The image of Finland school education as being one of the best in the world recently took a hit when the country’s standing in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) declined. The PISA is the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s ranking of the test results of students from 65 countries and regions in various subject areas. Finland slipped to 12th place in math, the first time the country had done so in a decade. The country had previously topped the PISA rankings in 2000, 2003 and 2006. In addition, annualized changes in score points showed that showed that students’ scores in mathematics were down 2.8%, reading, 1.7% and science three percent.
While Finland school education is still considered outstanding, as seen by the fact that the country still ranked first among European countries in the areas of reading and science, the weaker results are seen as a warning that the Finland school education system needs to reform to avoid declining further. One commentator even compared the educational system to Nokia, the country’s fallen mobile phone maker, which once ranked number one in global mobile phone sales but whose performance has declined as it failed to catch up with the smartphone era and was recently forced to sell to Microsoft its handset business.
The comparison of the Finland school education system with Nokia is apt, given that analysts believe one of the major problems besetting it is complacency. One of the reasons for the handset maker’s downfall was seen to be its inability to adjust to changing trends. The same is seen to be happening in the educational system in that its leaders had spent more time explaining why it was outstanding rather than focusing on what needs to be done next to maintain its leadership position. Observers point out that the country’s decision-makers had access to indicators showing the weakening performance of the Finland school education system in math for years without doing anything about it.
In fact, in 2005 some 200 Finnish academics had warned the country’s education decision-makers against complacency in the wake of its high PISA performance. In addition, Pasi Stahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons, a best-selling study of the Finland school education system, said that when the country emerged unexpectedly as a world education leader, this may have disturbed its commitment to continuous renewal and improvement. Other observers believe that the focus on explaining the success of the Finland school education system to foreigners may have taken attention away from the need to develop its own school system.
One explanation for the weakening performance of the Finland school education system in math is the fact that more advanced math is no longer a compulsory part of the curriculum. At present there is only one compulsory math program in the Finland school education system, which is basic math taught to students aged seven to fifteen. But subjects such as geometry and algebra have basically disappeared since they are seen as being too difficult for a big part of the student population. As a result of this it becomes more difficult for a upper high school student to attain university-level math knowledge.
Stahlberg, who is also head of the country’s Center for International Mobility and a policy adviser, theorized that another factor in the decline of Finland school education may be the increasing number of weak-performing schools, which has resulted in a widening gap between the best and worst schools in the country. There are a number of reasons for this, which include inadequate financial resources in some school municipalities and growing income differentials among the rich and the poor.
Other observers, however, have theorized that the Finland school education system has not declined at all but rather other countries’ have strengthened as a result of their improved performance in the PISA. When Finland was top-ranked in the PISA in 2000 and 2003 only Korea and Japan were represented among the East Asian countries. By 2009 the number had grown to seven, of which six ranked in the top ten in math. In 2012 the top seven positions in math were taken by countries from the region, with Shanghai at the top followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao and China. But East Asia also dominated in reading, where countries from the region took the top five rankings, and science, where they took the top four. The increased dominance of East Asia would naturally push Finland’s rankings down even if its actual performance has not declined at all relative to past years.
Another factor that was identified as possibly being behind the decline in the Finland school education system are the weakening of the Nordic economies, which resulted in social pressures that affected the academic performance of students. However, some educators put the reason for the decline bluntly – Finnish students have simply forgotten to work hard. As one teacher put it, you won’t learn math if you don’t work enough at it.