Ever since the results from the 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed Finland’s educational superiority, Americans have developed something of an obsession with pointing out the differences between our pre-college education systems—how Finland is doing it all right and America is falling behind. But what exactly are the main differences that contribute to Finland’s success? 

1.Public schools get the money they need.

Unlike in the U.S., public schools in Finland aren’t competing for money. There aren’t monetary incentives for teaching directly to standardized tests, they aren’t outsourcing funding to non-profit organizations, and money is distributed fairly equally among all schools, regardless of location.

2.  It’s not easy to become a teacher.

Fresh faced college graduates aren’t being sent out to shape the minds of Finland’s children. All teachers—except kindergarteners—must complete a highly competitive Master’s program. The teacher education program is fully subsidized and more selective than both law and medical schools.

3. But being a teacher is worth it.

On average, teachers spend four hours a day in the classroom, giving them more time to plan lessons, provide students with extra help, and participate in the weekly teacher development requirements. Teachers are paid well, and even though it’s still a predominantly female profession, it’s not looked down upon or undervalued. They even get paid maternity leave.

4. No yearly standardized testing.

Students are required to take just one national standardized test and that comes at the end of general upper secondary education. Until then, teachers are in charge of incorporating assessments into lessons and fostering students’ ability to self-assess.

5. Classes are smaller.

Instead of expecting teachers to control classes of 30 or more students, classes in Finland are limited to no more than 20 students. With fewer students to monitor, teachers can ensure that students are performing at the appropriate levels before they graduate on to the next grade. If they’re not, then teachers also have the time and resources to provide them with extra guidance—including special teachers whose job it is to work with struggling students.

6. Education professionals are responsible for designing the curriculum.

The National Finnish Board of Education designs the core curriculum, but teachers and districts are able to work within the framework provided to create their own unique plan of study. Teachers are trusted to implement the necessary criteria and are not subjected to national assessments.

7. Kids get to be kids.

Younger students get more time for recess—75 minutes, not 25—and get a 15-minute break between each class. They also take classes in art and music and participate in interactive, hands-on learning. Students don’t start pre-primary education until they’re 6 years old and begin their primary education at 7.