We have an answer to Finland


News reports about our place in world of education strike a mix of emotions in me. I always first feel exasperated because we can do so much better. I don’t mean marginally better, I mean number one in the entire world! In fact I believe we can do a 10x better job than anyone in the world if we change the system based on what the science of behavior and individual measurement tells us.

A recent CNN Opinion piece by Pasi Sahlberg addresses the point of why Finland, number 1 in International comparisons, does a way better job in education than the United States (number 21 but who so happens to rank number 1 in the world on money spent for education). Sahlberg asks “What are the main factors that prevent American students from achieving the kind of success that Finnish students attain?”

He offers three answers:

1. Educational equity: Finland provides early childhood education to everyone and a national curriculum offering the same content to all students.

2. Lighter teaching load: Finnish teachers can network with fellow teachers and improve upon their own teaching quality. The extra time facilitates access to best practices.

3. Physical activity: Students in Finland have more time to play and work on outside activities during school.

Sahlberg makes some good points. But if we changed the entire US system based solely on the three points outlined above we then catapult to number 1? Perhaps. But if we want a 10x separation between what our education system provides compared to everyone else world, educational equity, lighter teacher loads, and more student play will likely not enable such a distinction.

What else do we need?

1. A national curriculum means everyone has access to the same content. While not addressing the exact nature of the content, how well do we design the curriculum? First, we need a curriculum that meets the tenets of instructional design. The science of instructional design has rules governing the scope and sequence of content. And a focus on generalizable strategies rather than only memorization of facts (though I by no means disparage memorizing facts, pretty hard to sound out and fluently decode a word if a student has not fluently memorized letter sound correspondences).

2. All student must reach a very high level of competence on instructional content. The only way to determine how well students do is to apply world class measurements standards, not another test. We have enough of those and as Sahlberg noted in his Opinion piece, Finland has one test at the end of high school. Using dynamic, informative assessment measures on students performance offers a very different level of insight and decision making. Standardized tests run counter to direct powerful metrics such as frequency (or rate).

My colleague and I conducted a descriptive study comparing a group of 5th graders from the United States, Taiwan, and Japan (Lin, Kubina, & Shimamune, 2011). We did not use a test. Instead, we compared how fluent (fast and accurate) students could multiply basic facts. The results follow.

Percentage of students who hit the fluency aim for basic multiplication fluency:

Japan        25%
Taiwan        32%
United States    14%

When we did the comparison for complex multiplication facts, how many students hit the fluency mark, we found:

Japan        19%
Taiwan        38%
United States    1%

Staggering differences appeared not by assessing students with a test that covers a multitude of skills, but instead by using a measure that offers precision and direct measures of a students performance.

3. A variety of metrics can inform teachers on the following:

Speed of learning - celeration
Efficiency of learning - bounce,
Quality of the overall learning process - Accuracy Improvement Measure (or A.I.M.)

Each of the previous metrics come from a student performing a behavior in a specified time (like reading 120 word correctly with 1 incorrect per minute - the previous example we call frequency or rate). Frequency measures taken repeatedly across time lead teachers to celeration, bounce, and A.I.M.

Imagine the decisions made on each individual student. No longer would teachers have to deal with ambiguity. They would see exactly how well their instruction helps their students.

Finland has done a humber of things right in their education system. The United States can learn from other countries but  even more so from the science of learning and measurement (Precision Teaching).


Lin, F. Y., Kubina, R. M., & Shimamune, S. (2011). Examining Application Relationships: Differences in Mathematical Elements and Compound Performance Between American, Japanese, and Taiwanese Students. International Journal of Applied Educational Studies, 9, 19-32.

Subscribe to Email Updates