Finland trip eye-opener; Tenney learns education differences include higher achievement, funding, student focus

Clark Tenney in a selfie in front of Helsinki Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral. (Clark Tenney/Courtesy)

Clark Tenney in a selfie in front of Helsinki Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral. (Clark Tenney/Courtesy)

Prescott High School Assistant Principal Clark Tenney is one of 10 educational administrators from across the nation selected for a Fulbright Finland Foundation scholarship that took him for a 10-day trip to Finland over the spring break.

At the request of The Daily Courier, Tenney wrote a daily blog to highlight what he was able to learn and visit while in a nation with a world-renowned educational system. He wrote blog entries between March 7 and 15.

The complete content and other photographs can be viewed on the Prescott Unified School District’s Facebook page.

The following are excerpts of Tenney’s blog entries written from his point of view:


Arrived in Finland to 31 degrees and snowing at the Helsinki International Airport, a 25-hour journey from Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. The 10 administrators from across the United States were greeted by two English-speaking representatives of the Fulbright Finland Foundation.

“I was wondering if my past experience living and teaching overseas (12 years in Japan) was a major factor in my being selected from among 70 nationwide applicants for this honor. It turns out that is definitely the case.”

He said each is a “master teacher” who subsequently went into school administration with each person having a “strong global mindset.”

“All of us are interested in learning all we can for these next 10 days about Finland’s world-renowned education system, and then working with our colleagues back home to see which innovative, successful practices we might parallel for the benefit of our students back in the United States.”


Helsinki sign in front of the Ateneum Art Museum. (Clark Tenney/Courtesy)


Orientation on the Fulbright Program and the Fulbright Finland Foundation.

“I learned that Fulbright educational exchange scholarships began shortly after World War II. According to founder Senator J. William Fulbright, ‘The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs, and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.’ ”

Panel talk on Finland’s K-12 education system:

• By multiple international measures, Finland is considered to have one of the most successful systems of education in the world. Finland’s investment in education has driven major economic development and quality-of-life improvements in recent decades.

• Finnish students achieve nearly 100 percent completion of basic education through age 16. Finland’s literacy rate is nearly 100 percent.

• Approximately 7 percent of Finland’s resources are spent on education, among the highest rates in the world.

• Schools have considerable autonomy with standards and curriculum decisions.

• A favorite quote from second-grader: “Today I have a math test. I am going to see how well my teacher has taught me.”

• Nearly 100 percent of schools are publicly funded and operated.

• The “achievement gap” between high and low performers in schools nationwide is among the smallest in the world.

• Physical, social, and emotional wellness of students is a foundational priority. Schools with higher numbers of special needs students (economically disadvantaged, refugees or other non-native speakers of Finnish, or those with learning disabilities) receive significant additional funding to meet those needs. This is the opposite of most Arizona schools.

• Students spend less time in school than in the U.S. Recess breaks are longer.

• Every teacher is required to have a master’s degree.

• Finnish education has significant emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, with these seven key goals: thinking and learning to learn; cultural competence, interaction, and self-expression; taking care of oneself and managing daily life; multilingualism and multi-literacy; competence in the use of technology; working life competence and entrepreneurship; involvement in building a sustainable future.


Visited to the University of Helsinki, home to Finland’s largest teacher training program. Heard reports from the American Fulbright Distinguished Teacher scholars about what Finland can teach the United States about reducing homework; inclusion strategies for those with disabilities; bridging global perspectives to design more equitable communities. I was proud that Prescott High School French teacher Cathleen Cherry is a 2019 Fulbright scholar who will spend part of her summer in Peru.


In Finland, all prospective teachers spend their student teaching time in one of 10 schools designated as Teacher Training Schools. They partner with experienced teachers in similar ways as in the U.S., but they work exclusively with mentor teachers selected to teach students in these 10 schools. Eighty percent of Finland’s teachers remain in the profession their entire career.

“Like so many things in the Finnish education system, it’s a very intriguing twist on our standard practices in the United States.”

Teacher-to-student ratios in the training school are 10.4 students per teacher. Average classroom sizes: 22 in elementary school, 24 in the middle school, and 27 in the high school. They have middle and high school classes as small as seven students and as large as 40 (band class). Although it varies, PUSD averages roughly 25 in elementary school, 29 in middle school and 32 in high school.

From observations at the middle and high school:

• Top-notch facilities with ongoing maintenance.

• Engaged students. Much of the classroom experience is activity based with the teacher serving as a facilitator and encourager to students as they perform their tasks.

• Students dress casually, and work in group settings. Cell phones are allowed in class, with teachers trusting students to be accountable for managing their time and completing assignments.

• Students voiced appreciation for the flexibility, variety and independence in their classes.

• “Like so many things in the Finnish education system, it’s a very intriguing twist on our standard practices in the United States.”

We also visited vocational and upper secondary schools:

• Grades one to nine offer a very consistent educational experience for every child in Finland, with each student studying the same level of curriculum in each mandatory and each elective subject.

• Every child gets a free, hot lunch every day.

• In high school, students choose to attend either vocational school or upper secondary school for their final three years of pre-university education. Upper secondary school requires three years for graduation, with five terms a year of seven weeks each; 47 to 51 compulsory courses, a minimum of 10 advanced special studies’ courses and nine to 70 optional courses.

• Teachers teach only three or four 75-minute classes per day.

• Students’ university matriculation exams at the end of upper secondary school will include math, science, English, Finnish, and social studies. It is the sole standardized test in K-12 career.

• No course is weighted higher than another. Crafts class is as important as calculus.

• Homework is uncommon.

• Heavy emphasis on foreign languages; in one school they taught 11 languages.

• Graduation from vocational school is not based on time in classes, but skill development.

• Vocational school can take from one to four years to complete. Teachers are coaches; students are not graded but rated on competency.

• The vocational school dropout rate nationwide is 10 to 15 percent.

What Finnish students and administrators hope about what Americans can learn from their example:

• Reduce stress on everyone by scaling back standardized tests and homework.

• Give students more trust and more responsibility.

• Provide free school lunch for everyone.

• Be sure all students have physical, and social/emotional support in addition to academic support.

• Learn more than two languages.

What Finland can glean from the American education system:

• School-based sports teams and extracurricular activities that give students a sense of school pride and identity.

• Ability to nurture students to thrive socially.


Tenney’s takeaways from the tours and presentations related to Finland’s world-class education system:

• Outcomes are among the highest in the world in reading, in science, in math, in foreign languages, in vocational education, and (importantly) in student well-being.

• Finns highly value and invest in education for each individual in their society.

• Finns focus on whole-child education. Schools embrace their responsibility for developing children’s emotional, social, and physical well-being as much as their academic growth.

• Schools are not homogeneous. Finnish schools have larger numbers of ethnic minorities than do our schools in Prescott.

• Education proceeds at a relaxed pace, with lots of play, discovery and breaks between lessons.

• Zero standardized testing until the end of high school.

• An emphasis at all levels on demonstration of competency in specific skills.

• Every teacher is highly trained and enjoys high pay and high societal esteem.


Some differences between the U.S. and Finland’s education systems are functions of significantly greater financial investment in education in Finland. Some are outgrowths of a different society. I’m certain some Finnish practices can be implemented in Prescott at “minimal financial investment or societal impediments.”

I was constantly asking myself, “Could we do that in Prescott,” and, “Should we do that in Prescott?”

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