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Finland has a number of smart ideas about how to teach kids while letting them be kids. For instance, one teacher ideally stays with a class from first grade through sixth grade. That way the teacher has years to learn the quirks of a particular group and tailor the teaching approach accordingly.
But Finland's sweeping success is largely due to one big, not-so-secret weapon: its teachers. "It's the quality of the teaching that is driving Finland's results," says the OECD's Schleicher. "The U.S. has an industrial model where teachers are the means for conveying a prefabricated product. In Finland, the teachers are the standard."
That's one reason so many Finns want to become teachers, which provides a rich talent pool that Finland filters very selectively. In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, 1,258 undergrads applied for training to become elementary-school teachers. Only 123, or 9.8%, were accepted into the five-year teaching program. That's typical. There's another thing: in Finland, every teacher is required to have a master's degree. (The Finns call this a master's in kasvatus, which is the same word they use for a mother bringing up her child.) Annual salaries range from about $40,000 to $60,000, and teachers work 190 days a year.
"It's very expensive to educate all of our teachers in five-year programs, but it helps make our teachers highly respected and appreciated," says Jari Lavonen, head of the department of teacher education at the University of Helsinki. Outsiders spot this quickly. "Their teachers are much better prepared to teach physics than we are, and then the Finns get out of the way. You don't buy a dog and bark for it," says Dan MacIsaac, a specialist in physics-teacher education at Buffalo State College who visited Finland for two months. "In the U.S., they treat teachers like pizza delivery boys and then do efficiency studies on how well they deliver the pizza."
The Finns haven't always had everything figured out. In the 1960s, Finland had two parallel education systems after primary school; brighter kids went one way, laggards went the other. Reforms began in 1968, scrapping two-tier education in favor of one national system. Things still weren't right. "In the beginning, we weren't happy at all," says Reijo Laukkanen, a counselor at the Finnish National Board of Education.
In the '80s, Finland stopped "streaming" pupils to different math and language tracks based on ability. "People in Finland cannot be divided by how smart they are," says Laukkanen. "It has been very beneficial." Next to go, in the '90s, were inspectors who oversaw annual school plans. Schools were so hostile that the inspectors became afraid to make on-site tours.
"Finland is a society based on equity," says Laukkanen. "Japan and Korea are highly competitive societies if you're not better than your neighbor, your parents pay to send you to night school. In Finland, outperforming your neighbor isn't very important. Everybody is average, but you want that average to be very high."
This principle has gone far toward making Finland an educational overachiever. In the 2006 PISA science results, Finland's worst students did 80% better than the OECD average for the worst group; its brightest did only 50% better than the average for bright students. "Raising the average for the bottom rungs has had a profound effect on the overall result," says MacIsaac.
Some of Finland's educational policies could probably be exported, but it's questionable whether the all-for-one-and-one-for-all-ness that underlies them would travel easily. Thailand, for instance, is trying to adapt the Finnish model to its own school system. But as soon as a kid falls behind, parents send for a private tutor something that would be unthinkable in Finland. Is Thailand's Finnish experiment working? "Not really," says Lavonen. Would that it could, in Thailand and elsewhere.
Correction appended: The original version of the article incorrectly stated that Dan MacIsaac was a specialist in physics-teacher education at the State University of New York at Buffalo.