It feels like every time I open my news page or social media feed, there is another article about how great the Finnish school system is.

To be honest, it does sound pretty great: students going to school for five hours a day, loads of preparation time, a conscious focus on play, no standardized tests and socially active dialogue on values included in curriculum.

And who could ignore that amazing teacher pay?

A classroom in Jyväskylä, Finland.

A classroom in Jyväskylä, Finland. The schools there are great, but that doesn’t mean we can — or should — emulate the Finns.

Kevin Oliver/Flickr.com

Yes, Finland represents a lot of dreams for us teachers, and we cannot ignore the results either; Finland actively ranks near the top of every globally accepted benchmark.

Its literacy and graduation rates are through the roof, and it is regularly ranked high by the Programme for International Student Assessment. And where is the United States? Somewhere in the middle of the pack, behind global superpowers like Liechtenstein, Latvia and Portugal.

It seems like the Finnish system is pretty great. Too bad we can never have the Finnish system.

Let us start with the tab. Public education is just that, public. All of the bills are paid by taxpayer dollars.

In the mid-1800s Hawaii had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

The current average U.S. personal income tax rate is 39.6 percent while in Finland the average is 51.6 percent. Good luck asking the American people to increase their tax rate by more than 10 percentage points. Even the Hawaii State Teachers Association proposal to increase the general excise tax by 1 percent was quickly shot down by the Legislature (thanks, election year).

We also have to remember that our educational system does not operate in a vacuum. Even if we could magically lift the educational model from Finland and transport it here, we have greater societal issues that would continue to affect student performance.

My students come to school burdened by things like poverty, hunger and racism. Of course, we can argue that having a better educational system could fix a lot of those problems, but we are unable to truly implement it until there is some relief. Students who are more worried about where they are sleeping that night tend to not listen as well to a history lecture in my class.

The last reason we will never get the Finnish system is pretty obvious: We are not Finnish. Education is reflective of culture. Countries are made up of people with similar mindsets and values. Finns value education in a different way than Americans.

Part of American culture is debate and dialogue. Instead of just picking one system and sticking with it, we prefer to argue, try conflicting mandates, and change policymakers every few years.

One side wants more Finnish systems installed, the other looks at a country like Singapore, which beat Finland in the PISA, and thinks that testing and standardization is the best bet. Different states try different models and we see what sticks to the wall when it is all through.

E Pluribus Unum; that is the American way.

The upshot of this is that education can be far more localized. So instead of worrying about fixing the entire American system, we can focus on Hawaii Nei.

This has been further codified by the new Every Student Succeeds Act. This may also be a cause of the sudden interest in Finland as we search for ways to alter our system for the better.

But we need to stop looking out to distant countries for our educational policy. Hawaii can shape her own model.

This also means we need to stop looking to the continent as well. Whatever California or Tennessee schools do may have merit, but we should not look to lift those systems and shove them into our schools like an ill-fitting puzzle piece.

The educational system of Hawaii has a 200-plus-year history that we could be reviving and modernizing to help our students.

In the mid-1800s Hawaii had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) said, “He aupuni palapala koʻu” (“Mine is a kingdom of education”).

The frameworks are there, we simply need to grasp them.

About the Author