STANFORD, Calif. -- Finland is this decade's shiny icon of classroom success, the repeat winner of top results in a global ranking of national school systems. That's why academics, teachers and government officials gathered at Stanford University last week to talk about what makes the Scandinavian country's schools so good.
And what lessons might Americans have learned at the Empowerment Through Learning in a Global World Conference, a gathering organized by Stanford and the Finnish Consulate? That the Finns emphasize equality, collaboration and a wellness-oriented public school system -- but that their standardized exams can be high-stakes, too.
"A lot of our own experiences were initially American ideas," said Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education official and author of the new book "Finnish Lessons," who spoke at the conference. "One of the biggest differences now is the idea of equality of educational opportunity," added Sahlberg, who visits the U.S. every month responding to the demand for Finland's secret sauce.
Krista Kiuru, Finland's housing and communications minister, came to the conference, her presence highlighting the degree to which her countrymen value education. Kiuru herself is a former teacher.
"I want to tell everyone that to make schools work, you have to run all the time," she said to The Huffington Post.
Kiuru also stressed the role of gaming as part of the full-time educational experience, adding patriotically, "Very few people realize that we created the Angry Birds!" (Angry Birds is the product of a Finnish company, Rovio Entertainment.)
But she told the conference that "the backbone" is educational equality and "this objective is strongly supported by the public."
Some four decades after it began overhauling its schools, Finland shocked the world with its results on the 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international exam for 15-year-olds. Finland bested all other tested countries in reading. It led the standings in science in 2006. By 2009, the exam's most recent administration, the Finns were near the top of the roster in all three subjects: third in reading, second in science and sixth in math.
The 2009 results came as the U.S. government sought to shock the American schooling system out of average performance, stressing education as a way out of poverty. President Barack Obama appointed an energetic secretary of education who pursued reform policies, sometimes despite congressional objections. The Race to the Top competition, for example, pushed states to compete for funds by enacting the administration's desired reforms, such as using student test scores to judge teachers and creating charter schools.
Since then, conversations and conferences about the Finnish success have been numerous. Among the oft-repeated differences between the two countries: Finland's teachers spend fewer hours in the classroom and are among the most-respected, highly credentialed professionals in the country. Unlike the U.S., where the results of near-annual standardized tests under the No Child Left Behind Act call the shots, the Finns have only one mandatory -- albeit lengthy, high-stakes and rigorous -- standardized test at the end of high school. Finnish schools provide universal health care to children on the ground that being healthy is a prerequisite for learning.
And while American schools vary widely in terms of resources and academic performance, Finnish public schools (the country has closed all the private ones) had a stunningly small variance of 5 percent on their PISA results.
That itself offers a huge lesson, according to Andreas Schleicher, the PISA administrator who presented a slideshow about the policy implications of varying PISA performance at the conference. "There is no high-performing education system that tolerates large disparities," he told HuffPost. "In Europe, there is low tolerance to what's failing. The PISA report shows education overcoming social background."
As the Finns tell it, they want every child to receive a good education; they're not trying to climb international rankings. "We had no plan to do this," said Sahlberg, who serves as director general of the National Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, an independent agency of the Finnish education department.
According to Sahlberg, conferences like the one at Stanford have proliferated thanks to the Obama administration's openness to hearing new ideas. And like Americans, Finns struggle with issues such as immigrant children who don't speak the local language and interfering parents.
But few Finnish policies have stuck here.
"I really haven't seen anything I'd regard as a significant change," said Sahlberg. "[There's] a stronger emphasis on tests. I was expecting the Democratic government to do it differently."
Schleicher, though, said America's development of the Common Core State Standards reflects the way Finland and other countries teach.
To Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who helped organize the conference, one notable gap between the two countries' school systems involves funding. "They fund schools equitably and give more money to schools with higher needs," she said.
The American and Finnish approaches aren't entirely different, Schleicher said. "The ideas are the same," he explained. "It's just that accountability is about knowledge management and trust in Finland," versus performance on tests in the U.S.
For Patty Swank, a high school English teacher who traveled from Highland, Ill., to attend the conference, a key issue was collaboration. "It's wonderful to see how much teachers in Finland collaborate," she said.
While teachers in the U.S. generally tend to spend their day in the classroom, Finland ensures that teachers also have periods to plan and work together.
Likewise, Christopher Chiang, a teacher at the nearby private Castilleja School, said, "I didn't understand the role ... not having much standardized testing played in that collaboration."
The learning wasn't just one-sided. "We want to learn something from the Californian system," said Jari Multisilta, director of Finland's CICERO Learning, a government-sponsored research organization that helped organize the conference.
Multisilta, once a visiting scholar at Stanford, sent his kids to school in Menlo Park, Calif. While America's performance on the PISA has not been the best, he said, its public schools foster something that Finland's schools don't -- extroversion. He noted that U.S. students are more likely to be assigned collaborative projects than their Finnish peers and recalled his daughter coming home one day ecstatic about a compliment the teacher paid to her hair. He said, "A teacher in Finland would never say that, but it teaches self-confidence."
"Finnish people are pretty shy," Multisilta said.