Linda Lantor Fandel, Des Moines Register: “I'm Linda Lantor Fandel deputy editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register I'm here with photographer Mary Chind at Meilahti Comprehensive School in Helsinki Finland.
In recent years teenagers in the small northern European country of Finland have topped the international charts in math, science, and reading.”
Kati Schenk, age 16 - student Viikki School: “Well we don't think we're better than anybody else we just think that we're just like any other student in any other country.”
Three characteristics of the Finnish education system stand out: careful selection of teachers, a rigorous national curriculum, and a constant commitment to provide help if students begin to stumble.
The process to enter the teaching profession is highly selective. Fewer than ten percent of applicants for the classroom-teacher education program at the University of Helsinki were accepted this school year. All classroom teachers must earn a masters degree.
Teachers in Finland say their work is satisfying despite pay that is lower than other affluent nations including the U.S.
Martti Mery, teacher Viikki School: “Teachers are respected they're very sort of decent people and they're doing something that's very important.”
Ilmari Vauras, teacher Meilahti Comprehensive School: “All the teachers have masters degree they're given more things to decide for themselves of course there's the curriculum that has to be followed, but there is quite a lot of room for improvisation and choices.”
A national curriculum sets clear learning goals in core subjects as well as religion, ethics, music and others.
A bi-lingual teaching program at the Meilahti Primary School involves students learning in both Finnish and Chinese. In addition to Finnish, students are required to learn English and Swedish.
The system provides support for students who struggle including special teachers that float between classrooms. Extra pay is given to teachers who provide lessons after school.
Jyrki Loima, administrative principal, Viikki School: “Parents trust on our education system, teachers trust on the students, headmasters trust on the teachers, central administration trusts on the schools.”
Schools in Canada also ranked well on international tests. The Des Moines Register visited the western province of Alberta in October of 2008. The Register found a detailed centralized curriculum, well paid teachers with access to professional development, a system that embraces multiculturalism, and an ethic of continuous improvement.
Andrew Heck, 12th grade student: “We want to be competitive in the world and we want to be at the same level if not better than other places.”
Alberta’s detailed curriculum promotes consistent educational goals for all students. There is little difference in test scores between schools and relatively few children performing at the lowest levels. Teachers are involved in all aspects of developing and assessing the curriculum.
Wes Wintonyk, Leadership Teacher: “I like the new math curriculum in that we're no longer just giving the information to the kids and they're just spewing it forth back out, they have to come up with the concepts on their own I think we are making them - think more.”
Alberta teachers are paid relatively well. On the average they make more than their peers in Finland and the U.S. Unlike Finland, Alberta teachers are not required to have a master’s degree.
About nine percent of the students are learning English as a second language, more than double Iowa’s four percent. However, at present the system does not have a mandatory foreign language requirement largely due to difficulty in recruiting enough teachers. The system aims to encourage multiculturalism with an eye towards preparing students for twenty-first century jobs.
Lacia Panylyck, Chemistry Instructor: “They don't think we are anymore a little province in a little country. I think globalization is inevitable just with the technology and everything else that we have.”
Alberta schools also face challenges including: drop out rates, only about 80 percent of students finish high school within five years of entering grade 10. Class sizes are often too large, and the system does not offer universal all-day kindergarten. However, there is an ethic of being forthcoming about weaknesses as well as strengths and a commitment to continuous improvement.
Derek Christensen, Math team leader: “I don't think by any means we're there, we're still on the journey along with everyone else.”