Thursday, June 21 was consumed entirely with a three-hour flight from Helsinki to Paris and then negotiating the Paris traffic for a lengthy briefing on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) at the highly security-conscious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

OECD is an organization founded in the 1960s to sustain economic growth in developed nations and now numbers 34 member states. PISA is the assessment system administered by OECD. It attempts to measure the skills of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, and science in 70 or more jurisdictions (nations and individual cities). Michael Davidson of the early childhood and schools division of OECD’s directorate of education delivered a remarkable and comprehensive briefing.

He described PISA as an assessment system designed to help governments create education systems focused on quality, equity, and efficiency because “skills drive economies” and “good education for young people is the best way to give them a better future.” He identified the US as a system that is in a quadrant described as high performing with large disparities in socio-economic status. Shanghai, by contrast, was defined as a high performing system with a high degree of social equity. Challenged on the Shanghai description on the grounds that recent research indicates Shanghai to be a highly discriminatory system in which just 5% of low-income students in the city are estimated to be in school at the age of 15, Davidson conceded that more investigation of this issue is required and noted that “PISA measures students who are in school. If they’re not in schools, we don’t assess them.” While describing an ambitious agenda to make PISA more relevant to practice in the future, including plans for more flexible, computer-based assessments and hopes for linking PISA results to state assessments in the United States, he also acknowledged that PISA’s estimates of per-pupil expenditures by nation may report national expenditure elements that consist of different data elements and calculations in different nations.

Roundtable at OECD

Roundtable prepares to enter briefing

Michael Davidson


Pasi Sahlberg – the big picture

After dinner, the final briefing on Finland was presented. Pasi Sahlberg, director of CIMO, a ministry agency charged with encouraging international cooperation and development, spoke powerfully about Finland’s commitment to the goal of equity. Fresh off a flight from New York, he spoke of equity as the driving force behind the 40-year advance of Finland from a poverty-stricken nation to one enjoying standards of living amongst the highest in the world.

He emphasized that Finland has not always been a high-performing nation. That it never set out to be #1. And that is high performing in many other areas — from innovation and technology use to economic competitiveness and low levels of income inequality. If he could speak with President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan, he said, he would tell them that “I believe the U.S. will never be successful in education with what it is doing now.”

Pasi Sahlberg briefs Roundtable

James Egan questions Sahlberg


Gloria Davis makes a point about the importance of equity

Saarnilaakso Comprehensive School

Finally, a school! After days of briefings at 20,000 feet, it was a relief to arrive at Saarnilaakso Comprehensive for discussions with principal Jukka Kuittinen and Toni Lehtinen,director of the Finnish Association of Principals.

Kuittinen described a school enrolling around 450 students with a staff of about 40. The school is fully funded by the local municipality and he has virtually complete discretion over its budget of 2.5 million Euro (about $3.75 million). He hires one or two teachers annually and for a discipline such as history might have 100 applicants to choose from. Discipline problems? Teachers underperforming?  Talk is always the best solution, according to Kuittinen.

Lehtinen noted that his association represents 1,200 members and that it works to represent their interests, while collaborating with the teachers’ union and the legislature to advance important national goals in education.

Roundtable gathers neear Saarnilaakso

Roundtable at Saarnilaakso School

Charles Wilson and Jukka Kuittinen

Greg Riccio thanks Kuittinen and Lehtinen


Key Features of Finnish Educational System

The final day of the Roundtable’s visit to Finland was an intense 23 hours consisting  of four major parts: two briefings, one on key features of the Finnish educational system and another on the continuing professional development of teachers; a visit to Saarnilaakso Comprehensive (Grade 7-9) School; and a meeting with Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Ministry of Education office responsible for international cooperation.

Petra Packalen, a counselor of education to the Board of Education, described the Finnish national role as a “steering system built on trust.” A complete summary of her presentation will be developed for the Roundtable’s website. This steering system relied, she said, on three key principles: quality, equity, and efficiency. Local schools, she emphasized, can spend funds just about any way they want to.

Petra Packalen


Louise Berry thanks Petra Packalen

Paul Ash chats with Petra Packalen

For his part, counselor Kimmo Hamallainan spoke of the need for continuous professional development for all teachers, a need that had encouraged the government to double PD funding since 2009. A special concern of the government, he said, was the realization that large numbers of school principals would reach retirement age in the coming decade requiring attention to the issue of how to replace them.

Kimmo Mahalainen

Don Beaudette thanks Kimmo Mahalainen

Berry, Beaudette, Packalen, and Mahalainen

Next it was on to the harbor and its market before driving to Saarnilaakso Comprehensive School.

Harbor Market produce

Fresh fish as fresh as it gets

Harbor market street artist





Educational Policy and Teacher Training in Finland

Day two in Helsinki began in intensive round of official briefings and school visits that will make up most of the Roundtable’s itinerary in Finland, France, and England.

Arni Mikkola, Counselor of Education in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture launched our work with a detailed presentation on teacher training in Finland. She described a system in which tuition and fees are unknown throughout higher education, the government carefully plans for human resource needs in education (and other areas of national life), teachers are paid more than nurses, and are selected from an annual pool of about 7,000 applicants for 900 university places for teacher training, which typically involves five years of education and practical experience. Teachers are highly respected in Finland, she reported, have very high status, and belong to a union which represents every teacher from kindergarten through university positions. Salaries are differentiated for teachers in kindergarten, comprehensive (elementary and middle) schools, and secondary schools.

Aki Tornberg, Counselor of Education in the Ministry, described policy development for education in Finland. Fully 95% of schools are owned by local municipalities, he reported, with private schools enrolling about 2% of the student population while receiving full payment for costs of education from the state. Parliament passes general legislation defining educational goals, the Ministry reinforces that general statement of purpose with regulations, and municipalities put meat on the bones of the broad statement by developing curriculum at the local level. Per-pupil expenditures average about 6,800 Euro early in students’ educational careers, rising to about 10,000 Euro for vocational and secondary programs.

En route to and from the meetings, Roundtable members visited the remarkable Temppeliaukio Rock Church (blasted out of granite and built using the natural stone) and a striking memorial to the prolific Finnish orchestral composer Jean Sebelius. Walking home from dinner, they posed for a picture beside a new Helsinki landmark, an old railroad right-of-way recently converted to a biking and walking trail.

Delegation seeks more information from Tornberg

Arni Mikkola

Roundtable focuses on briefing


Aki Tornberg


Gloria Davis thanks Arni Mikkola

Gerald Kohn thanks Aki Tornberg

Roundtable at Sebelius monument




Lovely Helsinki

Helsinki is a beautiful small city on the Gulf of Finland. A few miles across the water sits Petersburg, Russia, the great western-looking capital built by Czar Peter the Great late in the 17th century.  Until 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles ended Russian occupation, Finland had been occupied since the 13th century by the Swedes or Russians. The architecture and history are a mixture of Finnish, Swedish, and Russian influences.

We were greeted on our first day with bright sunshine, warm weather, and bracing ocean breezes.

Helsinki Harbor

Condo's looking out over Gulf of Finland

Romany Street Musicians

Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral

Promenade Park

Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral

Welcome to Helsinki

The trip to Helsinki was exciting but tiring. The pictures below show Roundtable members anticipating the venture at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, then arriving bleary-eyed in Helsinki after 10-15 hours of travel (depending on where they started).

A second post will show some street scenes from Helsinki.

O'Hare Airport


O'Hare Airport

Arrival at Helsinki Airport


It is hard to believe that 18-months after we first started thinking of visiting Finland, we will be departing within a week for Helsinki, before moving on to Paris and London. Sunday, June 17 is just around the corner! The Roundtable has prepared an extensive briefing memo on education in Europe. Don’t hesitate to contact Kai Hiatt at kaihiatt@superintendentsforum.org if you would like a copy.