We are two American public-school dads who just returned from a fact-finding trip through Finland.
Why should we bother to learn from a small country of just 5.5 million people that is less diverse than America, and that has a history very different from our own?
Many U.S. states are similar in population size and demographics to Finland, and education is largely run at the state level. In the economically depressed forest region of North Karelia — on the Russian border — where we spent much of our time, the unemployment rate is nearly 15 percent, compared with under 5 percent in America and our home state of New York. However, the U.S. child poverty rate is four times higher than Finland’s.
Finland is less diverse, and has much less immigration, than the United States. (This, though, is rapidly changing — we visited a high school in Helsinki that is as diverse as any American high school.) The foundations of Finnish society are communal trust and perseverance, while the United States focuses more on individual rights, competition and achievement.
Finland may have the world’s best schools, though they are far from perfect. But to ignore education insights from Finland is to make a dangerous strategic blunder.
Delegations and universities from China and around the developing world are visiting Finland to learn how to improve their own school systems, which often serve diverse and economically disadvantaged populations. Finland has a wide range of cognitive diversity among its own students, with a third receiving special-education services at some point in their school experience. Many of the insights that Finland has put into classroom practice have come from the United States and are applicable to children and cultures the world over. Singapore has launched a series of Finnish-style school reforms. . . .