Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
- 10 reasons Finland's education system is the best - Big Think ›
- The plan to change America’s outdated education system - Big Think ›
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- 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.
Foul play?<p>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 a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.