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Is it a Mistake for West Virginia to Use Finland as an Education Model?

Updated on February 7, 2021

Dr. Steven Paine, West Virginia Schools Superintendent, used Finland as a model for reforming West Virginia's educational system. Finland is one of the top scorers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which is given every three years. Students in dozens of countries take the exams, which cover literacy, math, and science.

It seems reasonable to believe that Finland's PISA success is the result of its educational system and methods. However, there are other possible reasons for Finland's success. In addition to an excellent curriculum, the ease of learning and logical structure of the Finnish language may be a big factor in Finland's PISA success. If this is the case, using Finland as an educational model in the United States may not work.

The state of West Virginia plans to model it's education system on that of Finland
The state of West Virginia plans to model it's education system on that of Finland

Possible Reasons for Finland's Success

In another article titled The Finland Case Against Early Learning, I listed some possible reasons for Finland's academic success. Finland has one of the lowest rates of poverty in the world, a reading centered culture, and very involved parents. Finland is the top producer of children's books. About 30% of Finland's students can read before starting school. Another 43% have basic reading skills already in place. Finnish schools quickly intervene when students start to fall behind. They provide a lot of tutoring to help students catch up.

States like West Virginia could try to do the kinds of intervention that Finland does when students start to fall behind, but this will likely be much more challenging than it is for a country like Finland. The child poverty rate for West Virginia is 23% versus only 5.4% for Finland.

Dr. Paine also wants to raise the status of teachers, which is definitely a good thing. Teacher pay in the US is comparable to pay in Finland but teachers there are highly respected. Their status level is similar to that of doctors. Only 10% of all applicants for teacher training programs are accepted each year. So, Finland can easily choose the best and brightest to enter teaching. West Virginia probably won't have the luxury of attracting its best and brightest students to teaching.

Finland's teachers spend 3 years in a teacher training program and many go on to earn a Master's Degree. Teacher training schools in Finland teach primary school teachers the subjects they will teach in the classroom. American teacher training programs tend to focus largely on teaching methodology and generally don't teach the material that will be taught in elementary schools. Finland's teachers are likely much better prepared to teach than their American counterparts.

The Finnish Language May Be a Big Factor in Finland's Academic Success

In a fascinating blog post titled Why does Finnish give better PISA results?, 'Taksin Nuoret' makes the claim that the Finnish language, rather than the education system, may be a major factor in Finland's success on the PISA exams.

Some of Finland's students are actually speakers of the Swedish language. These Swedish speaking Finns are concentrated in two areas of the country and are better off financially and generally are in a higher social class than Finnish speaking Finns. However, the Swedish speaking Finns don't do as well on the PISA test as their Finnish speaking counterparts.

"In PISA 2003 Finnish-speaking students clearly outperformed their Swedish-speaking peers in scientific literacy, with an average difference of 26 points. However, also the Swedish-speaking minority was doing very well, since their results were on a par with those of the Netherlands."

So, Finland would still do well on PISA if it was a Swedish speaking country but wouldn't be on top. According to Nuoret:

"(Let's take the opportunity provided by this quote to note that if Finland's population happened to be mostly Swedish-speaking, the Finnish educational system would not be the focus of international attention.)

Same country, same Ministry of Education, inferior socio-economic background on average, yet superior PISA results. The question is not whether the Finnish language is a key factor to Finland's PISA results, but why."

Nouret suggests that learning to read in the Finnish language is much easier than in other languages. Finnish is largely phonetic with a richer "derivational morphology." Derivational morphology refers to changing the meanings of words by applying different derivations. Someone who knows the meaning of the word pilot can easily figure out the meaning of the word piloting.

Large numbers of words in Finnish come from the same lexeme or linguistic unit, which makes it easier to build a vocabulary and comprehend text. Nouret uses 'kirj' as an example and lists almost 30 words based on 'kirj' that relate to writing.

"Thus, the number of roots needed to reach comparable vocabulary is lower in Finnish than in, say, English, Spanish, French or Italian."

Finland's success in literacy, science, and math may be the result of superior reading ability due to speaking a more logical language. The PISA math test is a very text-heavy exam, so even in math better reading skills may provide an advantage. Unfortunately, Finland does not participate in the TIMSS math test, so there is no way to know how they would compare on an exam with far less text. It's also possible that the ease of learning to read and write leaves more time for math and science instruction in school.

English is not a completely phonetic language. There are far more spelling rules to learn. English has a much more varied vocabulary. West Virginians have to learn to read, write, and comprehend using the English language, which is far more complicated than Finnish. More class time has to be devoted to reading, improving comprehension, expanding vocabulary, writing, and spelling than is necessary in Finland. If Nouret is correct, West Virginia may not fare too well using Finland as an educational model due to the comparative difficulty of the English language.

Derivational Morphology in the Finnish Language

This is a partial list of words that come from "kirj" taken from Why does Finnish give better PISA results? by Taksin Nuoret. It is clear that there is a logical structure to the Finnish language that does not exist in English. It obviously is far more difficult for English speakers to build a large vocabulary and to figure out the meaning of words in context.

to complain in writing


It's smart to look at best practices in other countries. However, we should keep in mind that America has a lot of challenges that countries like Finland don't have. This should be kept in mind when reforming education. We should try to implement Finland's strong knowledge-oriented curriculum but we need to keep in mind that Finnish students learn to read more easily and don't have the rates of poverty that a state like West Virginia has. Finland's students enter school much better prepared to learn and their teachers are much better prepared for teaching. An idea that may work well in Finland may not work as well here.


Sample PISA Math Questions - these math problems will give you an idea of the kinds of questions that must be answered.

Why does Finnish give better PISA results? by Taksin Nuoret - read Nuorets full blog post on the language advantage Finland's students enjoy on the PISA test

West Virginia learns Finland's 'most honorable profession': Teacher - this article from CNN details the plan to model West Virginia's educational system on that of Finland

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2011 LT Wright


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