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Lessons from most successful schools abroad

Education trends from other nations are gaining cachet as political and educational leaders strive to bring American schools in line with the demands of the 21st-century global economy.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2009

IN FINLAND: Teacher Piia Juhola writes students’ suggestions on the chalkboard at Länsimäki School in Vantaa. Student achievement in the country is high.

Petri Krook/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Jyväskylä, Finland

After each 45-minute class, students at the Vaajakumpu Primary School in Finland suit up in their snow gear, and for 15 minutes, they frolic on ice skates, sleds, and skis.

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These breaks provide a clear contrast between Finnish schools and their recess-starved counterparts in the United States. But it's not the contrasts on the surface that have prompted thousands of educators from around the world to visit this Nordic nation. Rather, it's their curiosity about what underlies an education system that boasts some of the highest scores among countries on PISA – a test of reading, math, and science literacy for 15-year-olds.

No single factor can explain the students' strong showing. They grow up in a highly literate, bilingual society (Finnish and Swedish, with most learning English as well). Finns also enjoy strong governmental supports for parental leave, day care, and healthcare (in exchange for high taxes), which means that problems associated with poverty don't show up at the schoolhouse door nearly as often as in the US.

One essential element, though, is the high caliber of Finland's teaching corps, education leaders say. "We trust our teachers," says Reijo Laukkanen, head of international relations at the Finnish National Board of Education in Helsinki. "That is very important, and it's not easy to realize in all countries – the culture of trust we have in Finland."

Since 1979, master's degrees have been required for teaching in primary and secondary schools. And the profession is so popular – even with its moderate salaries – that only 10 to 15 percent of applicants make it into university teacher-education programs.

A contrast with America

That selectivity "in and of itself is just such a huge difference from the US," says Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, an independent policy group in Washington. American education programs at universities don't tend to set difficult standards to get in, and top students aren't lining up at their doors, he and other experts say.

Perhaps that needs to change, some policymakers suggest as they eye not only Finland, but also a range of high-performing countries where the teaching profession is more selective.

Indeed, education trends from abroad are gaining cachet as political and educational leaders strive to bring American schools in line with the demands of the 21st-century global economy. Researchers cite effective practices from places as varied as Korea, Australia, Singapore, and Switzerland. (See story on Singapore's model and a roundup of practices in other nations.)