Finnish Education System: Did PISA really say it is “the best”?

Commentary, Finnish Education
finnish education system

Today I’d like to start the year by blogging about a topic about Finnish Education System that left me puzzled for a long, long time. These are the claims of:

  • “According to PISA, the Finnish education system is the best”; or
  • “According to PISA, the Finnish education system is one of the best in the world.”

Which year of PISA we are talking about? I am more inclined to agree with this article written by The Business Times, that “Finland used to have the best education system in the world“.

Because based on verifiable FACTS, it is clear that PISA did not make such claims since 2009, especially NOT after considering how Finnish 15 year-old kids performed in Mathematics.

A Caveat on Finnish Education System 

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not “bashing Finnish education system” here. I was just wondering why people proudly say things that are obviously not true.

If you want to say that “Finnish education system is the best” because “the education system still ranks top 15/72 globally and the kids have free space and time to play and learn”, I will think that that is a fair statement.

However, saying that “Finnish education system is the best because of PISA ranking” is obviously not verifiable by the raw PISA data, and I will show you why here.


What is “the best”? According to M-W dictionary, the “best” is defined as:

“excelling all others “

What is the PISA test? According to OECD website:

“The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.

In 2015 over half a million students, representing 28 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries and economies, took the internationally agreed two-hour test. Students were assessed in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy.”

Is “the best” in Finnish Education System a subjective or objective claim? 

For the purpose of this blog post, I want to focus on verifiable statements RELATED to PISA.

Any Tom, Dick and Harry can say “Finnish education is the best”! That is clearly a subjective statement. And such statements will be taken with a pinch of salt because it is just OPINON.

What I am consistently puzzled by the claim “According to PISA, Finnish education system is the best, or one of the best”. Some people say it like it’s a fact.

However, such statements are only partially true because PISA results need to be interpreted as a whole: That is, all ranking on Mathematics, Science and Reading need to be taken into account altogether.

Simply because PISA test is a combination of Mathematics, Science and Reading tests.

Since 2009, Finland never ranked top five in the Mathematics, and since 2012 Finland never ranked top 10 in Mathematics.

Given this piece of verifiable fact, would anyone with standards still conclusively say that “Finland has one of the best education systems in the world due to PISA ranking?”?

Analogy: Waffle Festival

Let’s say you go to a Waffle festival with 72 stalls.

Your time and tummy spaces are obviously limited, so you ask the industry professionals– “who has the best waffle here according to benchmarks that international industry experts can agree upon?”

Screenshot 2017-01-01 13.19.33.png

Assume that there is indeed this objective industry benchmark that is internationally agreed upon by the top waffle experts. Such as cripsy-ness of crusts, colour, texture, freshness of ingredients.

All 72 waffle vendors agreed to and went through this test.

In this case, “the best” is defined as “number one” position, and “one of the best out of the 72” is defined as maybe top 5, or top 10 out of the 72 vendors.

Now this is just common sense. I’d personally just restrict “one of the best” to top 5 because I have high food standards.

However, let’s be generous today and define “one of the best” to be “top 10, out of 72”.

Maybe you’d ask: “Can the best be defined as top 15 out of 72?”

Of course it can be defined that way as well!

In fact, you can even define “best” or “one of the best” as top 70 out of 72.

Doing so will tell me something of your standard of judging waffle–not very high. 

Then, you might as well ignore what the industry experts say if your standards are not very high…?

Don’t waste time–just eat whatever waffle you want at the Waffle Festival then! 🙂

Now, let’s check the 2009, 2012 and 2015 PISA results:

2009 PISA Top 10 Charts:

Screenshot 2017-01-01 12.23.51.png

In 2009, Finland ranks 6th on Maths, 2nd on Sciences and 3rd on Reading.

2012 PISA Top 10 Charts:

Screenshot 2017-01-01 12.26.04.png

In 2012, Finland is not even on the list on Maths (ranked 12th), 5th on the Sciences, 6th on reading.

2015 PISA top 10 Charts:


Finland once again is not even on the list for Math (ranked 13th), ranked 5th on the Sciences and 4th on reading.

Table showing the Ranking of Finland from 2009-2015, according to PISA. 

  2009 2012 2015
Mathematics 6th 12th 13th
Science 2nd 5th 5th
Reading 3rd 6th 4th

If anything, PISA test shows that the Finnish ranking on Mathematics has dropped drastically from 6th to 13th (i.e. it was never top 5 or top 10 from the time period 2009-2015). 

The Science global ranking dropped from 2nd in 2009 to 5th in 2015 (which is not too bad), and the Reading ranking dropped from 3rd in 2009 to 4th in 2015 (which is not too bad too).

The undeniable trend is that if we take 2009 to be a base year, ranking on ALL areas dropped from 2009-2015.

So pray tell, if you are a country consistently ranked higher on PISA, is there a need to put Finnish education on a pedestal? 😉

Based on these verifiable facts, I couldn’t agree more with this educator:

There is a lot of marketing involved in the idea that Finland has the best educational system in the world. Sure, the PISA tests demonstrate that they are doing well. But, are they the best and why would it be? Everyone wants a winner and be proud. However, the educational success of Finland is (like in most marketing) a bit overstated.”

So why do we have the impression that Finland has (one of the) best education system in the world, according to PISA?

“The Best” Finnish Education System? Simply a result of good marketing and branding.

After seeing the above verifiable facts, will you still consider to think that Finnish education system is one of the best in the world, according to PISA?

If yes, then it also tells me something of your standards. Or maybe your nationality that you’re probably not a Singaporean, Japanese, Singaporean, Chinese or Korean. HAHA.


So exactly who are the people who are saying “Finland has one of the best education systems in the world according to PISA results“…


…implying in a not-very-smart way, “we should definitely learn from Finland”?

Note that we can “learn” from the education systems of ANYWHERE in the world, even terrible education systems, so that we don’t make the same mistakes.

I’d thought about it. It is possible that there are three groups:

  1. Finnish business people with education interests in Asian countries. These business people want to use the Finnish brand image to sell their education systems as superior.

    Even IF the the PISA results are outdated.

For instance, there are some Finnish education institutions present in Singapore, Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea, Southeast-Asia. This is the Finnish education export market.

It does them good to vaguely make use of outdated data from PISA to continue implying “According to PISA, Finland has the best education in the world”.

Now, this PISA-outdated-result is used to add on to the impression that “Finland has (one of) the best education” reputation in the world. So it does not matter if they’re selling non primary school education systems. These businessmen can be selling Finnish technical education, executive education, university education and industry know-how. The idea is to talk about PISA and then conclude that Finnish education at all levels are truly the “world’s best”.

Again, anyone can say “truly at the world’s best”, then it’s an opinion. Therefore, to have a more objective perspective, always look to international rankings. This is once again, just common sense.

Also note that these folks are not lying when they use PISA as a reference to the so-called “best in the world reputation”. They are merely relying on the ignorance of the people who are listening, because few would really fact-check.

Then the next question is: Can you say that a person who is “not lying” is “telling the truth”?

Just think about it.

2. Yes, you are right–it is the Americans. 😀 Because even Americans themselves acknowledge that their education system rank low on PISA, and that they want to learn from the Finns.

That is a valid argument. And it also makes sense from the West to learn from the West, since they’re culturally closer. QUOTE:

“On a press call on Tuesday, Jon Schnur, executive chairman of America Achieves, said we need to make dramatic progress in showing educational improvement for students.

When looking at a comparable sample of countries that participated in the PISA exam in both 2012 (the last time the test was administered) and 2015, the US ranking fell to 35th from 28th in math. The US underperformed the OECD average in math.

Scores were relatively unchanged in reading and science compared to 2012 — down one point in each. The US performed better than the OECD average in both subjects.

Asian countries again topped the rankings across all subjects, and Singapore was the top performing country across all three subjects.”

Therefore, it actually is VERY puzzling for me when an American proudly makes this sort of statement that “Finnish education system is the best, because, PISA”.

Is there a need to be proud? Because making this sort of statement shows me how bad the person’s education system is in his country.

Then, I’d feel very sorry for the proud person.

3. People who want to sell “Finnish education know-how” to the world.

Some like to use the argument “Finland’s education system is one of the world’s best, because PISA” to sell university places too.

Let me give you an example to show what I mean. This screenshot is taken as of today:

Screenshot 2017-01-01 12.36.35.png

At the bottom of this article, it is written:

“Want to see what else Finland has to offer? Check out the University of Helsinki’s new roster of International Master’s Degree Programs that will launch next year. Courses will be available in English, Swedish, or Finnish and students can choose from thirty-four degrees ranging from European and Nordic Studies to Forest Sciences and Bioeconomy. Read more about the University of Helsinki here.”

So you see, we can reasonably conclude that this article titled “Ten reasons to study in Finland” is written to get people to go to Finland to study for their bachelors or masters.

Then why is there a need to cite “PISA”, and say that “Finland repeatedly ranks top five for PISA scores” (which is not entirely true, and can be clearly verified as never true for the area of Mathematics from the time period 2009-2015)?

Some might argue, OH, the PISA part is to show that Finland has a “world-class education”. I think that’s a valid argument if-and-only-if Finland does, and I quote again–“repeatedly ranks top five for PISA scores”.

However, as I’d clearly listed out in this blog post, Finland does NOT repeatedly and consistently rank top five.

So that statement is clearly not backed by verifiable facts.

It’s a delusion. 

Conclusion: Are people deluded?

I would have thought that for the past 6 years, the statement “According to PISA, Finland has the best education system in the world” is clearly false.

This can be verified– you just need to check the reported tables like I did in this blog post.

The statement “According to PISA, Finland has one of the best education in the world” seems to be not entirely true too, especially if you have high standards and peg “one of the best” to “top 10 in the world”. Standards in Mathematics had dropped significantly from 2009-2015.

So here’s my question to you: Why do we have the impression that “According to PISA, Finnish education system is one of the best in the world?”

This is not even a subjective question. Anybody can say that anything is “the best”. So what? Yes, if you like the person, you are more prone to believing that person.

However, this is an objective, factual statement which can be easily verified. And it’s clearly a false statement.

Don’t you think people are really gullible sometimes? 😀

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