Rick Haglund column: What Finland can teach Michigan about teacher performance and student attitude
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 Forbes.com. (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.
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 email@example.com.