A certain Finnish je ne sais quoi
Call it education's version of the French paradox. Students in Finland "have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells, and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don't start school until age 7." Yet Finnish pupils outscore nearly all their international peers on tests in reading, math, and science. How to explain Finland's bubble-filling superiority? For one, according to the Wall Street Journal, the country's teaching profession is "highly competitive," and teachers "generally have more freedom" (other reports disagree, though). Finns also "love reading," so much so that the government sends to parents of every newborn a gift pack that includes a picture book. And Finnish students aren't plagued by anxieties about getting into elite colleges because Finland doesn't have any. But perhaps the best way of explaining the Finnish paradox is this: Educators there teach the same types of students, nearly all of whom speak Finnish and grow up in comfortable households. This doesn't come close to describing the U.S. situation. American educators eager to learn from our Scandinavian friends should remember that what works for the Finns (walking around class without shoes, for example) won't necessarily work for us. We have too many tacks on the floor.
"What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?" by Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, February 29, 2008