Nightly News   |  September 29, 2010

Following Finland's lead on education

In small but mighty Finland, teachers and students have had stunning success bringing a quality education to all their kids. NBC's Rehema Ellis pays a visit to their classrooms to find out their secret.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Incendiary words last night from New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie , who lit into teachers' unions at a meeting as he unveiled a plan to let schools strip tenure from failing teachers and allow merit pay.

Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE (Republican, New Jersey): Your performance was awful. You didn't do what we asked you to do, you didn't produce the product we wanted you to produce. But we don't look at that. All we look at is, are you still breathing?

WILLIAMS: Governor Christie is in the midst of a big education battle in the most densely populated state in the union, which brings us to Education Nation , our summit, our series of reports on our schools in this country. For days we've been hearing about the ideal education system in the world, Finland . Educators talk about Finland all the time. So much so, in fact, we decided to go there and see what makes their system so good. Here tonight, our education correspondent Rehema Ellis .

REHEMA ELLIS reporting: Finland , population five million, about the size of the Atlanta metro area . But don't let size fool you. Finland is a global success. Home to cell phone giant Nokia , Fins are known for their love of coffee, state-supported health care and the best education system in the world. Fifteen-year-old Onni Olsson is a typical Finnish student. He balances school work with play. But school time is very focused, and it shows. Internationally, Finnish students rank number one overall in science and math. US kids rank 17th in science and 24th in math. Can you say what percentage of your students drop out of school?

Ms. RIITTA ERKINJUNTTI (Principal): In our school? Nobody.

ELLIS: Nationwide, the high school dropout rate is 2 percent vs. 25 percent in the US. But it wasn't always this way. Forty years ago, Finland was a poor nation , dependent on agriculture. Its leaders envisioned a brighter future in technology. The nation decided the way to get there was with a better educated work force . It took a generation to do it. Finland 's blueprint included a tough national curriculum, masters degrees for all teachers, with up to three teachers per class.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes, exercise seven.

ELLIS: Two focus on instruction, the third works with students who are struggling. The result? There's no such thing as a failing school in Finland . Officials say Finland has a collective national will to education all students and a plan to succeed.

Unidentified Woman #2: Have you got a cat?

ELLIS: There's a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom and continuity.

Ms. KIRSI MYLLS (English Teacher): I can be a better teacher when I teach them longer -- for a longer period.

ELLIS: Many students stay with the same teacher for several years.

Ms. MYLLS: Use English as much as possible.

ELLIS: The average student speaks four languages, including English. And Finland spends about $3,000 less per pupil than American schools do. So how do they achieve more? Education experts credit involved parents. Do you push your son?

Ms. PIA OLSSON (Onni's Mother): Perhaps sometimes, yes, to be honest. Yes.

ELLIS: Equally important, they say, is the Finnish culture that values education .

Mr. PASI SAHLBERG (Helsinki University): Teaching has been always, and it still is a kind of an appreciated profession.

ELLIS: A report out this month says 47 percent of America 's teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates. Finnish teachers come from the top 10 percent, just like doctors and lawyers. Finland 's best and brightest are chosen to teach. Rehema Ellis, NBC News, Helsinki, Finland .

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: That's it for us. I'm Brian Williams . Thank you for being with us. We hope to see you right back here tomorrow evening. Good night.