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The U.S. is Playing Catch-Up: Education in Singapore and Finland

According to the 2009 Program for Student Assessement (PISA) given by the Organziation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. placed average in reading, math, and science compared to 57 other countries tested. Finland and Signapore, however, placed in the top tiers of the PISA. So what are these countries doing differently to bring their students to have the highest academic achievement of the world, and how can the U.S. learn from them?


Finland’s educational system has evolved over the years to meet the social and economic needs of its people. Since the 1970s, Finns have strived to improve their education system. According to (OECD), Finland is now rated as the number one country in education.  In recent years, the Finnish approach to curriculum has also evolved. Finns have replaced lengthy prescriptive curriculum guides with shorter, less detailed guides. The current national math curriculum, for example, is under 10 pages. However, the Finnish focus on higher order thinking skills, and the system emphasizes creative problem-solving skills.

In Finland, there are high expectations for all students, and teachers provide accommodations such as tutoring and remedial specialists to students as soon as assessments confirm a need for such services. Many classrooms have two or more teachers and co-teaching is the norm. When educators found that students had the greatest difficulties in grades 7 through 9, they began to provide more money and time to support these students.

What of the teachers? All teachers are required to hold Master’s degrees in their field and only the top 10% of the over 5000 applicants are accepted into university education programs. Teaching is a prestigious profession in Finland. Instead of teaching to a standardized test like we do here in the United States, teachers in Finland are able to choose their own books and design their own curriculum.


Like Finland, Singapore is ranked close to the top according to the results on the PISA test given by the OECD. However, Singapore’s approach to education is very different from Finland’s. Education in Singapore is very systematic and students are broken into different abilities almost their entire educational career as opposed to Finland’s more collective approach. Students in Singapore start their education at a young age, around 3 years old. They continue their schooling in the primary levels at age 6 which is broken into foundation and orientation stages. At the end of their 6 years at the primary level, they must take a Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) to determine if they are ready to leave primary grade levels. Students’ performance scores determine their placement in the secondary schools.

At the secondary level, students are again broken up into “Special,” “Express,” “Normal (Academic)” and “Normal (Technical).” Each category is determined by the score on the PLSE. Recently, however, Singapore has begun to offer an “Integrated Program” in which students are allowed to take 6 years of secondary education and then take the exam for the International Baccalaureate.


Both Finland and Singapore have infused rigor throughout their educational systems and both countries have high expectations for students. These expectations are based on cultural norms and education is highly regarded and supported by the general populous in both countries. In the U.S., rigor has been assoicated with scores on standardized assessments. While this has produced some increases in test scores, a culture of high expectations has still not inflitrated many schools. What else could be introduced to turn this around?


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