Seems like every few months there’s a story about how bad American students do in math, science, and reading than many other countries. Usually, we’re compared with China and South Korea and a few other Asian countries where Tiger parenting rules supreme. (South Korea, by the way, has the highest student suicide rate of any country in the world. I think I’d opt for a live child with lower grades than a dead straight-A student.) But what we don’t hear much about is Finland, which does remarkably well on these tests and has happier, less-depressed (and less suicidal) children. In this guest post from Jason Evan, we’ll find out what Finland is doing that we might be able to learn from.

Here in the States, we like to think of ourselves as the best and the brightest. For sure, there is a lot of brainpower coming out of America (we have Mark Zuckerberg, after all), yet in 2010 the scores from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams were released and the U.S. was found to be about middling in reading, science and math (14th, 17th and 25th, respectively). Sure, we have some of our most ambitious and able resident pursuing programs such as LL.M taxation eventually, but what about those formative early years?

Yet holding court in the top ten was Finland, a small Baltic nation with a population of about 5.36 million, which scored 2nd, 3rd and 6th (respectively). It made the world sit up and take notice, especially ruffled American educators who started to wonder: what are these Finns doing differently?

To be sure, Finland is a much smaller nation that doesn’t have a heavy influx of immigrants (just four percent of the Finnish population is foreign-born, while 36 percent of Americans are), nor the soaring discrepancy among wealthy and poor that burdens the U.S. Yet it has been pointed out that Norway, a country of similar population to Finland which follows education policies like those in the U.S., such as aggressive standardized testing and not requiring master’s degrees of their teachers, was also middling in their PISA scores (Norway has a relatively low 12.2 percent immigrant population). So perhaps the Finns are onto something…

No education system is labeled absolutely “right,” of course, but the Finns made a concentrated effort some 40 years ago to reform their education system and it varies vastly from that in the U.S. Is it perfect? Of course not; but the differences are, at once, bold and telling.

Hardly Any Standardized Testing

It’s ironic that Finland scored so high on the PISA exams, since the nation has little to do with standardized testing at all. Such exams are administered once at age 16, if the student wants to go on to upper secondary school instead of vocational school. Scores are not advertised and schools are not held up to one another for comparison.

Pre-K and Kindergarten Learning

Even before students ever set foot in their first classroom, Finland offers families immeasurably different benefits, such as three years maternity leave and free daycare from eight months to five years of age. Parents are even subsidized, about 150 euros per month per child until they reach the age of 17.

Kids in Finland don’t start formal schooling until age seven – and even then, the emphasis is clearly on playing, whether indoors or out. Finnish teachers say they don’t want to teach children how to memorize facts, but to “learn how to learn,” giving them problem-solving skills. Class sizes seldom have greater than 20 students and the children play music and create art while they learn to sew, knit and woodwork.

Teachers’ Advantage

Part of Finland’s reform mandated that teachers have a master’s degree, which the government itself funds. Requiring an advanced degree has put teachers on the same level as doctors and lawyers (in contrast, a lawyer who wants a specialized master of laws degree the U.S. could spend as much as $50,000 at the more expensive graduate programs) and has also made positions in these masters programs, as well as the teaching jobs themselves, highly competitive.

It’s not even the pay, which is some thousands less than the starting average in the U.S.; most Finnish teachers cite the freedom in the classroom to create their own, unique curricula as the big draw. In fact, the national curriculum is more of a set of broadly defined guidelines, and teachers in Finland spend on average only four hours per day in the classroom, with two hours per week given over to “professional development” (creating lesson plans).

No AP or “Gifted” Classes

The Finns feature almost 100 percent fully integrated classes, with only the very severest of disabilities keeping students segregated from their peers. Only the Finnish as Second Language students are pulled from classes with any regularity. And nor are the brightest students taken from their peers and put into accelerated learning classes – the idea in Finland is to mainstream learning and give each child as equal – and as best – an education as possible.

It’s this kind of gentle kind of push Finland gives their people, as opposed to the, say, more aggressive push we give Americans into pursuing a healthcare master programs or graduate tax programs, that truly seems to be working, as well as a mixture of integration and creativity that has yet to grace the American classroom. However, in future years, we might see a different approach emerging, in the U.S.; a more Finnish approach, perhaps.

This article was written by Jason Evan a student in graduate tax programs. Jason is currently taking LL.M taxation courses in school and is looking forward to getting his master of laws degree next year.