Are Finland’s vaunted schools slipping?

Dec 3, 2013 by

Finland has for years been a leader in education, scoring at or near the top of international assessments and capturing the attention of the world for its successful approach to education. But Finland is no longer at the top of international test rankings (though they  haven’t fallen very far), as newly released results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment show. Are Finnish schools slipping? By what measure? Why?

Here’s a post on the issue by Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg, one of the world’s leading experts on school reform and the author of the best-selling Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland.”  Sahlberg is director general of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation and has served the Finnish government in various positions and worked for the World Bank in Washington D.C.  He has also been an adviser for numerous governments internationally about education policies and reforms, and is an adjunct professor of education at the University of Helsinki and University of Oulu.


By Pasi Sahlberg


The irony of Finland’s successful school system is that the Finns never aimed to be better than anyone else — except, it is often humorously claimed, Sweden. Since the announcement of the first results of the Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, in 2001, Finland has been the center of educational attention.  Finland’s PISA scores  topped the charts, and the Finnish approach to educational policy has stood in direct opposition to the path embraced by the United States, England, and much of the rest of the world.


International student assessments, especially the PISA study, have become a crucial source of evidence in national policy-making around the world.  Some claim that lower PISA scores cost nations billions in lost labor skills and productivity.  Others go even further by insisting that poor PISA rankings are a threat to national security. High-ranking countries – South Korea, Singapore, Canada, and Finland – have consequently become benchmarks of educational policy-making in many parts of the world.


This begs a question: What happens when global educational models begin to lose their leading places in international student assessments like PISA, as has happened to Finland. What will Finland do?


National student assessments and academic research in Finland have shown that students’ knowledge and skills in mathematics have declined since the mid-2000s. A recent study from the University of Helsinki found a significant drop in 15-year-old students’ learning skills. PISA 2012 accordingly revealed no big surprises in Finland.  The score in reading dropped 12 points since the last administration of the exam three years earlier, from 536 to 524; math, 22 points from 541 to 519; and science, 9 points, from 554 to 545.  National student assessments show that improvement of student learning stagnated and started to slip about five years ago. PISA 2009 showed signs of this shift.  Reading slid 11 points from the 2006 results, from 547 to 536; math, 7 points, from 548 to 541; and science 9 points, from 563 to 554.


Many may ask: ‘What has gone wrong in Finland?’  Why have scores dropped? Is it because something that had driven improvement earlier has now disappeared from Finnish schools? Or is it due to changes in Finnish society or homes?  Whatever the reasons behind the changes, Finns must adopt smart responses and avoid hasty, false recoveries; analyze past data again; and learn more from other countries, their success stories and failed reforms.

Are Finland’s vaunted schools slipping?.

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