Why the U.S. can’t replicate Finland’s educational success

Finland's educational system was driven by a culture that supports a strong social contract, one the United States currently lacks.

Why the U.S. can’t replicate Finland’s educational success
A teacher giving rulers to children of the second grade (8 years old) in a primary school in Vaasa, on their second day of school in Finland. (
OLIVIER MORIN
/ Getty Images)
  • Finland's success on international student assessment tests have left many wondering if the United States should adopt its education policies.
  • However, Finland's educational system developed from a culture that maintains education as a fundamental right; the United States lacks such an acknowledgement.
  • Unless the United States undergoes a drastic reassessment of its social contract, meaningful education reform will likely remain out of reach.

Can the United States replicate Finland's educational success? No.

When people triumph Finland's education system, they enumerate a laundry list of reforms aimed at radically altering the country's scholastic approach: no homework, no standardized tests, teacher autonomy, and children beginning compulsory school later. Finland's success should be praised. Its education system should be studied for what empirical data it may yield.

But underlining discusses of Finland's education system is a subtext that if the U.S. transfers these practices, it too can see its international test scores rise from the middling ranks. This view misses an important point: Finland's educational success was driven by a culture with a strong, unifying social contract. The United States simply lacks such a social contract.

Finnish educators are among the first to make this point. As education expert Pasi Sahlberg said during a lecture to the Sandford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education:

I'm not trying to convince people that if they follow what Finland is doing, things will be good. All the education issues and reforms are done specifically to the culture and should be done locally. I'm very much aware that America is very different culturally. I'm trying to tell what we've been doing and use Finland as real-world evidence.

If the United States is to make education reform, it must first look to reassessing its cultural assumptions and priorities.

Education: a right or a privilege?

(Photo: Andy Blackledge/Flickr)

In 1919, Finland enshrined educational provisions as a right. Section 16 of the country's constitution states unequivocally: "Everyone has the right to basic education free of charge" and this right guarantees citizens "the opportunity to develop themselves without being prevented by economic hardship."

The United States' constitution does not make such a promise to its citizens. True, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has established some parity within the education system, but this interpretation of the text has been held up in the courts, most famously in Brown v. Board of Education and Plyler v. Doe. It does not specifically name education as a right, nor is such a right listed anywhere else in the Constitution.

Because of this wording, the Supreme Court ruled in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez that education is not a fundamental right. America's public education system persists because of a patchwork of federal and state laws and institutions, not as a cohesive, universal goal for the society.

As Stephen Lurie, former research and policy advisor at the National Network for Safe Communities, writes, "Each of the countries ahead of the U.S. has a fundamental commitment in common, one that the [sic] America doesn't: a constitutional, or statutory, guarantee of the right to education. By centralizing education as a key focus of the state, these countries establish baseline requirements that set the frame for policy and judicial challenges, as well as contribute to what [a] Pearson report calls a 'culture' of education […]."

Lurie further notes that the U.S. has turned a blind eye to such responsibilities internationally, as well. The country has yet to ratified 13 of the 18 International Human Rights Treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, among other statutes, mandates the right to education.

Funding education

​In Finland, educational funding is provided by the government and is distributed much more evenly. It is tied to neither a school's rank nor its status, but its need.

Contrary to popular belief, there are private schools in Finland, and around 2 percent of students attend one. However, Finnish private schools are a different breed. They may not charge fees, receive state funding comparable to public schools, and are prohibited from selective admissions.

This is not the case in the U.S. Another effect of San Antonio v. Rodriquez was the legal precedent that unequal school funding does not violate the Constitution. Private schools may charge tuition fees and engage in selective admission. Public schools — which are financed by state and local government, mostly through property taxes — may see their funds diverted to private schools. And while the federal government doesn't technically fund education, it does offer grants to states, but these grants are tied to test scores and attendance records.

The result is lopsided educational funding where schools of plenty can provide more and better opportunities. A 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that such inequalities "harm students subject to them" and are "fundamentally inconsistent with the American ideal of public education operating as a means to equalize life opportunity, regardless of zip code, race, economic status, or life circumstance."

The report points directly to the San Antonio v. Rodriquez ruling as granting some states and cities the loophole necessary to continue discriminating against students of color in their funding policies. It calls for Congress to "make clear that there is a federal right to a public education."

Teachers in Finland's education system

In Finland, teachers receive high levels of training from much coveted educational programs. By the time they enter the classroom, most hold a master's degree. They also continue to participate in professional development throughout their careers. The result is an educational force steeped in the science of teaching, drawn from such thinkers as John Dewey.

The United States also has very gifted, well educated teachers. The difference is cultural esteem. In Finland, teachers are highly regarded and paid very well.

"When we compare teachers to other professions in society, we compare them to lawyers or doctors or architects," Shalberg said during his lecture. "Not as [in the United States], where they are compared to nurses or therapists, or something like that, that require lower academic training."

In the United States, teachers aren't disrespected, and few would think to disparage the profession in a public way. Yet, American teachers do have to struggle against the country's zeitgeist of aggressive anti-intellectualism.

Professor Aldemaro Romero Jr. cites anti-intellectualism as persisting these all-too-familiar aspects of American discourse: tribalism, xenophobia, intolerance to dissent, fear of progress, and the invention of falsehoods to counter unwelcome facts (to name a few). All of which are counterproductive to educational practices.

"It is time for those of us involved in higher education in this country to recognize that there is a long shadow being cast on our institutions," writes Professor Romero Jr. for the Edwardsville Intelligencer. "Because the characteristics mentioned above to fight anti-intellectualism with reason are naive. We need to become smarter in the use of media to get our message across. But what is the message? That higher education makes us richer and happier."

A statement that, of course, holds true for all levels of education.

Education and stewardship

Finally, Finland views education as a stewardship of students. The Finnish National Agency for Education's stated goal is "to support pupils' growth towards humanity and ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed in life." As such, Finnish students enjoy a much more free-form education, with broader autonomy in how they approach learning as they advance.

Finnish upper-secondary students, for example, can choose between general education or vocational training, but may engage in both as needed to fulfill their scholastic and career goals. The country's education system also limits scholastic cul-de-sacs so citizens, even adults, can reengage with education as needed in their lives.

Larger populations in the United States, in contrast, see educators not as supporters of students but the "molders of young minds," a phrase that has an authoritative quality to it. Student deemed troublesome early in life have difficulty reengaging in formal education thanks to the U.S.'s one-shot approach. Parents insist on their right to teach children creationism, not the child's right to learn practical, useful science. American politicians write educational goals aimed at making students competitive exam takers and workers in tomorrow's global marketplace, not goals like self-actualization.

"Education must move beyond the current focus on training to benefit others and only incidentally benefiting youth," writes Roger J.R. Levesque, a professor at Indiana University. "Education must enrich their lives essentially, not incidentally, by empowering them to accomplish their own ends and fulfill their potential. If this is what should be meant when we speak of educational rights, reform must take a radical turn."

Redefining a social contract

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It is true that Finland and the United States are very different countries. Finland is roughly the size of Minnesota and holds fewer people than New York City. It's relatively homogenous when compared to the United States' cultural heterogeneity.

But these differences aren't the main reasons the United States can't replicate Finland's educational system, nor its success. That is because the American social contract simply doesn't value education in the same way.

The next question then: Can Americans gather the massive political, cultural, and social unity it would take to reverse such a long-standing trend? Maybe, but it seems unlikely in contemporary America, and it has a history of punting such difficult discussion onto future generations.

The country began with a fissure between the Federalists versus the Anti-Federalists, a debate that enjoys a through-line down to today's political polarization. Its productive social change continues to be shackled to religious fundamentalism. Its education system is divided among more than 50 constitutional rulebooks with different view on what constitutes necessary funding, higher education, religious restrictions, and how to assist the disabled. Heck, Alabama's constitution still incorporates segregation as an educational mandate. (Yes, that law is trumped by federal law, but that doesn't change the fact that ballot measures to remove the language were struck down in both 2004 and 2012.)

As for America's virulent anti-intellectualism, David Niose sums it up succinctly: "What Americans rarely acknowledge is that many of their social problems are rooted in the rejection of critical thinking or, conversely, the glorification of the emotional and irrational."

And this is why the current answer to the question, can the United States replicate Finland's education system? is no. If the United States wants true, lasting, and beneficial educational reform, it will need to fully engage with its own social contract, not copy another' country's generous recess policy.

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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