The Rise and Fall of Finland Mania
One country had all the education answers. Until it didn't. In Part One of a two-part series, we revisit the years when Finland was an international education sensation.
In December 2004, Education Week reported results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that had been given the year prior to a sample of 15 year-old students in dozens of countries.
While lamenting a “lackluster” performance for the United States, the article took particular note of Finland’s no. 1 math ranking. Just three years earlier, on the first administration of PISA, Finland was tops in reading. These two results suggested that something tremendous was happening in a tiny Nordic country that most Americans couldn’t locate on a map.
Two things happened next. First, Finland became in short order the most widely celebrated and imitated education system in the world. Admiration eventually grew into a complete fever. Finland was Michael Jackson, educationally-speaking. Everybody wanted to moonwalk. There were breathless superfans screaming at the limousine.
Then, Finland’s performance tanked. It has declined more than the performance of any other country in the assessment program as of the 2022 test administration, whose outcomes were reported just a few months ago.
It’s a whale of a story. What happened?
In this edition of The Education Daly, we’re going to revisit the greatest hype bubble in the history of international education to understand why Finland attracted such intense fascination, what we can learn from it, and wrestle with two uncomfortable questions: Was Finland’s success not real in the first place? Or did genuine triumph rapidly gave way to unprecedented failure?
What made Finland an educational supernova?
Finland wasn’t the only high performing country. You can see that in the 2003 rankings above. Japan and South Korea, for example, did about as well. But hardly anybody was interested in those countries as models. Finland stood out for a few reasons:
A compelling story. It went like this: A small country, long dominated by its neighbors (Sweden, Russia) and lacking abundant natural resources, decides its path to prosperity will be investing in its people. Decades of prudent decisions create a world-leading school system. The message? Success in education is a choice any country can make. It simply requires the correct priorities and faith in educators.
Distinct features. Most accounts pointed to the same handful of initiatives as driving Finland’s performance. They were clear and easy to understand. Child poverty was kept low through a robust social safety net. Admission to teacher preparation programs was very selective and training was unusually thorough, which led teachers to be held in high regard by the public. There were no nationally-mandated tests for students, only common standards that ensured similar rigor for kids of all backgrounds.
European setting. Americans were quick to dismiss comparisons to Asian countries. Too different. Too intensely competitive. It’s uncomfortable to admit this but it’s the truth. Finland had an accessible brand of laid-back professionalism and plenty of English-speaking brand ambassadors who were happy to tell us all about it.
Domestic politics in the US. This is the biggie. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed in December 2001. It punctuated nearly two decades of rising bipartisan consensus that American schools required not just more resources but more accountability, and that some of that accountability needed to come from the federal government.
Almost immediately, backlash arose. Finland became the best counterargument against NCLB. US policy leaders were seen as technocrats bent on micro-managing schools from cubicles in Washington, eager to punish them for challenges beyond their control. Finland’s leaders were progressives who believed educators would almost always make the right decisions if given the resources to do so and minimal interference.
The Finnish approach seemed like the exact opposite of the US strategy - and they were the best in the world while we were languishing behind the Slovak Republic. Ergo, we should reverse course and go full Finland.
As just one example, when NCLB allowed Teach For America’s recruits to be deemed “highly qualified” under federal law after a single summer of training, TFA’s opponents were quick to point out that Finland would never allow a program like TFA. It didn’t matter that multiple high quality studies showed that TFA teachers performed better than teachers from other pathways.
It went like this, one issue after another. Testing. Funding. Accountability. Finland became the answer sheet against which NCLB-era strategies were compared. For the American media and policy audience, it was an irresistible way to frame the debate.
How wild did it get?
If you’ve ever watched the fantastic VH1 series Behind the Music, you know its formulaic arc. After an act improbably rises to fame, things get bonkers for awhile.1 By 2008, we had reached that part of the Finland story.
Delegations started making pilgrimages to Finland. Lots of them. Journalists, wonks, state superintendents, union leaders, federal officials and philanthropists wore a path in the carpet going back and forth to Finland. They visited happy classrooms and teacher training programs. By 2012, Finland claimed to be getting two groups per week. When the pilgrims returned, most spread the gospel of Finland as the country that had finally figured it out.2
Left mostly unsaid was that many of these junkets were organized and paid for by the Finnish government. This wasn’t a burst of spontaneous edu-tourism. It was a formal, resource-intensive public relations campaign meant to brand Finland as the world’s best school system. It succeeded fabulously.
Was it propaganda? In working on this piece, I connected with more than a dozen folks who visited Finland. Nearly all of them were uncomfortable with the specific term “propaganda” because they felt the Finns were sincere about their desire to exchange ideas and transparent about their system, warts and all. It wasn’t an exercise in deception. US foundations and organizations do similar things to promote their own agendas all the time. But there was broad agreement that it was a more activist and coordinated governmental endeavor than was acknowledged at the time. It was hype.
And hype tends to feed on itself. Such was the case here.
Descriptions of Finland’s system became increasingly grandiose. In the early years of Finland’s rise, there was a true “Aw, shucks! Who? Us?” quality to public officials’ statements, as if they were more surprised than anyone else that a modest country not fixated on winning the academic race somehow finished first.
Over time, that humility rang increasingly false as it contrasted with seminars hosted by the embassy in DC with names like “Why Are Finnish Kids So Smart?” and books written by education officials titled Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland - which was subsequently updated with two more editions.
Selling Finland to the US became a cottage industry. In a 2012 interview, a Finnish education leader shared that he was spending one week per month in the United States. His insights consisted of platitudes such as “Our ethic is that what we want for our own children we also want for other people's children: If those other children fail, we've all failed.” The message became more simplistic with additional repetition.
It wasn’t just the Finns selling. American evangelists published books and scored interviews with Dan Rather and gave impassioned speeches at celebrity-driven rallies. In 2012, the president of the largest American teachers union made the sweeping declaration that Finland had no need to fire weak teachers because “they don’t let them in in the first place.” For him and many others, Finland had the wisest education strategy in the world and the US had the dumbest. For a time, the solution to every quandary in American education became: What does Finland do?
To return to the Michael Jackson analogy, this is Thriller selling 32 million copies worldwide in 1983. Seven Top Ten singles. Full cultural conquest.
Behind the Music fans recall that just when you are on top of the world, disaster strikes.
In Part Two, we will see how that happened for Finland and ask what it means for us.
The top three wildest episodes of Behind the Music for the “things got out of control” angle are, in ranked order: 1) Motley Crue 2) Guns N’ Roses 3) Def Leppard. Discuss.
For those of you who can’t get enough, here are some vintage accounts of edu-visits to Finland:
Dana Goldstein, The American Prospect, 2008: https://prospect.org/education/education-silver-bullet/
Matt Yglesias, Center for American Progress, 2008: https://web.archive.org/web/20090619222801/http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2008/12/finnish_testing.php
Samuel Abrams, Teachers College, January 2011: https://www.npr.org/2011/01/28/133301331/the-new-republic-the-u-s-could-learn-from-finland
Diane Ravitch, education historian, October 2011: https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/opinion-what-can-we-learn-from-finland/2011/10