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.
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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)

The school, in a new neighborhood on the edge of Helsinki, is housed in a refurbished former clinic for the treatment of alcoholics (a big need in Finland). Now in its third year of operation, it has been growing by one grade a year, and next year will have all nine grades of the Finnish comprehensive school. Construction of apartments in the neighborhood is continuing, and a new school is on the drawing boards, scheduled to open in 2010. It will have 500 students, about as big as Finnish schools get.

The student body at Arabia consists primarily of the children of college graduates and professionals, said the principal, Karkkainen. But a visitor who asks if the school's successes can be attributed to this fact is quickly put straight.

"My last school," Karkkainen said, "was much different" -- in a poor neighborhood, "nearly a slum." (There are no slums in Finland that Americans would recognize as such.) It had a student body consisting of one-third "refugees," meaning immigrants, of which Finland has relatively few, and one-third students needing special education. The city supported that school, she said: It had a fine new building and extra social workers on staff. There were lots of problems with students and parents. "But still, the results were very good," she said. "The teachers are trained to deal with problematic children."

Antidote to Poverty

Faith in education is not just a matter of government policy in Finland; it comes from deep in the national character of a country that has few natural resources beyond fish and timber. Finns came to realize that education was the best antidote to their endemic poverty more than a century ago, said Himanen, the philosopher: "The development of Finland has come through investing in the education system."

The PISA exam, administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, confirms that Finland does remarkably well in schools serving all levels of this egalitarian society. "Finland and Japan stand out for high standards of both quality and equity," according to the organization.

Karkkainen enjoys substantial autonomy as principal of Arabia. With her governing board -- consisting of five parents, two teachers, a representative of the blue-collar workforce and herself -- she can set the school's curriculum, write its rules and hire its teachers.

She explained over lunch how she hires a teacher. She recently announced a vacancy for a senior Finnish-language teacher on the Helsinki school system's computer network. Thirty-seven qualified teachers applied, nearly all with experience. Typically, a new graduate of one of the universities that train teachers here has to work part time or in the provinces for about five years before landing a full-time position in the capital.

Karkkainen and the board interviewed five candidates and picked the one who will start at the beginning of the next school year, in mid-August.

Arabia Comprehensive is not never-never land; during a day spent in the school, a visitor saw many reminders that kids are kids, school is school, learning is always a combination of rote, fun and angst. But some things were striking.

One was the relative maturity of students. The Finns long ago decided that 7 is the right age to begin school, so in every grade the children are a year older than they would be in the United States. Six-year-olds have kindergarten (and a high percentage of Finnish youngsters come to school from state-run day-care centers, which are also generously staffed and supported). But according to Raili Rapila, a kindergarten teacher at Arabia, there is no pressure to begin reading before the first grade. Three of 10 in her class are readers, she said, but all 10 love to be read to, and are often, every day. "Social skills and learning to play are more important than reading" for the 6-year-olds, she said.

In Riitta Severinkangas's eighth-grade English class, one 14-year-old boy conspicuously refused to participate in a recitation of phrases and listened to his iPod instead. "Do you choose not to participate?" Severinkangas firmly but gently asked him, looking right into his face. He didn't reply. He looked like the classic tuned-out, bored teenager.

But a few minutes later he was conversing in good English with the American visitor, describing his "personal record" for hours worked at his computer without sleeping -- 76, he claimed. How did he stay awake? "More cola, more coffee. It's easy when you have work to do." And what was the work? Translating English pop music lyrics into Finnish, for example.


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