The Finland Phenomenon: What the U.S. Can Learn about Teacher Preparation and Professional Collaboration

Posted by Mandi / on 07/25/2011 / 7 Comments

Categories: Growth/Professional Development, Preparation, Teacher Evaluation, International

Please take a moment to view the new SCEE featured video clip of The Finland Phenomenon.

The recently released documentary follows Harvard professor and fellow at the Center of Technology and Entrepreneurship, Tony Wagner, as he visits several schools in Finland to meet with current teachers, prospective teachers, students, education professors, and education administrators.  The film paints a picture of a nation-wide education system that is radically different from our own and offers a behind-the-scenes look into how Finland's education system works.  Considering that the United Nations ranks Finland as #1 in education and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks Finland as one of the top systems in education, while the U.S. is ranked as average overall, the documentary raises engaging questions for American educators. 

The film posits that one of the keys to Finland's success is strong and competitive teacher preparation.  Admissions to Finnish teacher preparation programs are highly competitive; prospective students must earn high marks in their matriculation exams, pass a rigorous entrance exam and undergo an interview.  Only 10% of applicants are accepted into the programs.  As part of the teacher preparation program, prospective teachers earn a BA and MA in their subject and/or pedagogy, completing five years of college-level classes and training.  In addition, the students observe master teachers and then prepare lessons and teach in front of a panel of other prospective teachers, professors, and master teachers. 

Teaching is a desirable career in Finland and teacher preparation programs can afford to be both selective and demanding.  According to the film, Finnish teachers earn salaries similar to other college graduates, quickly receive tenure, and are members of strong unions.  In 2008, the average salary of a teacher in Finland was 13% lower than other college graduates; the average salary of a teacher in America at the same time was 40% lower than other college graduates.  The film states that the average teacher in the United States leaves the profession after five years, and the average teacher in Finland remains to retirement.

In Finland, professional collaboration is a key to growth for both prospective and seasoned teachers. In fact, teachers in Finland actually spend less time with students than their U.S. counterparts in order to spend more time in joint professional reflection on student work.  Finnish teachers spend around 600 hours teaching while US teachers spend around 1,000 hours teaching; this leaves a significant amount of time for Finnish teachers to spend working collaboratively.  A 2010 policy brief from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education recommends that American teachers follow the lead of Finnish teachers and spend at least 10 hours each week working collaboratively.  The brief found that teachers in Finland collaborate in several key ways, meeting one afternoon each week to plan and develop curriculum as a team, working together on research and professional development planning, and working on teams with administrators to discuss curriculum, textbooks, assessments, professional growth, and budgeting.

Finnish officials in the film stress that having trust in teachers to perform at a high level and to manage their own classrooms is the driving force behind teacher success - in short, teachers are successful educators because they hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for educating their students. This is reminiscent of Richard Elmore's construction of internal and external accountability as key factors to consider when planning for reform.  Elmore's definition of "internal accountability" is closely related to the idea of accountability Finnish education professionals describe in the film:  "coherence and alignment among individuals' conceptions of what they are responsible for and how, collective expectations at the organizational level, and processes by which people within the organization account for what they do. Internal accountability precedes and determines all school responses to their external environment."  

Indeed, just as Finnish students undergo very little testing, teachers are not subject to formal review processes, either.  Instead, their performance reviews occur in ongoing, job-embedded ways as teachers work together to solve specific problems of practice in their day-to-day instructional settings. 

Clearly, there are major differences and similarities in U.S. and Finnish school systems.  What do you think about the way Finland organizes and supports teaching?  How it is different in your state?  As states look to reform teacher preparation and evaluation, how do we create processes that promote a culture of collaboration and internal accountability?


The Finnish National Board of Education.  (December 2010)  Teachers and educational staff.  Retrieved from

Aho, E., Pitkanen, K. and P. Sahlberg.  (May 2006)  Policy Development and Reform Principles of Basic and Secondary Educaiton in Finland Since 1968.  Education Unit at the World Bank.  Retrieved from

Bob Kronish.  (June 2011)  Education, Innovation, Infrastructure - The Resurgence:  Part IV.  Retrieved from

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  (2008)  Education at a Glance:  OECD Indicators 2008.  Retrieved from,3746,en_2649_35961291_41266761_1_1_1_1,00.html

Andree, A., Darling-Hammond, S. and Chung Wei, R.  (August 2010)  How High-Achieving Countries Develop Great Teachers.  Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education~Research Brief.   Retrieved from

Costante, K.  (Summer 2010) Leading the Instructional Core:  An Interview with Richard Elmore.  In Conversation, Volume II (Issue 3)Retrieved from



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  • Deb says:

    Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finish Lessons and an esteemed educational leader from Finland, spoke to educators at the Iowa Education Summit on July 25th. He shared how his niece was denied entrance to a Finish preservice program, even though had an outstanding high school resume. Her application was rejected, because she was unable to articulate a compelling reason for why she wanted to be a teacher. He described the stringent selection criteria for teacher education candidates in Finland. According to Sahlberg, Finnish teachers are paid significantly more than US teachers, and the teaching load in Finnish classrooms is less than other OECD countries. Finland does not have standards or standardized testing on those standards—it is the teachers’ role to establish these. Teachers are well prepared and provided with collaborative support so that they have the capacity to set standards and design assessments. There is no term for “accountability". In Finland they talk about “responsibility”.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:09 AM | Permalink

  • Peter says:

    I was on the CCSSO visit to Finland and concur 100% with these highlights. The process of change in Finland was about systems change and took well over 15 years of focus and support anchored in agreement on the standards and expectations, as well as a profound belief that Finnish children could learn at high levels , and that current practice was inadequate at scale and therefore reflected a systems problem, not an individual teacher problem. Since 1983 we have been encouraged to “benchmark” best practice, learn from it and adapt it to our context. So many of our international visits reflect strategic thinking and tactical strategies that are the result of research and have been tested and demonstrated to be levers of change and improvement. I hope the Finland learnings get broad review in our search for effective policy levers and that we “adapt” many of their implementation strategies.

    July 28, 2011 at 10:01 AM | Permalink

  • Lois says:

    In September 2009, CCSSO hosted a delegation of chiefs in Helsinki, supported by the Pearson Foundation. OECD’s Andreas Schleicher spoke about the success of Finland’s education system. Finnish culture values education as an economic development tool, and values educators as key to the success of the system. They recruit teachers from the “best and brightest,” and have more applicants than spaces for their 5 year preparation program. When teachers complete the program they are considered researchers, who know how to collect data, problem-solve, and collaborate with colleagues to provide the highest quality education for each child. Clear expectations for student learning are the focus of each school, and teachers have the autonomy to determine “how” to meet student needs within the collaborative cultures in schools. It was a pleasure to visit Finland and learn that they don’t see what they do as extraordinary, but rather as key to preparing their citizens for success in the global community.

    July 28, 2011 at 12:51 PM | Permalink

  • Lois says:

    Here is a link to the report from the CCSSO trip to Helsinki:

    July 28, 2011 at 12:52 PM | Permalink

  • Peter says:

    After visiting Finland the most powerful practice I came away with was the culture of professional, shared, responsibility for student learning, as well as for problem solving and continuous improvement at the team, school and district level. The revised InTASC standards deal directly with this issue and confront the gap in current institutional practice at all levels in terms of roles, expectations, expertise, responsibilities and relationships. The current effort to improve the assessment of candidate readiness (the TPAC project of AACTE and Stanford) and the call to rethink preparation along the lines of NCAT’s Blue Ribbon Report on clinical practice, are examples of lessons learned embedded industry leadership.

    July 28, 2011 at 12:53 PM | Permalink

  • Circe says:

    Here's an article that was published in December of 2011, but is making its rounds again. Though the article discusses several of the key themes I heard when I was in Finland last fall, I was most intrigued by this thesis: "Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity."

    March 26, 2013 at 11:41 PM | Permalink

  • Circe says:

    A teacher from the US moves to Finland and blogs about it in "Classroom Shock: What I Am Learning as a Teacher in Finland." Check out that Ed Week post here:

    He also has his own blog about his experience:

    January 1, 2014 at 2:09 AM | Permalink


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