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.
Page 3 of 3   <      

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)

This was a difficult student, Severinkangas explained later, but she thought she might have discovered a way to reach him during a work-study week the school held recently for eighth-graders. She sent him to work in the school's day-care center, and he loved it. "And the little kids loved him." So perhaps, she thought, he would eventually discover he wanted to be a teacher.

'The Work Is Fun'

American public school teachers regularly gripe about the lack of support and respect they receive, but attempts at Arabia to prompt comparable complaints all failed. Tuomas Paarlati, 38, a science teacher who earned his master's degree in geography, said his university friends who work for Nokia, the giant cell phone maker, for example, make considerably higher salaries, "but I tell them to compare the number of hours worked per year." He works a 190-day school year, three to eight hours a day. "The work is fun. You can make your own projects. It's important. What more could you want?"

Paarlati said his take-home salary was just under 2,000 euros a month (about $2,500 at current exchange rates). Like all Finns, he pays nearly nothing for health care, and nothing at all for education, from day care through graduate school. Undergraduates and graduates all get a monthly stipend of more than $400 for living expenses. Paarlati's private passion is sailing on Finland's many lakes; he owns an 18-foot sailboat.

Paarlati's domain at the school includes the computer lab and two dozen laptops that students can check out for their own use. But there is no systematic teaching of information technology in the first nine grades -- no teaching even of typing, and many Finns use just two fingers on the keyboard. It's a good example of the non-compulsive Finnish approach to education.

Another is the general absence of testing. According to Karkkainen, the principal, apart from the PISA exams, her students face math tests at the end of fifth, eighth and ninth grades, and a test in chemistry and physics at the end of eighth grade. That's it. "And there are no bad consequences," for student or school, if the results are not good.

Interestingly, given the overall success of Finnish education and Finns' pride in it, state spending on schools is actually declining. Karkkainen has had to cut her school's spending 4 percent this year. "The number of old people is growing all the time," she said, causing a drain on the Finnish welfare state. "So there is not enough money for schools."

But it is difficult to imagine that Finns would allow their schools to fall very far now that they have achieved such excellence. Education is part of what Himanen calls "the Finnish national project," the country's determined effort to make a comfortable place for itself in the modern world.

"There's still a feeling that we have to show something, that we're really good," Karkkainen said.

<          3

© 2005 The Washington Post Company