Correction to This Article
A May 24 graphic incorrectly said that the Soviets easily defeated the Finns in the 1939-1940 Soviet-Finnish war. Finnish troops fought the Soviets to a standstill, and both sides suffered heavy casualties. Finland accepted armistice terms in March 1940 under which it ceded more than 20,000 square miles of territory, but it survived as an independent nation.
Finland Diary: A Country That Works

Focus on Schools Helps Finns Build a Showcase Nation

Riitta Severinkangas teaches English at the Arabia Comprehensive School in Helsinki, where there is one teacher for about every 10 students.
Riitta Severinkangas teaches English at the Arabia Comprehensive School in Helsinki, where there is one teacher for about every 10 students. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005


A foreigner asking to visit a school in Finland this spring got an unexpected reply from the Helsinki City Education Department: Our schools are overwhelmed by visitors; do you have to visit just now?

In fact, the Finns, who have long felt neglected by the rest of the world, are delighted to show off their schools. But they do have a logistical problem. Foreign educators in droves want to visit Finnish schools for the simple reason that they are so good -- very likely the best on Earth.

Superb schools symbolize the modern transformation of Finland, a poor and agrarian nation half a century ago, and today one of the world's most prosperous, modern and adaptable countries.

Finland finishes first in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams that test 15-year-olds in all of the world's industrial democracies. Finland also finishes at or near the top in many global comparisons of economic competitiveness: Internet usage, environmental practices and more. Finland, where the modern cell phone was largely invented, has more cell phones per capita than any other nation -- nearly 85 per 100 citizens.

As recently as the 1970s, Finland required that children attend school for just six years and the education system here was nothing special. But new laws supported by substantial government spending created, in barely 20 years, a system that graduates nearly every young person from vocational or high school, and sends nearly half of them on to higher education. At every level, the schooling is rigorous, and free.

"The key," said Pekka Himanen, 31, a renowned scholar with a PhD in philosophy (earned at age 20) who is a kind of guru of information-age Finland, "isn't how much is invested, it's the people. The high quality of Finnish education depends on the high quality of Finnish teachers. You need to have a college-level degree to run a kindergarten. You need a master's-level degree to teach at a primary school. Many of the best students want to be teachers. This is linked to the fact that we really believe we live in an information age, so it is respected to be in such a key information profession as teaching."

The principal of the Arabia Comprehensive School, Kaisu Karkkainen, 49, has the same answer when asked the reasons for Finland's educational accomplishments. "Three reasons," she said over a tasty lunch of chicken, rice and green salad in her school's cafeteria: "Teachers, teachers and teachers." Then she grinned an un-Finnish grin at one of her favorites, English teacher Riitta Severinkangas, 47, who has been teaching for 16 years.

A visit to Severinkangas's eighth-grade class demonstrates that her students can all read and speak in English, a language that has virtually nothing in common with the Finns' obtuse and complex native tongue.

"The teachers did it" is pretty much the universal answer to questions about Finland's educational successes. Seppo Heikkinen, 45, a producer of educational programs for the Finnish Broadcasting Co. and a member of the governing board of the Arabia school, credits "the professional level of the teachers," who are "highly motivated."

A System Rich in Staff

On Friday afternoon, Heikkinen was at the school, named after the Helsinki neighborhood where it's located, to meet with his 9-year-old daughter's teacher, the school psychologist and another teacher who concentrates on children with special needs. "She has motivational problems," he said of his daughter, and the school is looking for ways to get her interested in her work.

This seems characteristic of a system that is rich in professional staff: 28 teachers for 265 students currently enrolled at Arabia. The atmosphere in Arabia's classrooms reminds an American visitor of the best U.S. private schools, where intimacy between teachers and students is enriched by high expectations for performance from everyone, not just the brightest.

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