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International assessments conducted by PISA (Program for International Student assessment) on students from OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) have ranked Finland top. Finnish students have scored higher than US students on international assessments. The trends in the Finnish education system of the country have seen a surge of visitors who are eager to learn the principles leading to success in the education system. PISA is conducted on 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading to measure the knowledge students have acquired over a period of ten years (OECD, 2011). PISA reports rank Finland as the top educational giant internationally. The assessments leading to the ranking had been conducted for a decade since 2001 when the first PISA report was conducted. According to the report, remarkable improvements in Finnish school performances are notable, with little variations between outcomes of various schools across the country as well as between the highest and lowest students. During the years when Finland had a turgid bureaucratic system, it was poorly ranked educationally among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and development commonly known as OECD nations (OECD, 2011). The PISA Statistics indicate that 99% of students complete basic educations, 90% proceed to complete secondary school with two-thirds of these enrolling in universities or professional polytechnics and 50% of the adult population enrolling in adult education programs. The government sponsors 98% of the education cost. This essay aims to offer a comparative analysis of the factors causing the disparities in the education systems. The main focus is on the education system of the United States, discussing the educational background and policies of the country’s education system that has led it to be ranked the 15th on the PISA assessments.


  • What are the academic ratings of the United States and Finland from PISA?
  • What is the educational structure of the United States compared to that of Finland?
  • What are the principles of each education system and the level of government contribution towards the systems?


The United States is the third-largest population in the world with approximately 308 million individuals. This is 58 times more than Finland’s population which stands at slightly above 5.2 million people. The United States has a rich cultural diversity consisting of Hispanics, blacks, Asians, Indians among others distributed all over its 50 states. The literacy level of the country is 99%, a percentage lower than the ideal literacy level of a 15-year-old being at 100% (OECD, 2011). The education system consists of elementary, lower secondary and high school all of which are governed by the local school districts. The school districts are charged with the responsibility of enacting policies and framework within which the schools would operate. The individual states are charged with the responsibility of providing a framework within which the school districts would formulate curriculums. This means that different schools have independent organizations and curriculums. The schools are headed by principals/ school heads, supported by the teachers and other specialists and support staff. Public schools are funded by the government. Along with public schools, there are private schools that are self-sponsored, Magnet schools, charter schools, and homeschooling. The government has a limited role in structuring the education systems; hence it does not provide regulation on curriculums, teacher-student requirements, accreditation of institutions, budgets or location of schools. The roles of the federal government to the education system can be summarized as follows:

  1. Exercising leadership by promoting educational policies and initiating reforms at a national level.
  2. Enforcing federal laws relating to education.
  3. Provision of education information and statistics.

The implication of this is that there are as many educational contents as there is a number of institutions in the country. The state government is charged with the responsibility of funding public education, providing oversight to local schools, establishing policies of school curriculums, oversight in the provision of education to special need students, licensing of institutions, teachers, and personnel. This means that the knowledge base between students is varied, thus the profound disparity between the education system of the country and that of Finland (US Department of Education 2008). The country enacted a No Child Left behind Act with the aim of bridging the achievement gap by advocating accountability, choice, and flexibility. The Act contains factors affecting the education system such as the improvement of academic achievement for the disadvantages, preparation, and training of teachers, guidelines of teaching English limited to proficient immigrants. The act focuses on specific groups and emphasizes that no child, from low achieving groups, should be left out from the education system. The Act lists programs meant to assist low achieving students to acquire an education but make no attempt to determine the causes of status differences in the country.

Educational Background of Finland

Finland’s population is made up of Finns who constitute the largest proportion at 93% of the population, others include Swedes, Russians, Romanians, and Estonians. The literacy level of 15-year-olds is at 100%. Finland is made up of six provinces. Students are eligible for a nine-year education which begins at the age of six after which they are allowed to choose between vocational upper secondary or general upper secondary both of which give the student eligibility to join higher education. While there are evident similarities in the education system of Finland and that of the United States, the major difference lies in the preparation period for the student after secondary school before joining institutions of higher education.
Finland has the Basic Education Act which supports students from being ethically and humanity responsible members of society and to provide them with the skills and knowledge of life. The Act requires that education in the country should follow a unified national curriculum. The education curriculum is specified and includes core units in the mother tongue, the second language, foreign languages, literature, environmental studies, religious studies, mathematics, music, art and craft, biology, health education, sciences, and home economics. The act stipulates that all children have the right to pre-primary education with all learning materials and equipment provided by the government throughout the student’s education.
Finland and the US differ in various aspects majorly in the size of their population and the size of their economies. These have a direct influence on the functionality of social functions and specifically the educational systems. Income disparities in Finland have been reduced due to the provision of welfare programs which result in reducing income differences in the country. Finland uses a highly centralized education system in which highly trained teachers formulate a localized testing system which contains lean standards for which schools are expected to adhere to. In the US, an external testing system is in a place where different states are given autonomy to develop the content of their curriculums. This creates inequitable conditions for schools that also undermine the capacity of schools by undermining the capacity of students and schools to acquire funding.
The change process in Finland has been seen as the reverse of that in the United States. Finland has adopted a localized system in which schools can self-regulate as opposed to the education system in the US which is highly centralized. For Finland, the highly trained teachers professionally design curriculums that are guided by the national standards. This form of localization is made possible through extensive training for the teachers and equitable funding by the government. This is an appreciation of the fact that building the capacity of teachers enables the special needs of each student to be met adequately. However, in the United States, external testing is applied without due regard for the differences in the curriculums and the high level of inequality in the schools. In the United States, inequality originates from inequalities in the funding processes for the students in accessing education and in training teachers. According to Sahlberg (2009), Finland remains adamant in the adoption of some of the global reforms adopted by Anglo-Saxon countries such as in the standardization of school curriculum and the subsequent evaluation of the students using an external test. The United States has adopted a curriculum that merely advocates for basic skills such as reading and mathematics
Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish policy analyst describes the transformation in the country’s traditional education system as changed “into a model of a modern, publicly sponsored educational system with good quality participation, widespread equity, all at a reasonable cost” (Sahlberg, 2009). In the 1970s, there was an achievement gap strongly related to the socio-economic status of the citizens, a gap that has since been progressively changed. Educational reforms began in the 80s and by 2006, the variance between schools stood at 5% according to the PISA science scale, whereas the average of all OECD nations was 33%. This variation is attributable to social inequality between the citizens of a country (Hammond, 2010). The small variance between schools has been achieved in Finland despite the huge number of immigrants, some coming from countries with lower educational levels. The result of this has been increased diversity, cultural and linguistic, within the schools. Research estimates that 50% of the school population constitutes non-Finnish speakers. Some of the factors attributed to these results are: Finnish schools treat all students well regardless of the socio-economic status or family background, intensive investment in teachers’ training whereby teachers receive a three year high-quality graduate preparation at the expense of the government, the assessment system ensures access to the “thinking curriculum”, balanced decentralization and continuous evaluation of the education system. In the 1970s, Finland launched reform strategies that would eliminate the practice of separating students based on their ability to perform. Social welfare programs were also enacted with the sole objective of equalizing education outcomes in the country. Finland invests in teacher education to ensure skilled teachers who can autonomously run the schools. There lacks a standardized test system in the country. Instead, teachers give feedback in the form of a narrative stipulating the learning progress of the students and the potential areas of growth (Hammond, 2010). In contrast, the US system uses standardized exams containing open-ended questions and is administered to second and ninth graders.
The teaching methods also offer a basis for comparison whereby, it is a rare occurrence for Finnish teachers to go through a 50-minute lecture. Instead, students set weekly targets and tasks on specific subjects. They are seen to be working independently on their projects and articles, an element that cultivates independence and active learning skills. The government invests heavily on the teachers by providing a three-year free postgraduate training. In contrast, the US expects its teachers to train on self-sponsored terms even running into debt trying to finance their education. Finnish teachers engage in exchange programs where discussions and plans are made on the trends and development of curriculums (Hammond, 2010).

Literature Review

This literature review focuses on the concerns the factors causing the disparities in the education systems of the United States and Finland. In the examination of these factors, it would be effective to gain such information from students who have gone through elementary and secondary education as they are better placed to know the educational disparities. College students are an ideal population to provide a true view of the factors causing educational disparities. While relevant literature addressing college students’ opinions on educational disparities is inherently nonexistent. As such, literatures addressing general factors contributing to the quality of the education system will be used.
In 2008, Palardy used the National Educational Longitudinal Study to examine the causes of the differences in the school performances. The study conducted on the data indicates that the socio-economic status of students’ families, ethnicity and gender impact educational achievement. Palardy’s study also indicates that school characteristics such as the type of school, size, and location, involvement by teachers and parents influence educational achievement. Teachers and parents who are less involved in the decision-making process of the institution, as well as the methods of teaching, adopted all affect the quality of education in the United States. Students attending low social schools perform poorly when compared to those studying in the schools of the upper social class. Hyram’s study in1974 outlines economic factors as the leading cause of educational disparity in the country. The economic factors mentioned in the publication include funding inequalities despite the increasing cost of education, high level of unemployment coupled with the increased number of people moving to the urban areas. The implication of this is that only those who are economically empowered are able to access good education as they are able to meet admission fees into good universities and colleges.
In 2008, Klein examined the budget allocated for the funding special programs in education as well as for ensuring the No Child Left behind Act was implemented. Budget allocations by the federal government are insufficient as to the extent that they lead to cutting off funds from other school programs. A government such as the one of the United States’ cannot be said to be poor rather it is a government with other priorities but education.
Driscoll and Salmon in 2008 focused on the educational differences between districts by specifically investigating district schools in Virginia. The implication of increased state funding in school districts was examined to determine the implication of increased funding. Driscoll and Salmon define equity within district schools by the fiscal capacity, attendance level, and proportion of students eligible for free or subsidized lunch and school structures that would determine the use of government funds. Research shows that school differences in performance decreased between 1994 and 2002 but the difference widened in the years 2003 to 2005. The reason for the deterioration was due to the shift of the funding from funding school-based programs to utilizing the money as tax relief. An effective education structure would ensure that funding is adequately utilized. Witte (2007) also delves into vouchers as a means that would improve the efficiency and equality in the country’s education system. He argues that whereas the areas with the highest education funding are the wealthiest, state vouchers to schools from less wealthy regions would fix the educational disparity between schools. Increasing investment in the education systems, especially at the preschool level which is cost-effective, would translate into better outcomes in school performances.
The impact of money in improving the education systems is admittedly the focal point of numerous studies but Grubb, Huerta & Goe in 2006 study the outcomes of increased spending in the education system. Their research points out that while there has been increased spending on education, little results in bridging the educational gap have been noted. They point out that the debate on money has overshadowed other factors that may affect education, thus the need for the determination of the relationship between funding, institutional resources, and educational outcomes. Grubb postulates that while money is necessary, it is not a sufficient factor in fixing the educational disparity
Smith (2011) in his article addresses the issues facing the American education system points out issues inherent in the education system. The political and social issues in the country infiltrate education policies and decision-making processes. He notes that students are ill-equipped to handle diversity and differences amongst themselves. The grading system has been faulted for its unfairness and imbalance in schools and failing to adequately deal with cases of cheating. The disparity in schools arises from the inability to make decisions relating to the future of the organization. A lot of time is wasted in debates instead of focusing on the areas that really matter in fixing education disparities in the schools. One such problem that has attracted too much debate relating to the role of religion in schools. This issue has attracted a fair share of reaction where proponents use laws to determine the status of religion in textbooks. The result of this has been those publishers have omitted all religious contexts from their publications. This decision by publishers merely serves to deny the students the right to legitimate history which was influenced by religion. Political stance on the issue as well as the effort to be religiously sensitive has compromised and clouded off the real historical background of America. Analysts such as Goodman have established that the effect of this compromised stance is that students lack a clear understanding of moral issues. The students are also incapable of dealing with social differences. The political sensitivity is allowed to take center stage as opposed to teaching students on the need to appreciate diverse opinions.
According to Smith, the grading system is also faulted for the educational disparity in the country. There is an imbalance in the grading systems of schools. Students awarded a particular grade cannot be said as having attained the same grade due to similarity of work. The issue on the grading system has attracted countless debates but has failed to address legitimate issues related to it such as cheating. Wasting time on such debates distract policymakers from important issues such as improving the educational ranking of the country in international assessments and maximizing the educational experience of students in the education life. Researchers such as Bostein (2005) observe the effect of culture and social variations on the quality of education. From this literature review, it is apparent that factors thought as contributing to disparities in school performance revolve around economic factors. The structure within which the funding is made determines the utilization of the funds in affecting the quality of education.


An empirical study would be conducted by enrolling participants from colleges to provide information on the quality of high school education. A questionnaire is formulated allowing participants to indicate issues for which they thought affected the quality of education in high schools. Choices are provided from which students can select in order of priority three factors they felt contributed to the quality of education in the country. Participants are also allowed to rate the quality of education in their high schools. The questionnaire should also contain questions requiring students to comment on the ability of the education system up to high school in preparing students for the realities of the workforce.
Factor directly involved in influencing the quality of education should be incorporated in the questionnaires. It should address the issue relating to the relevance of school curriculums to the present-day workforce demands. It should also address the issues on the teaching methods applied by teachers and the educational structures in determining educational outcomes.
One limitation of the method used in the study would be that the sample was chosen would merely be a convenient one, limited to one college due to the limitation of time, therefore, would not adequately represent the population.

Discussion and Conclusion

Whereas economic factors determine the quality of facilities accessible in the learning institutions, these cannot be singled out as the key influence on the quality of education systems. The United States has supported a wide range of reform strategies all geared towards bridging the gap in education outcomes between schools. Some of these strategies include increased spending on students in public schools and employing more teachers. The ambitious reform agendas launched by President Barack Obama titled “Race to the top” encourage the adoption of benchmarked assessment and standards set internationally. These reforms are focused on preparing the students for the workplace by ensuring the relevance of the school curriculum. The reforms would also focus on recruiting, developing and retaining effective teaching staff. The reform agenda also encourages the development of data systems in which student progress would be measured and provide recommendations for improving performances so that low performing schools would be transformed into high performing schools. PISA provides an extensive array of principles that countries should adopt so as to achieve ideal education systems such as that of Finland. The unique features as advanced by PISA include:

  1. Policy orientation where the data on student learning outcomes connects with the data on the characteristics of students and the factor influencing learning outcomes within and out of school with the intention of identifying the characteristics and performance patterns of high performing students, education systems and schools.
  2. The innovative notion of literacy is defined as the ability of a student to apply knowledge and skills acquired in the class by analyzing, reasoning and communicating on real-time issues the student is faced (OECD, 2011). An ideal education system should allow independence and continuous evaluation of the curriculum by highly trained professionals.
  3. The education system should also address the relevance of learning to the students. The education system should allow for self-evaluation on the system and the student.
  4. A country’s education system should allow for regularity were monitoring the key learning objectives is determined at a national level.
  5. Teacher quality is influenced by such factors as the quality of training available for the teachers, the ratio of student to teacher in classes and the teaching methods adopted in the schools.
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