Before describing the Finnish education system, this chapter provides a basic background comparison between the U.S. and Finnish systems.
Appreciation for what Finnish and U.S. mathematics educators can learn from one another’s approaches to teacher preparation and ongoing professional development begins with understanding the context for mathematics education in the two nations. The two public education systems differ significantly in scale: in 2016 the number of students enrolled in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools—50.4 million—was far greater than Finland’s population of approximately 5.5 million (the U.S. population is over 320 million). There are more than 3 million teachers in U.S. public schools. By contrast, Finland has approximately 53,000 teachers, including those in vocational education and training.
In Finland, education is free and compulsory for all citizens. Education is mainly (96 percent) covered by state subsidy to municipalities. The state subsidy for municipalities is calculated based on student enrollment (6–16 years old) in the municipality.
In the United States, education is primarily a state and local responsibility. It is states and communities, as well as public and private organiza-
tions of all kinds, that establish schools, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation. The federal share in the United States is approximately 8 percent, and that includes school lunch programs. State support and how it is allocated vary from state to state. The two nations dedicate slightly different percentages of public spending to primary and secondary public education: 3.9 percent of gross domestic product for Finland and 3.5 percent for the United States, as compared with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 3.8 percent. Both countries have been responding to rapid changes in the global economy and the growing demand for technically skilled workers.
This section gives an overview of the structure of the Finnish education system, provided by Heidi Krzywacki of the University of Helsinki.1 Krzywacki also described four cornerstones of Finnish education policy.2 The U.S. system is discussed in Chapter 3.
Finnish schools range in size—44 percent of schools serve fewer than 100 students, and this range covers around 12 percent of all students. Twenty-two percent of schools have more than 300 students, and this range covers 53 percent of all pupils—around half of all pupils. Five percent of schools have smaller than 500 students, and this range covers around 17 percent of all students. Average class sizes—19.8 for primary grades and 20.1 for secondary grades—are slightly smaller than the averages for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. However, she added, class size ranges from classes of fewer than 10 students in small schools located in rural villages to as many as 30 students in Helsinki schools. Because of demographic changes, many villages can no longer support a school on their own and so greater percentages of students are being educated in combined schools that serve a broader area or in large urban schools.
One cornerstone of Finnish education policy is consistency in vision, policy, and practice so that any changes to the basic policies are implemented very thoughtfully. The consistency is due to the structure of the system, tradition, and common understanding. While the system is central-
1 More information about teacher preparation in Finland can be found at http://ncee.org/what-we-do/center-on-international-education-benchmarking/top-performing-countries/finland-overview/ [accessed January 8, 2017].
2 Krzywacki noted that she collaborated with her colleague, Kirsti Hemmi, in preparing the presentation.
ized, decision power exists at all levels. Though the schools vary in size, they are all operated according to a basic model of compulsory education for all students that has been in place since the late 1970s. School attendance is compulsory until age 16, but at that age students may choose among three options: completing upper secondary coursework that will prepare them for university study, beginning a vocational program that will prepare them for an occupation that does not require a university degree, or doing a combined program that prepares them for a particular occupation but includes some components of the upper secondary curriculum. Approximately half of the students between the ages of 16 and 19 start and complete the upper secondary coursework.
In Finland, the national core curriculum for basic education has been revised every 10 years (1985, 1994, 2004, and 2014). The implementation of the recent reform started during the academic year 2016–2017. At present, fixed numbers of lesson hours in mathematics are required in primary and secondary schools—schools may structure their schedules in different ways, as long as they meet the required totals.
A second cornerstone is that Finland prizes educational equality. The public schools provide free meals, transportation (if the distance between the school and home is more than 5 kilometers), and learning materials for all students in grades 1 through 9, which is legislated in the Finnish Basic Education Act.3 Every student has the right to be educated in his or her mother tongue. The schools offer instruction in Finnish and Swedish, and speakers of those two languages receive basic education in those languages. Speakers of other languages, such as Sami and Romani, receive both administrative services and some lessons in their own languages.
Another illustration of Finland’s commitment to equality is that the system has no selective or magnet schools designed to draw students from wider areas with a special curriculum. Students are not tracked within schools according to their prior achievement, as they often are in the United States.4 Every school has approximately the same curriculum, though some may have a special emphasis.
3 Available at http://www.finlex.fi/fi/laki/kaannokset/1998/en19980628.pdf [accessed August 1, 2017].
4 Tracking, sometimes called streaming, is an approach in which students are separated into groups for instruction. Teachers may do this in a temporary, flexible way within a particular classroom or for a particular lesson, or schools may assign students to different levels for a particular course. For example, high school students may be assigned to grade-level or honors versions of the same course, which follow different curricula.
A third cornerstone is that Finland leaves most decision making to local authorities. The national core curriculum outlines the goals, content, and spirit of basic education, but municipal authorities and teachers can influence the way schools implement this curriculum. Teachers may develop specific plans for implementing the curriculum and devise and implement assessments based on the national curriculum. Teachers also play a role in curriculum development; they choose the learning materials they will use and design and organize classroom assessments. All teachers know the curriculum well through their involvement with developing and implementing it.
This point relates to the fourth cornerstone, Krzywacki explained, which is the culture of trust in the Finnish education systems. “Teachers matter” in Finland. There is little hierarchy among teachers, and there are no school inspectors. Teachers are trusted to select the materials they need to present the curriculum in the way they choose, as long as they meet overall goals. The culture of trust is also illustrated by the nature of Finland’s educational assessments. The only national exams, namely matriculation examinations, are given to students at the end of the general upper secondary school. In practice, there is no national evaluation during the compulsory basic education system. Furthermore, the national evaluation concerns only those students who participate in the general upper secondary school, which is approximately 50 percent of the age group. Apart from the matriculation examination, the system relies on sample-based monitoring in core subjects, which is organized by the National Agency for Education in Finland. In mathematics, the national monitoring has been conducted every third year on average. The Ministry of Education states that the underlying idea is to serve further development of education and to take into account procedures and practice of schools as well as learning outcomes.
In Finland, teachers are viewed as autonomous academic professionals, Krzywacki concluded. Teachers are trusted to plan and implement their own approach to instruction and to assess their students’ learning in the classroom, and educators use their own assessment data to improve their teaching and their students’ learning. They use some ready-made tests as well as their own assessment materials, and they may also modify the prepared assessments. Teachers have a “serious responsibility” to support and guide their students, who make significant decisions about their futures at age 16. They must also be flexible enough to teach in schools that may vary significantly in size and serve very different kinds of communities and students.