What it takes to cross the Finnish line: it takes more than we've been led to believe

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Pasi Sahlberg's new book Finnish Lessons has garnered considerable attention, ours included. That Finnish schools lead the pack in student outcomes is not news, but Sahlberg's thorough examination of the historical and cultural framework behind the Finnish system makes for compelling reading for anyone wondering whether U.S. schools could achieve similar success.

Historically speaking, two key developments of the last 40 years help account for Finland's current educational progress--and believe it or not, they are not well known in spite of all the fawning over Finland.

First is the development in the late 1960s of the peruskoulu, or comprehensive school serving students aged 7 to 16, that replaced primary, grammar and civic schools. Second, and of more interest to us, teacher education was overhauled in the late 1970s. Teacher colleges were literally shut down, replaced by the now highly renowned competitive teacher preparation programs housed in only eight Finnish universities. In fact, it is no longer possible to become a teacher in Finland without a master's degree (kindergarten teachers excepted), a reform other Nordic nations elected not to require as they undertook an equally comprehensive set of reforms --and albeit perhaps coincidentally, haven't seen the same results.

Sahlberg details the substantial differences between the context of education in Finland and that in other industrialized nations. Finnish schools do not have to contend with the high rates of childhood poverty that many U.S. schools do. Finnish students tend to arrive at peruskoulu with strong literacy skills, not just because of the lack of poverty, but because 98 percent of all children are enrolled in preschool. Interestingly, Finnish public schools are locally controlled and funded, but there are virtually no private or charter schools competing with them for students.

It's clear, though, that the most important factor in Finland's recent successes is the strength of its current teacher corps. Only the top 10 percent of the college-going population is accepted into its rigorous teacher preparation programs. As a result, being a teacher confers a great deal of prestige: Finns think having a teacher as a spouse is at least as good as marrying a doctor or lawyer. Finland grants its teachers the autonomy to build out the National Curricular Framework and execute lessons of their own design. What is most striking is that even though Finns have eschewed annual standardized tests for students, there is very little variation in performance among schools. Competition is replaced with collaboration, accountability with responsibility.

Finnish Lessons provides insight into the historical context which underlies Finland's educational success. It sounds too good to be true, and for countries that lack the same degree of social capital, it may well be. Nonetheless, there's no doubt that all nations could benefit from taking some pages from Finland's play book.