Problems in Finland and With the P-Tech Education Miracle

Is Finland the way to the future for American education? It's time to take another look!

Finland is a small northern European country with a niche economy and a good record on standardized international tests. Its population is about five million people, smaller than most major cities around the world, and is unusually homogeneous -- basically everybody there is Finnish.

Because its students traditionally score very high on international assessments, Finland's education system and record of achievement is frequently held up as a model for the United States although the United States population is seventy times the size of Finland and its students are racially, ethnically, and religiously much more diverse. In 2001, Finnish students had the highest scores on the international PISA tests and although their position declined in 2012, they still ranked 12th compared to 36th by United States students.

According to the standard narrative, a big part of the success of the Finnish education system is the country's focus on math, science and technology education to prepare its students for 21st century jobs. It is the wave of the future and Finland caught the wave. The United States is supposed to follow the Finnish example so it can once again dominate world markets and produce top student scores on international tests.

In 2013, President Obama praised P-Tech High School in Brooklyn, New York in his State of the Union Address and visited the school. Obama declared the school, which is supposed to prepare inner-city minority youth for college and ultimately for technology jobs "is proof of what can be accomplished, but we've got to have the courage to do it." While none of the P-Tech students had yet graduated from the program, let alone attended college or secured a job in the tech world, the president called for the creation of similar technology focused schools around the country as part of preparing American youth for the 21st century. According to President Obama, "In previous generations, America's standing economically was so much higher than everybody else's that we didn't have a lot of competition. Now, you've got billions of people from Beijing to Bangalore to Moscow, all of whom are competing with you directly. And they're -- those countries are working every day, to out-educate and outcompete us." That is why the United States needs P-Tech.

Unfortunately the latest news out of Finland is that the P-tech miracle may not be an educational or economic miracle at all. A big part of the economic success of Finland during the last twenty years was based on the growth of one technological company, Nokia, but the Finnish tech giant hit hard times. It laid off 10,000 workers in 2012. In 2014 Nokia was forced to sell its mobile phone business to Microsoft, and Microsoft then announced it would reduce its Finnish work force by about two-thirds. The problem is that governments around the world have tried to buoy their economies by training or attracting highly skilled engineers and promoting their tech industries. As global competition has increased, Finland's economy has suffered, and the country now has too many skilled technicians. The reality is that just so many technicians are needed, and it is much more profitable for companies to do the high tech work in low wage Asian countries.

Fortunately for the Finnish work force and economy, Finland's government did not abandon workers to market forces. Maybe the United States needs to learn from this Finnish lesson. When Nokia started to lay off its employees, the Finnish "socialist" government provided grants and training programs to help laid-off tech workers start their own companies or find other jobs. It also required Nokia and Microsoft to help retrain former employees and finance their new efforts. Meanwhile government's efforts, not market forces, have attracted other tech companies to Finland.

In 2011, Joel Shatzky argued in a Huffington Post blog argued the United States was following the Finland model, but backwards! American politicians and business leaders like their miracles simple and quick with minimum government involvement. The real lesson from Finland is that the tech industry is not a miracle economic and educational solution and that improving conditions for people and a country requires active government involvement in the economy to prevent business from fleeing to cheaper wage zones and abandoning the workers who built them.

Let's learn from Finland, but the real Finland, not the Disney version.