Teenagers in Finland recently earned the distinction as being the smartest students in the world. Finnish 15-year-olds outpaced 56 other countries, including the United States, on the PISA tests in math, science, and reading.

Naturally, researchers, policymakers, and parents want to know why. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal examines Finland’s school system and reveals some surprising findings:

– Children don’t start school until age seven. There is no school pre-k or kindergarten. This is in strong contrast to the United States, where most states have a publicly funded and growing pre-k and kindergarten program for children ages four and five.

– They spend $1,200 less per student than the U.S. Finnish schools spent $7,500 per student per year compared to the U.S. average of $8,700. Somehow, they manage to do more with less.

– High teacher quality and no teacher shortages. While the U.S. struggles to find enough math and science teachers to fill its classrooms, Finland has more than 40 applicants for each teaching job. All Finnish teachers have master’s degrees. Teachers compete to teach in Finland. Yet, higher teacher salaries doesn’t account for the higher quality because Finland has similar teacher salaries to the United States.

– No sports teams, marching band, or prom. Finland schools focus on teaching, not extracurricular activities. In contrast, many American schools (and parents) get carried away with the success of their athletic or extracurricular programs at the expense of learning.

The American education establishment continually lectures us that the way to improve student learning is by hiring more teachers, paying them larger salaries, and starting children in public school at earlier ages. Finland establishes that everything they tell us is wrong.

– Brooke Terry