Education in Finland, Sweden, and Germany: What we learned from our European neighbors

Germany Finland Sweden

Recently, a few members of the Holdsworth team took a whirlwind, two-week trip to three countries and seven cities to garner a deeper understanding of their education systems. We traveled to Finland, Sweden, and Germany where we visited a number of schools and talked with leaders from the national ministries all the way to the municipalities, as well as a number of university researchers and experts.

Across the globe, there has been a great deal of change in education throughout the 20thcentury, which is what makes global education so interesting to study — every country has its own journeys in figuring out what type of school system works best for their citizens.

The 1980s and 1990s brought about substantial change due to increasing globalization/economic interdependency and international competition; growth of the knowledge-based economy; and recession and stagflation. These changes accelerated in the 2000s as a result of growing levels of diversity, both ethnic and economic, as well as digitalization. Through each decade, different national paths and patterns of education “reform” started to emerge.

We know there is no silver bullet for dealing with the complex issues facing public schools in today’s more mobile world, but there is certainly an opportunity to learn from one another about what works and what doesn’t.

Why Sweden, Finland, and Germany?

Sweden’s mediocre results on the international PISA exam are similar to our own, while Finland topped the charts on PISA when it was first introduced in 2001, despite their education system being largely modeled after Sweden’s. This was an intriguing dynamic that we wanted to explore. If Finland modeled its system after Sweden, how it is that Finland was performing so well?

Lastly, we chose Germany because of their historical emphasis on vocational education and apprenticeships — a big topic in education circles in America today.

Many folks might describe the policies and practices of the Scandinavian countries as being way too socialist for a country like the U.S., but we were inclined not to summarily dismiss some of the key tenets. These include:

  • The importance of a strong start through support for families and quality early childhood education
  • A rigorous selection and preparation program for teachers that ensures high quality instruction in the classroom
  • Equitable school funding that takes into consideration the additional supports needed for diverse learners
  • An accountability and assessment system that informs practice and helps meet the individual needs of children
  • A clear governance structure that spells out who has the responsibility for key decisions around funding, curriculum and school oversight

Throughout the two-week trip, we were struck by many observations that went beyond education and to the very heart of how these countries operate on a daily level. The insights we gained were invaluable; we learned a great deal about how their countries approach the education of their youth, delving as early as parental leave policies.

What a longer parental leave looks like

We were immediately struck by the number of mothers and fathers with baby carriages on the streets. It seemed that there were babies everywhere, which led at first to an incorrect conclusion that in places like Helsinki, they must have a very high birth rate. This is not the case. The birth rate in Finland is actually the lowest its been in 148 years — so why so many infants?

Perhaps the apparent “baby boom” was actually just more visible babies, likely due to the generous family leave policy offered everywhere we visited from Stockholm to Berlin. When mothers have up to 18 months off before returning to work and fathers have at least two months, it stands to reason that parents have more time to spend with their young children and that this might allow them to bond more powerfully from a very young age, which we know is critical in terms of brain development.

The freedom to be a kid

Children in all of the schools we visited, from kindergarten all the way through upper secondary, had a lot of freedom. With multiple breaks built into the day – as much as 15 minutes for every 45 minutes of instruction for very young children – kids had a lot of choices about how they spent their time. It might be out on the playground, in a specially designated “activity room,” maybe in the library, or even grabbing a snack. With all of the focus on the importance of building critical thinking skills in kids, principals and researchers alike suggested that this “built-in” autonomy helps to build self-regulation skills and student agency from an early age.

We observed the same practice during our trip to Toronto in the fall and it left us wondering. What conditions are necessary to enable teachers and principals to offer students more choice? Not just what they study and how quickly they progress, but also how they spend a portion of their time in school. We wondered: What impact might this have on student engagement and satisfaction? According to a professor at Texas Christian University (TCU), it has a lot of impact.

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Teachers are heroes

The tremendous respect for the teaching profession is evident in all three countries, something we also observed in Singapore. With a history of very rigorous standards that include up to five years at a traditional university, a master’s degree, and at least two years in the classroom studying under a master teacher, it is no wonder that people have a high regard for educators in Finland, Sweden, and Germany. Let’s also not forget that universities in these countries are “free” for the most part, which means the admission criteria have to be high.

With a limited number of seats available, competition is also high. For those who are accepted, specific programs of study are rigorous with all teachers at the secondary level required to have a bachelor’s degree in at least one subject taught in school and most obtaining specializations in at least two subjects.

The one exception we saw was in Berlin, a state working hard to deal with large numbers of immigrants and refugees from conflict-ridden countries across Europe and the Middle East. The rapidly-growing population, combined with the elimination of the “civil servant” status for teachers, has led to a pretty dramatic shortage. With a need to hire an estimated 2,500 new teachers per year, they have started to allow people to enter the field through a “side entrance,” which we would commonly refer to as alternative certification. The question is how do you The Holdsworth Centermaintain quality and rigor while also dealing with a shortage of people?

The path to principal

In Texas, there are five requirements to obtain a principal certificate, which include a master’s degree, classroom teaching certificate, and at least two years of teaching experience. Preparation for principals varies greatly in the countries we visited, but most do not have a principal certification process.

The track to campus leadership in Germany usually requires a significant amount of time in the classroom as a teacher, then vice principal, and then principal. This means that most people don’t assume the role until they are in their 30s or 40s. The role is instructionally focused and most principals still teach as many as 10 lessons per week at the primary level and an average of three lessons per week at the secondary level.

Because most teachers outside of Berlin do enjoy civil servant status, principals must be adept at influencing and persuading in order to bring teachers along with any change they want to make on a campus. Sweden requires principals to complete a three-year training program after they are named to the role. Finland and Germany rely on candidates to opt into various professional development opportunities based on self-reflection over the course of their career. This means that the majority of preparation is job embedded and based on experience, not based on prescribed coursework or passing an exam. The role remains very attractive with approximately 30 candidates for every principal position in places like Berlin.

Standardized tests are not a priority

None of the countries we visited put as much stock in the power or validity of standardized testing as we do in the United States. Finland only has one major exam, called the Matriculation Examination, which is a high-stakes exam that determines college readiness. Most have some form of testing typically in 3rd, 6th, 9th and 10thgrades, when most students complete what we would think of as compulsory education. The focus areas for most of these tests include language and math. The general belief is that assessments should be formative in nature and should mainly be guided by the teacher.

The purpose of such assessments should be to help inform instruction in the classroom and to help students and families understand areas where improvement is needed. In Sweden, it is left up to the municipality to determine whether or not such results are even shared with the general public. The downside or risk in a system that relies solely on teacher discretion is grade inflation, which has been a big topic of conversation.

All three countries also had a centralized inspectorate responsible for assessing schools every three to five years through site visits, surveys, interviews with staff, and classroom observations. The data from these inspections is delivered back to the schools to help them improve and each campus must then follow up with a proposed development plan, which is revisited during the next inspection in order to evaluate progress. The consensus from many of the experts seemed to be that a robust accountability system should include both standardized tests at key transition points — 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12thgrades, for example — and more formative examinations designed and administered by teachers in order to get both the quantitative and qualitative view of how a student is truly progressing.

The Holdsworth CenterSchool choice: Swedish style

Sweden was the only country we visited that had introduced school choice in a significant way. As part of reforms that happened for political reasons in 2006 and 2010, independent schools began opening across the country. These are publicly-funded schools with special areas of emphasis, especially at the secondary level. Many of these schools are operated by large, for-profit providers with no cap on potential revenue and earnings. They are not, however, allowed to charge additional fees to families who choose this option. Analysis of whether the independent schools actually perform better than traditional district schools is mixed and complicated by the lack of a consistent accountability system.

Overall, however, student outcomes including PISA results experienced a sharp decline, especially in reading, throughout the early 2000s. Though the causal relationship between choice and performance is impossible to pin down, there is widespread agreement that the way Sweden introduced choice drove significant increases in school segregation on almost all dimensions – income, ethnicity, and performance. We know that, in general, all students tend to perform at a higher level when campuses are more diverse. Higher levels of segregation, which can be an unintended outcome of choice as parents tend to choose schools based on social composition, actually drives overall student outcomes down, not up. One particularly surprising aspect of the Swedish choice system is that at the upper secondary level, at the age of 16, students can make the decision about what school they want to attend and don’t actually need formal parental permission or input.

One might look at Finland and Sweden as a tale of two countries, one that has maintained a more traditional system (Finland) and one that has introduced a number of “reforms” with mixed results since 2000 (Sweden). It is a fascinating case study, as Finland originally based their education system on Sweden many years ago and has continued to see stronger student performance over the past decade. One of the researchers we spoke with referred to Sweden’s reform era as “fort och fel,” which literally means “fast and wrong.”  We might think of it as sloppy execution — a number of changes rolled out too quickly, with poor implementation and a lack of thoughtful study about what the long-term impact might be on the broader system.

Who’s in charge?

Governance also varied greatly across the countries we visited, with Finland enjoying the benefits of a tightly aligned federal system with a national curriculum that is revised every 10 years and a great deal of input from teachers and other key stakeholders. In Sweden, the schools are governed at the municipal level and in Germany at the state level, more similar to the United States. Both Sweden and Germany have locally-elected boards at the municipal level involved in school oversight with a strong focus on budgeting and capital expenditures. In Germany, the state ministers meet annually and through their convenings set overall curriculum standards, although testing and examination content varies greatly between states. None of the countries had a divided system of governance between the federal government, the states and the municipalities, although it wasn’t always clear exactly who was running the schools.

Education as a public good

Education in all of the countries was clearly viewed as a public good. All are working to adapt to a much more diverse student population through special supports and structures like family reception centers, one-year “welcome classes” in schools and having social workers on most campuses. All three raised interesting questions about the difference between integration and inclusion, similar to what we saw in Ontario. What is the role of school in this process? Is the goal to quickly convert new student arrivals to adopt the culture and values of their new home? Or is it to weave together a more colorful tapestry by maintaining existing norms and practices, while also building new language skills and learning from others with different backgrounds Schlau School in Munichand abilities? How do you do this well?

The Schlau school in Munich, which serves primarily male immigrant students between the ages of 16 and 25, is trying to answer this question by combining research with practice. Their unique format and approach is designed to drive understanding about what is truly needed in order to help these students be successful and it is definitely a program to watch.

We are grateful to our hosts who opened their schools and offices to us and helped us to look at the complicated business of education through many different lenses. We plan to take everything we learned in Finland, Sweden, and Germany back to our districts here in Texas to better the education for our state’s kids.