A Tale of Two Countries

A Teacher’s Reflection on Her Visit to Finland

“It’s all about attention. We all want to be heard.” That was my friend Tuuli Lehtisalo’s response to how to best serve students. It’s still resonating within me a month after visiting with this dedicated teacher in Finland.

I had the good fortune to meet with Lehtisalo for a delightful chat that lasted over four hours. Lehtisalo has been teaching for over 30 years at Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu located in Helsinki, Finland where the students have the distinction of achieving among the highest scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). 

The PISA is an international assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics and science literacy every three years. It should be noted that these tests carry no high stakes for students and are not used to rank teachers or schools.

I wondered: How can Finnish students perform so well on the PISA when they take no standardized tests during their K-12 education, whereas Lane County schools administer up to 120 standardized tests by 12th grade? Why is the Finnish educational system so highly rated? How do citizens know which schools are the best without ranking schools according to test scores?

Of course, when buying a house or moving to a new neighborhood, one of the first questions many American parents ask is about the local schools. Who can blame them? Who doesn’t want their child to receive a great education?

But, thankfully, Finnish parents do not need to stress over these concerns. According to Lehtisalo, emphasis is on public schools that are equitable and neighborhood-centered. And, they all offer the same education. In fact, there is a national curriculum, which every school in Finland follows but with the clear expectation that teachers have autonomy to develop their own lesson plans. In other words, the local schools are in control of student learning. When I expressed wonder and admiration at her words, Lehtisalo told me, “The government trusts teachers.”

I further asked her to describe the kinds of assessments she finds most useful to determine student comprehension, application and critical thinking in her classes. As an English language teacher, Lehtisalo says she asks students to, among other things, “Write essays and narrative stories and work cooperatively in groups.” Furthermore, she believes that it is the teacher’s duty to “find out what kids are interested in and then develop lesson plans around those passions.” Wow. Imagine that. All of these assessments, by the way, happen within the classroom and are not purchased from an outside company. 

Another reason why schools are equitable is that every school receives the same funding. Lehtisalo added, “But we also have something called positive discrimination between schools. Schools that are in so-called challenging areas with a lot of immigration and families living in poverty get more money because children might lack support for school. That’s why schools get more money for extra resources to help these kids.” 

In Finland, education is treated as a basic human right. In fact, the right to a free, equitable public education is a part of their constitution.

School funding in Finland is provided through state and local taxes. Lehtisalo said, “The money for education is pretty regulated. You cannot do anything silly with it.” She shared that she pays about 36 percent of her income towards taxes, yet I heard no rancor in her voice. She says it is well worth it due to all of the incredible services she receives, including universal healthcare and one of the best school systems in the world.

As school resumes shortly in Finland and here in Eugene-Springfield, let’s ask ourselves: Are we satisfied with our children’s education, or do we want something better like Lehtisalo has? Are we going to continue standardizing education in an inequitable fashion, or will we allow teachers the freedom to create interactive classrooms where all student voices are heard regardless of the zip code? Our public schools need an answer.

Laura Farrelly is an educator in the Springfield School District and a member of the Community Alliance for Public Education (CAPE, oregoncape.org), a coalition of parents, teachers, professors, students and community members who challenge the many assaults on public education and who believe in a strong public education as the foundation for American democracy. For more information about the PISA International Tests, visit nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa.