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Posted on Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 4:30 p.m.

What Finland can teach Michigan about teacher performance and student attitude

By Rick Haglund

My great-grandfather was among tens of thousands of Finnish immigrants who came to Michigan in the late 1800s looking for brighter economic futures.

But had he been a young man in Finland today, he likely would have stayed home.

Finland regularly ranks among the top countries in the world in economic competitiveness. It’s also the third-happiest country in the world, according to (The United States ranks 10th.)

Forbes described the Finns’ formula for success this way:

“Excellent education, universal health care, plentiful personal freedoms, trusted government, peaceful. Lots of R&D and low business startup costs give the Finns economic strength.”

Finland’s public education system, in particular, is the envy of much of the world. Fifteen-year-old Finns posted the highest science scores and the second-highest reading scores among students from 50 countries in the most recent Program for International Student Assessment tests.

U.S. students ranked 19th in science and 15th in reading.

Are there lessons in these results for Michigan, where hot debates rage over reforming education and developing better teachers?

Yes, although adopting the central elements of Finland’s education system would be difficult, even in a state with a Finnish heritage.

Per-pupil spending, generally less than in the United States, is roughly level across the country. (The Finns are big on redistribution of wealth.) There are few standardized tests.

Finnish children don’t start school until the age of 7, but parents of newborns get a gift pack from the government that includes a picture book. Reading is encouraged at a young age. College is free.

But experts say the hallmark of the Finnish education system is the quality of the teachers and the respect the profession commands.

All teachers in Finland must hold master’s degrees. They have a great deal of educational control in choosing textbooks and customizing their lessons to meet national standards. Competition for teaching jobs is intense.

“Being a teacher over there is a prestigious occupation,” said Terry Monson, dean of the International School of Business at Finlandia University in Hancock in the Upper Peninsula. “It’s not just a matter of throwing money at teachers; it’s getting the right people to do the job.”

Teacher pay in Finland isn’t especially high, although a 2008 study found the gap between the pay of elementary teachers and other occupations requiring a college degree was much narrower than in the United States.

Finnish teachers were paid 13 percent less than other college graduates, while teachers here earned 40 percent less, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But universal health care and good pensions afford Finnish teachers a high standard of living.

Different attitudes about parenting in Finland — a small, homogeneous, generally safe country — also could factor into its educational success.

Children are expected to be more self-reliant, both in and out of the classroom.

My friend Brian, an American who’s been living in Finland for the past few years, says in most families both parents work, so latchkey kids are common. It’s not considered to be detrimental.

“Kids are just taught at a young age that they are expected to pitch in and help,” Brian told me in an email. “This attitude extends to the classrooms, where older kids often help teach younger kids, and smarter kids in the same grades are expected to help those that are struggling.”

Finns, my friend says, generally don’t view self-reliance and government investment in public services as being mutually exclusive, as Americans often do.

That may be Finland’s most powerful competitive advantage.

Email Rick Haglund at



Sat, Mar 26, 2011 : 11:02 a.m.

Let's see Finland: 1) One of the most difficult countries to immigrate to, right now according to the Finish Immigration service there are approximately 5,000 applications in process, the oldest of which goes back to 2005. 2) VAT (similar to sales tax) is only 23 percent - so everything you buy has a built in 23% tax 3) Other taxes are: "In 2011 the income tax rate (national tax) for an individual is between 6.5%-30%. In addition to direct taxation there is also municipal tax in Finland. This tax is payable by an individual on his or her income and it fluctuates between 15% - 20% depending on the municipal authority. Church tax of 1%- 2% is also payable." Note the church tax (which is mandatory). 4) Knee and Hip replacement waiting times are between 6 months and a year. Other reconstructive surgery can take up to 5 years.


Fri, Mar 25, 2011 : 3:54 a.m.

This is a very poor comparison. Finland only has a population of a little over five million people while the USA has approximately 310 million residents, many of whom do not even speak the language. However, facts such as this are like kryptonite to your average liberal.


Fri, Mar 25, 2011 : 1:20 a.m.

The problem with the US is that too many follow the infallible words of the Pope ( Pope limbaugh ). Really people - don't you think the pope could be wrong once in a while.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 8:08 p.m.

There's an interesting film about Finnish education. The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System View the trailer at <a href="" rel='nofollow'>;hd=1</a>


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 6:40 p.m.

So what's holding up implementation of the Finish Educational System (the whole system, not just the cool parts)? Its a performance driven system, so some children and parents here will not be able to sidestep their responsibilities. No more Gap, Diversity, or Iintegration detours. No reason not to apply it to Ann Arbor or Washtenaw county schools as a grand experiment. However, comma, I think most of us know why it would never work here, not even the juicy parts. The hurtful notion that little Rembrandt and BritKnee have been branded as 'vocational' would be too much for their raindeer hearding parents. Free lunch and 'pay for your own books' is a cool idea, though...


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 3:51 p.m.

It is pleasant to live in friendly Scandinavia…but very expensive due to the heavy hand of socialism. Although test scores may be high in comparisons, they lack basic working skill sets that we gain through multicultural schooling and working in competitive market places. They tend to be more theoretical, rather than experienced. The quality of business and manufacturing processes are more like plodding Russia's than the free there is a quality driven country.

David Briegel

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 4:44 p.m.

At the very least we could learn from the Russian experience of limiting the power of the Oligarchs. Teddy Roosevelt could accomplish that but not modern America. Wouldn't be prudent!?


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 4:34 p.m.

How do you explain Nokias and Stora Enso's place in The Market then? Are we talking about Scandinavia or Russia? I thought it was Scandinavia in general, Finland in particular. I notice that whenever a successful mix of socialism/capitalism is being discussed somebody always wants to talk about Russia, not what we can learn from successful countries. Sweden is not Cuba, Finland is not Russia, Norway is not Burma. Although, if we want to talk about Russia, I guess we could talk about their capitalist failures and use that as evidence that Capitalism must not work, as it does not seem to function very well in Russia at the moment.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 3:17 p.m.

This was a great article! If we gave all of the Illegals in the US and those who want to come to the US and everyone else who is unhappy in the US, tickets to Finland everybody would be happier! After all, Finland has better education,jobs, government and treats ILLEGALS better also I am sure.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 3:20 p.m.

Good thought, I was thinking that if we sent away everybody that was opposed to &quot;Obamacare&quot;, Medicare, Social Security and unions to say, Iraq or Sudan where the Free Market is less encumbered by a pesky government.? What say you XMO? If you don't like it...leave! Right?


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 3:08 p.m.

Norway has a high rate of entrepreneurship, as do other Scandinavian socialist countries I believe. They also tend to have more rural communities which means fewer large factories to employ large groups of people because they are so spread out. This leads to what the cons tell us is good for society, small business growth. What is really funny about the ideologues is that they tell everyone to learn from them, their hard work, education etc, but are TOTALLY unwilling to look to other places to see if we can learn from them. Lots of places do things better than we do at many levels, why not look to see what we can learn? Oh, right Americans are right every time, simply by birthright evidently. Look at the happiness levels, look at the whining our residents exhibit daily here and on other blogs. The Whining nightly/daily 24 hours on talking head shows. Does Finland have a Beck/Rush/Maddow problem? A mix of socialism/capitalism works for hundreds of millions of people around the world, Scandinavia, Japan, China(with a dose of authoritarianism to keep their Tea Parties and unions in check!) Pretty much shows that the clarion call that all socialism leads to Killing Fields and economic stagnation is a bunch of hooey.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 1:54 p.m.

The reason Finland has these 'benefits' is due to the crazy high taxes people there pay. For those with an income of greater than 66k euros: 30% federal income tax 20% municipal tax 2% church tax 8.5% pension, social security This leaves less than 40% of a person's gross earnings after taxes! Also, don't forget the 20+% tax paid by employers for pension and social security. Ever wonder why little of value ever comes from Finland? It is because the people are so heavily taxed that there is zero incentive to work hard as all of that extra effort simply flows into the government's coffers.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 3:16 p.m.

oops, facts!! Notable companies in Finland include Nokia, the market leader in mobile telephony; Stora Enso, the largest paper manufacturer in the world Neste Oil, an oil refining and marketing company; UPM-Kymmene, the third largest paper manufacturer in the world; Aker Finnyards, the manufacturer of the world's largest cruise ships (such as Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas)

David Briegel

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 3:02 p.m.

&quot;little of value comes from Finland&quot;? &quot;all of that extra effort simply flow into the govt's coffers&quot;. A democratically elected govt of the people and for the people. Imagine? A civilized nation that doesn't bother it's neighbors or play policeman to the world! PRICELESS!!


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 2:58 p.m.

If we factor in what Americans pay in health care expenses, what we pay for college for ourselves and kids it comes out to be just under what evil socialists pay in taxes. I look at the savings rate as a good comparison of who is managing to keep the most out of paychecks.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 12:53 p.m.

Rick, what percentage of Finnish students are black or Asian or Latino? How many have immigrated into Finland from a country with a different native language in the past year? How do teachers gain entry into the teaching profession?


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 12:52 p.m.

So, Rick, what should we take away from this article? Are you suggesting that we adopt universal health care which will reduce costs for businesses and individuals alike and extend medical care to those not receiving it now? I hope so. And should we honor our teachers and pay them their value while perhaps creating competitiveness so we get the best trained and most motivated teachers? I hope so. And should we give more attention to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder since raising them up will only elevate this country as a whole? I hope so.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 12:33 p.m.

Rick: thanks for an excellent piece that gives some real context to the U.S. education debate. Conservatives on this site: thanks for great amusement as we watch you stumble with incoherent explanations in the face of this data.

Kai Petainen

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 5:03 a.m.

One word -- Sisu. The Finn in me... says 'sisu'. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>

Tony Livingston

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 2:31 a.m.

I have read that the poverty rate in Scandinavian countries is around 3 % while in the U.S. it is around 21%. That alone explains a lot. When our test score are measured, all of the students' scores are thrown in together. If we measured only the middle and upper class students I have no doubt the scores would be just as good.

David Briegel

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 3:05 p.m.

Yeah, Tony, If only we could get rid of the poor and disadvantaged from our society. What a Utopia America would be!


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 2:19 a.m.

In Ann Arbor, on the other hand, any of the &quot;best and brightest&quot; who want to be teachers are passed over in favor of sons, brothers, daughters, sisters, etc. of current Ann Arbor teachers or principals. Nepotism: your tax dollars at work.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 1:50 a.m.

And..."Being a teacher over there is a prestigious occupation," I used to feel that way about how I was valued as a teacher, but right now I feel beat up on and vilified. At this point, we are making teaching so unatractive that the brightest and best are smart enough to know that going into teaching will not lead to financial advantage, personal affirmation, or high regard from the public. So why would they want to do it? Jan


Fri, Mar 25, 2011 : 12:16 a.m.

Macabre, what is your evidence of your claims about the curriculum of the ed school in the 80's?


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 4:38 p.m.

I think you're expecting too much if you expect to b e valued as a teacher (any teacher) rather than respected as a great teacher who's excellent because of brains, dedication, and hard work. My kids have been through AAPS. They've had great teachers, who I have nothing but respect for. They've also had disorganized, lazy teachers who obviously don't like kids or teaching and have no business staying in the profession -- but they have tenure, are where else are they going to get such a deal? In the U.S., prospective teachers have among the lowest SAT/ACT scores of any major, education courses are widely known not to be very challenging, and once tenured, teachers have to pretty much commit a serious crime to be fired. That's just not a recipe for respect of everybody in the profession (as opposed to respect for anybody who becomes, say, a symphony conductor or high-energy physicist -- where it's clear to everyone how difficult those things are). So you're not going to get a great deal of respect just by getting into the profession of teaching -- it's not very difficult (I wish it were more so). But you can certainly still earn respect by how well you do the job, which -- trust me -- students, parent (and other teachers) know very well.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 4 a.m.

I was in college in the '80s, and the &quot;brightest and best&quot; just giggled at the teachers. The level of brainpower required to get through the school of education at Michigan was even lower than the standards they set in kinesiology to get the jocks through without flunking out. They wouldn't want to do it because they don't have to.

Ace Ventura

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 12:09 a.m.

Be careful glacialerratic you may be confusing our conservative friends with facts.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 1:31 a.m.

Let me enlighten some of my so called liberal friends. I don't want these facts to intimidate you, as I know liberals tend to treat facts like they are kryptonite. Finland only has a population of a little over five million people. USA has approximately 310 million residents, many of whom do not even speak the language. This is a very poor comparison.


Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 11:45 p.m.

Some brief data points from the 2009 World Bank report: Per capita GDP: Finland, $44,581; US, $45,989 Gross savings, % of GDP: Finland, 20%; US 10% Central govt debt, % of GDP (2008): Finland, 36.3%; US 54.6% Life expectancy at birth (2008): Finland, 80; US 78 Per capita health expenditure (2007): Finland, $3,809; US, $7,285 Infant mortality rate/1,000 births: Finland, 3; US: 7 Per capita expenditure per primary student as % of GDP (2006): Finland, 17.9%; US, 22.4% Evidence suggests socialism is remarkably effective. Norway's similar. Entrepreneurial activity thrives in both countries, far more than here. Why? Universal health care and broad safety net provide an environment for young people to take risks, pursue their dreams, and not be afraid of crushing student loans and lack of health inusurance: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> Snyder's spending money Michigan doesn't have to pay for a tax break to those who have most. His bland plausibility and calls for greater efficiency can't hide his reactionary and authoritarian impulse. Governing is not managing, and the purpose of a government is not to provide the greatest return to private share-holders. Or maybe that's what government is becoming in Michigan and elsewhere in the US.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 5:18 p.m.

Macabre, are you actually suggesting that health care is NOT rationed in the USA? Are you aware that every time you utilize a health care facility here that you are subsidizing someone else's care? The hospital in Jackson wrote off something like $30 million in unpaid and charitable billings in 2010. Duke health care writes off over $600 million a year. Who do you think pays for that? We pay for the uninsured now, we just do it with accounting gimmicks and at a higher administrative cost. Add in the fact that much of the care for uninsured takes place in emergency rooms and you have a lot of waste. One of the reasons evil socialist countries like Germany and Finland can provide similar services for less is they utilize primary care to head off problems early, rather than emergency room care for basic services.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 1:33 a.m.

The country is also homogenous with is a strength but also a weakness The sharing model would not work in the U.S.


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 1:25 a.m.

Finland only has a population of a little over five million people. USA has approximately 310 million residents, many of whom do not even speak the language. This is a very poor comparison.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 1:08 a.m.

Doesn't that show that health care is more rationed, and that parents are expected to raise their children with a respect for education?


Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 10:51 p.m.

Braggslaw says, &quot;The average person in the usa lives better.&quot; What is your evidence of that?


Fri, Mar 25, 2011 : 2:43 a.m.

Yes that ismyexperience


Fri, Mar 25, 2011 : 12:15 a.m.

You're assuming income directly relates to better living, then?

John B.

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 11:29 p.m.

&quot;Median income and lower taxes&quot; Which means basically nothing, taken out of context.


Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 10:54 p.m.

Median income and lower taxes


Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 10:43 p.m.

Grass is always greener..... Maybe they can improve teachers but not much else The average person in the usa lives better, the USA has a higher median income


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 2:54 p.m.

See above: Gross savings, % of GDP: Finland, 20%; US 10% Central govt debt, % of GDP (2008): Finland, 36.3%; US 54.6% Life expectancy at birth (2008): Finland, 80; US 78 Per capita health expenditure (2007): Finland, $3,809; US, $7,285 Infant mortality rate/1,000 births: Finland, 3; US: 7 Per capita expenditure per primary student as % of GDP (2006): Finland, 17.9%; US, 22.4% Looks like they do quite a few things better.

David Briegel

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 10:25 p.m.

Macabre, Instead we let in the servants of the upper class and then demonize the servants rather than the illegal employers! After all, that's the Christian thing to do!


Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 11:37 p.m.

Still trying to get that dog to hunt, David?

Macabre Sunset

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 10:30 p.m.

We have a terrific immigration policy in America. We welcome millions every year. America would be nothing without us. Slavery was abolished in the 1800s, long before most of us even had family here. But I agree. Those who employ immigration line-cutters themselves should receive the brunt of any punishment.

Macabre Sunset

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 10:15 p.m.

What a wonderful country, this place where socialism is embraced and beautiful, bubbly champagne flows from every public fountain. More people should migrate there. Oh, but they can't. Finland is rather xenophobic, as it houses only 156,000 foreign-born people as compared to horrible, capitalist, dirty United States, which houses more than 38 million. Oh, but if we could confiscate wealth the same way this beautiful socialist nation does. And if we could expel most everyone who doesn't meet a certain racial profile... I'm sure we could raise the average freaking math and English test scores. At what cost, you ask? No, socialists actually don't ask about cost. Because they know the price is far more dear than money.


Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 9:52 p.m.

&quot;The Finns are big on redistribution of wealth&quot; &quot;Finnish teachers were paid 13 percent less than other college graduates&quot; With an income tax that usually reaches 60%, it's obvious that anybody in Finland would make roughly the same amount of money, regardless of their profession, attitude and effort. The term &quot;redistribution of wealth&quot; has been abused, but it's just a synonym to communism. Western countries keep the huge burden on taxpayers and still have strong deficits. Apparently these countries didn't learn the lesson from the soviet regime. Anyone longing for a socialist regime should give up his/her 70-inch tv as well as all the other luxuries and move to those places where fixed currency is the State-Ratio, instead of creating mini-soviets in America.

John B.

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 11:26 p.m.


David Briegel

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 9:44 p.m.

The main difference is they are a civilized country and that isn't run by Oligarchs who have sold the myth of Exceptionalism to the factions of the lower and middle class. They don't do the bidding of the ruling class who desire to rule the world! Our dreaded class warfare is between the have nots and the have littles rather than against the haves! Imagine if Americans didn't have to worry about health care or retirement. Employers would be free to concentrate on their business activity. If we have enough money to blow on the &quot;stabilizing&quot; THREE wars, we can certainly do more for our fellow citizens. IF we choose!


Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 9:10 p.m.

Thanks Rick for looking at Finland and all the success they have achieved by using intelligence and facts instead of ideology and fear as we have been doing recently in this country. In addition to this please follow up on how the Finns have reversed the teenage obesity crisis (not as bad as ours but bad enough). But our Republicans will reject anything coming from outside of our wonderful, perfect country that has nothing to learn from anyone ('American Exceptionalism'). We continue to repeat the same mistakes of the past and expecting a different result.


Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 9:05 p.m.

&quot;Finns, my friend says, generally don't view self-reliance and government investment in public services as being mutually exclusive, as Americans often do.&quot; Can I beg to differ? I think it is accurate to say..........&quot;as some American do&quot;, please.

David Briegel

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 9:47 p.m.

Yes Cash, some Americans are civilized!

Knobby Kabushka

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 8:59 p.m.

Finland citizens don't have to pay for 3 freaking wars! they can afford to spend the time and energy on more noble endeavors like education...

Top Cat

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 8:40 p.m.

I'm sure all these examples of success are the result of their single minded pursuit of diversity.

David Briegel

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 10:28 p.m.

Macabre, What do you really have against the servants of YOUR ruling class?

Macabre Sunset

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 10:03 p.m.

And some can't handle diversity of thought.

David Briegel

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 9:51 p.m.

Some people can accept diversity. Some people can't accept the realities of a diverse world!


Wed, Mar 23, 2011 : 8:38 p.m.

There goes that dang humanistic socialism again! Finland is a great model to follow. Though all thing between us two are not equal, I suspect there are enough similarities where we can make it work.