Between the 1970s and the new century, Finland’s education system underwent fundamental change, a transformation illustrated by international test scores. By 2012, the Program for International Assessment (PISA) rated Finland number 6 worldwide in reading and 12 in math. Scores for the United States were 24 and 36, respectively.

“That’s pretty spectacular,” said Linda Hoff, Ph.D., director of the FPU Teacher Education Division. So spectacular that Hoff and Andrea McAleenan, Ph.D., associate professor of business, led a delegation to Finland and Estonia, whose own 2012 PISA rankings were 11 in reading and math.

McAleenan has deep connections in the region. All four of her grandparents came to the U.S. from Finland. When she was the director of the Executive MBA program at UCLA’s Anderson Graduate School of Management, the school conducted an international field study with Finnish multi-national Nokia. Then, in October 2015, McAleenan hosted Marja-Liisa Tenhunen, Ph.D., former rector (president) of the country’s Centria University of Applied Sciences as part of FPU’s “Strengthening the Economy of the Central Valley” business series. “I have been committed to developing a wide array of relationships in both business and the educational community and seeking to be a bridge to foster dialogue between Finland and the United States,” she said.

The FPU delegation also included Darrell Blanks, M.S., M.A., director of multiple subjects; Christopher Brownell, Ph.D., program director, mathematics & STEM education; Gary Gramenz, Ph.D., dean, School of Education; Roberta (Bobbi) Jentes Mason, Ph.D.; professor (retired), single subject; Sharon Merritt, Ph.D., director, Master of Arts in Teaching; Robin Perry, Ed.D., director, single subject credential; and Tiffany Friesen Ylarregui, Ph.D., senior researcher, AIMS Center for Math and Science Education. Between May 12-22 they visited seven cities, five universities, three schools and two government offices.

What did they learn?

  • Teachers are highly valued
    “They have a great trust in teachers,” Hoff said. “The result is that teachers have a great deal of autonomy.” Teachers are also expected to focus on social and emotional learning as well as academic.

  • It’s not easy to become a teacher in Finland
    Teachers are required to earn a master’s degree, and teacher education programs accept only 10 percent of applicants, or less. “Some are down to 2 percent,” McAleenan said.

  • The K-12 curriculum is broad
    Throughout their education, every student attends classes in arts and crafts and music each day and can choose from a wide variety of foreign languages to study. The strong vocational programs are not segregated from academic study.

  • Education is both autonomous and collaborative
    While there is a national curriculum, it is not overly detailed or prescriptive. Instead there is lots of local control and municipalities provide resources rather than top-down control. Teachers also work with parents on plans for individual students, sometimes a school-wide support system, and difference is expected.

  • Equity is a key

    The education across all towns and cities is the same and students are ensured the same quality of learning.

  • Test scores aren’t the answer
    Coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, PISA is an annual test first given when students reach the age of 15. Starting with 30 nations in 2000, PISA is now used by 65 countries worldwide. As spectacular as Finland’s test results are, neither that test nor those more familiar in the U.S. truly measure learning. “They report outputs and outcomes, not the impacts of learning on the lives and minds of learners,” Hoff said.

Perhaps in light of the limits of tests, or maybe because they still see the needs, educators in Finland remain willing to learn, a humility Hoff found very impressive. “I often heard them say, ‘Please don’t assume we’ve got this,’” she said.




Wayne Steffen
Associate Director of Publications and Media Relations