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Finland has been a poster child for school improvement since it rapidly climbed to the top of the international rankings after it emerged from the Soviet Union’s shadow.

As one analyst notes: "Most visitors to Finland discover elegant school buildings filled with calm children and highly educated teachers.They also recognize the large autonomy that schools enjoy, little interference by the central education administration in schools’ everyday lives, systematic methods to address problems in the lives of students, and targeted professional help for those in need." Leaders in Finland attribute the gains to their intensive investments in teacher education—all teachers receive three years of high-quality graduate level preparation completely at state expense—plus a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a “thinking curriculum” for all students.Two-thirds of these graduates enroll in universities or professionally oriented polytechnic schools.More than 50 percent of the Finnish adult population participates in adult education programs.All students receive a free meal daily, as well as free health care, transportation, learning materials, and counseling in their schools, so that the foundations for learning are in place.

Beyond that, access to quality curriculum and teachers has become a central aspect of Finnish educational policy.A recent analysis of the Finnish system summarized its core principles as follows: The process of change has been almost the reverse of policies in the United States.Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around the very lean national standards.Sahlberg notes that Finland has taken a very different path.He observes:"The Finns have worked systematically over 35 years to make sure that competent professionals who can craft the best learning conditions for all students are in all schools, rather than thinking that standardized instruction and related testing can be brought in at the last minute to improve student learning and turn around failing schools." Sahlberg identifies a set of global reforms, undertaken especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries, that Finland has not adopted, including standardization of curriculum enforced by frequent external tests; narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and mathematics; reduced use of innovative teaching strategies; adoption of educational ideas from external sources, rather than development of local internal capacity for innovation and problem-solving; and adoption of high-stakes accountability policies, featuring rewards and sanctions for students, teachers, and schools.This new system is implemented through equitable funding and extensive preparation for all teachers.