There has been much criticism of education in the United States, not least in recent weeks. People have suggested our problems of low achievement are the result of bad teachers, tenure laws, and now poor teacher education programs. In fact both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press ran the same column about the wonderful success of Finland and implied we need to have educational preparation programs similar to Finland’s to move U.S. education back to high quality (“What Americans have yet to learn about teacher training,” June 22).

No question Finland has done well. It now typically ranks high on international tests, on the quality of teacher preparation (teachers are required to have a master’s degree), and on the respect Finnish people have for educators. Finnish culture reveres teachers, does not seek to denigrate them, and pays them relatively well. Finnish teacher education programs are harder to get into (they only take the top 10 percent of applicants) and their programs are both rigorous and long term (two years). Poor teachers in Finland are not punished; they are supported so they can improve and become better.

But while making the comparison, we need to remember that Finland is not the United States.

Finland has 5.3 million people; the United States has 318 million. Finland is quite homogeneous, with most people of Finnish heritage. The U.S. has a wide variety of people, with more than 60 percent white and sizable minorities of African Americans (12.5 percent), Hispanics (12.1 percent), Asians (3.6 percent), and others.

Three languages are spoken in Finland; the U.S. has more than 300, with almost 17 million people speaking a language other than English in the home.

In fact, as of 2010, four American states were minority-majority: California, Texas, New Mexico and Hawaii. Almost 48 percent of the growth among young people belongs to Hispanic families. And more than 50 percent of children under 1 in the U.S. are minority members. Most notably, the U.S. public school population will have a nonwhite majority starting next year for the first time ever.

On recent PISA tests (international tests of knowledge in science and related areas) Finland scored near the top, next to Singapore and cities in China. The overall U.S. scores were below that.

However, U.S. data also indicated that when only U.S. schools with poverty rates of 10 percent or less were counted, U.S. scores were the best in the world. It’s time to perhaps acknowledge these facts and stop suggesting that U.S. schools and educational training programs are not doing well. When poverty is not a factor, they are the best.

Finland’s child poverty rate is slightly more than 4 percent. In the United States it is almost 21 percent. In some areas of the U.S. (often in southern regions) the youth population that is poor exceeds 40 percent.

And recent studies from researcher Sean Reardon of Stanford University indicate that over the past 50 years, the achievement gap in the U.S. has gotten larger between income groups, more so than between racial groups. The gap has increased 40 percent between rich and poor, partly because wealthier families are investing more time and money in their children. Poverty has a great impact on achievement.

So when we compare Finland and the U.S., we need to be aware of these huge differences in culture and economic discrepancies.

Finland does well. But it certainly does not have to deal with the challenges of immigration, language and ethnic diversity, and, most importantly, issues of poverty. Oh, and did I mention, Finland doesn’t have any private schools. Even the few independent schools are publicly financed. So U.S. charter and private schools also make comparisons between the U.S. and Finland more complicated.

Perhaps we should try to find another country that has a similar population size, diversity, and poverty rates so we can more accurately compare educational systems. Using those criteria, we should be comparing the U.S. with, say, Indonesia (12.5 percent poverty rate) or Brazil (21.4 percent poverty rate), the 4th and 5th largest countries in the world.

Brazil was around 58th on the PISA scores and Indonesia near the very bottom. All things considered, perhaps the U.S. educational system is actually doing well.


Robert Shumer is a research associate and adjunct faculty in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.