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A Look at the Success Story of Finland’s Schools

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The September issue of Smithsonian magazine includes this fascinating piece about the school system in Finland, which is routinely ranked among the best in the world.

Among the most striking points: Finnish teachers are granted much more autonomy and respect than U.S. educators. Finland’s teachers are selected from the top 10 percent of graduates and must hold a master’s degree, and there are no mandated standardized tests in Finland (which frees teachers from having to devote precious class time to “teaching to the test.”)

Even more interesting is the revelation that the once-homogenous country has had to adapt to a quickly growing immigrant community and a diversifying student body — just as school districts across the U.S. are doing.

One anecdote in particular points out some ways Finnish schools are dealing with those challenges:

“The wispy 7-year-old had recently arrived from Thailand speaking not a word of Finnish. She was studying math down the hall in a special ‘preparing class’ taught by an expert in multicultural learning. It is designed to help children keep up with their subjects while they conquer the language. Kirkkojarvi’s teachers have learned to deal with their unusually large number of immigrant students. The city of Espoo helps them out with an extra 82,000 euros a year in ‘positive discrimination’ funds to pay for things like special resource teachers, counselors and six special needs classes.”

That’s a marked contrast to the U.S. system, where schools and ELL teachers must often scramble to find time, funding and resources to make sure immigrant students don’t slip through the cracks or fall behind in subjects while learning English.  It’s also worth noting the amount of social services Finland provides its students. According to the story, ”schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.”

As some researchers studying how to improve Latino achievement rates in the United States have noted, many of the problems facing low-income, immigrant students stem from poverty, hunger, lack of medical care or problems at home.