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Consistently retaining its spot at the top of international testing standards, Finland's education system attracts many foreign observers each year who hope to better understand what makes this humble system so effective. "Finnish schools don’t promote competition. There are no marks given for the first few years of a student’s schooling, and no national exams conclude the school year. 'It’s up to them to decide if they do their homework,' says Zakik, the teacher. Teaching expert Mikko Myllykoski says that other countries place too much importance on tests. 'The secret is freedom.' And yet, results count."

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The Finnish system spends about one-quarter less money per pupil than the American system, yet student achievement remains high. "Finland has no diamonds, no oil, no coal. So our politicians decided that we had to invest in human capital." said teacher Ritva Semi. It may be the high social status afforded to teachers of all levels that attracts committed and talented individuals to the profession: "They trust us," says Omaia Zakik, who teaches French and English to teenage students in Espoo, Finland’s second city. "We have a lot of freedom in the way we teach. I chose the textbooks and the methodology. Nobody controls what I do," she said.

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