to Invade Next - transporting Finnish policy to the US - what Moore is really after, is if the US had the same income distribution as it has now, the same distribution of family education, the same American expectations and culture, and any and all other factors that contribute to education outcomes, but Finnish institutions, how close would US educational outcomes resemble Finland's? To answer this, we have to understand to what extent Finnish characteristics, independent of their education system, could explain good education results, at least as measured by PISA scores. 


The most obvious piece of evidence that Finland's educational success may be from outside its educational system is looking at per capita income of Finland. Despite having a characteristically expansive Nordic social safety net, growth has not been clearly lessened for equity. Finland has seen steady income growth, leaving income on average comparable to the US (see the figure below). In terms of the typical income of a Finn versus an American, Finn's would out do Americans due to income equality in Finland contrasted with the substantial gap in the US between rich and the poor . For instance, the 20 percent of households in the US that garner highest incomes  earn 8.3 times more than the bottom 20 percent of households. In Finland, by contrast, the analogous statistic is that the top 20 percent earn 3.7 times more than the bottom 20 percent.

There is certainly strong evidence that high income and equality breed positive social consequences that impact education. In Finland, with all families amongst a relatively similar, high standard of living, differences in school quality and the share of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are lessened relative to the US. This is coupled by the fact that there are strict limitations on sending children to private school, making proper management of the school a chief political objective for everyone.


Consider the figure labelled the ‘Effects of students’ and schools’ socio-economic background on student performance in mathematics.’ Countries are assorted by the effect of schools’ socio-economic on PISA scores. Like the other Nordic countries – the countries with the most equitable distribution of students’ test scores as measured by interquartile range in PISA scores – the effect of a school’s socioeconomic makeup explains very little of the variation in Finland’s PISA scores.[1] However, again like the other Nordic countries, variation in the student’s socioeconomic background makeups a larger share of the variation in student test scores.[2] This suggests that the characteristically high level and equitable distribution of socioeconomic may have a large impact on test scores.


Furthermore, the OECD estimates that differences between countries represent only about one-tenth of the overall variation in student performance in the OECD area. Most of the variation in PISA scores in the OECD are therefore outside of the independent effect of the education system. This does not mean that the educational policies in place have no effect. Rather, on average the impact of things that vary across countries, such as family characteristics or income, explain more of the variation than the countries' particular policies. 

Using proxies for family background like the number of books at home and parent's education, when controlling for the school and when not, Freeman, Machin,  and Viarengo (2011) find a strong and significant effect of family background on PISA scores across countries. For example, these authors estimate that independently of the school a child is in, a family with over 200 books in their home would on average have a math score 100 points greater than a child from a household with no books. For perspective, Finland's math scores in 2015 was 511 and the US's was 470. Meaning if in Finland the share of households with many books were substantially higher and if this truly served as a good proxy for whatever impact family has on education as Freeman, Machin, and Viarengo's research suggest it does, than the gap between the US and Finland could easily be explained by parental background. And by chance, Finland has been ranked the most literate country and ranks amongst the highest in Europe in terms of individuals who have read a book in the last year and the number of books read by active readers.

While this certainly not the final word on the subject, nor would anyone be able to craft the final word on this topic unless a random swath of America awoke to the Finnish education model caring for their children. But give that there seems to be strong evidence that most, if not all, of Finland’s success could be explained by the social model that exists outside of the schoolhouse, it may be wise to take the advice of Kevin Drum who writes in Mother Jones that there is a much better education model for the US, that does mean looking to the East Asian. It’s Massachusetts – a state that nearly compares with Finland in terms of PISA scores (see the table below).


“14% of children in Massachusetts live in relative poverty. That’s still below the US average, but much more American-like than Finland. Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has already figured out how to deal with all the existing regulations imposed by the US government. Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has figured out how to cooperate productively with US teachers unions. Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has demonstrated how to get results from US-trained teachers rather than masters holders from Finnish research schools, of which the world only has so many. Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has experienced success teaching real American students who go home every day to be subjected to American parenting styles.”



[1] Interquartile range of the school-level average mean index of economic, social and cultural status for the Nordic countries range from .4 for Sweden and Finland to .42 for Denmark and Norway and .46 for Iceland. 


[2] Now the methodological approach undertaken by the researchers at the OECD is not without faults – the OECD is utilizing proxies to make its index, which could be off. However, the general trend it likely true even if the results shouldn’t be taken as precise.


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