by Angel Ford, EdD

Finnish students are excelling academically; in fact, they are passing students in most other nations.  This has not always been the case, however.  Over the past forty years Finland has made great strides to equalize and expand opportunities for their students, empowering them to become some of the top-performing students in the world.

A question we should be asking in America is: What types of educational reform did Finland institute in order to see the marked improvement in student achievement?  The answer is multifaceted and includes improved curriculum quality, increased access, and efforts to support the quality of instruction (Darling-Hammond, 2010).  However, the area of Finland’s reform I would like to highlight is that of improving the physical learning environments where their students learn.

Sparks (2012) explained that Finnish architects developed school building models based on evidence of effective learning spaces.  The architects focused on aspects of the built environment that motivate students and encourage learning.  These designs moved away from factory-style buildings with traditional classrooms to “contemporary campuses built to meet the pedagogical and social needs of their students and teachers” (Sparks, 2012).

Not only did the architects study and apply best practices in designing learning environments, they also worked in direct collaboration with teachers and administrators (Sparks, 2012).  Their designs included clusters of classrooms, areas to view the outside, appropriate lighting, and other building features that have been shown to improve student achievement and well-being.

Sparks (2012) stated that visitors to Finland would see beautifully designed, well-constructed, and thoroughly maintained buildings.  How would visitors to school buildings in American describe what they see?  Some of our schools could be described as attractive state-of-the-art buildings equipped with modern technology; unfortunately, many other schools would be described as drab, run-down buildings without even the basic resources necessary for 21st century learning.

What are we saying to students who attend school in dilapidated buildings?  Are we implying that their education is not important?  Or, are we letting them know that we are only fulfilling an obligation to provide four walls to house them for a certain number of hours every day?

Let’s learn from Finland, and let’s begin to equalize and expand the opportunities our students have by designing and retrofitting the places where they learn based on best practices and solid evidence of effective building designs.  The access students have to clean, well-maintained, and thoughtfully designed learning spaces should not be based on their socio-economic status or where they live in America.  Students from rural communities, students from urban communities and students from the suburbs should all have access to learning spaces that promote healthy living and that help them stay motivated to learn.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform. National Education Association. Retrieved from

Sparks, S. (2012). Finland rethinks factory-style school buildings. Education Week. Retrieved from

Dr. Angel Ford is a research associate with Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC).  Dr. Ford has previous experience working as a middle/high school administrator and actively participates in research and content management of the EFC website.

Williams, L. (2014)

Administrators budgeting for construction have the tools and access to ensure their buildings’ shells—the roofs, windows and insulation—are energy-efficient and easy to maintain.

“School administrators have gone from not really thinking much about roofs and other exteriors to thinking how they can maximize the performance of buildings and lower costs,” Jared Blum, president of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association, told DA.

There are many issues to consider when selecting roofs, windows and insulation that lower energy costs.

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EPA, 2013.

This guide is intended for use by school officials and child care providers responsible for the maintenance and/or safety of school and child care facilities including the drinking water. The purpose of this guide is to describe the importance of implementing best management practices for drinking water in schools and child care facilities and how a school or child care facility would go about implementing these practices. This guide is specifically designed for schools and child care facilities that have their own well and, therefore, are classified as a public water system. This guide is not a regulation itself, nor does it change or substitute for those provisions and regulations. Thus, it does not impose legally binding requirements on EPA, states, public water systems, schools or child care facilities. This guide does not confer legal rights or impose legal obligations upon any member of the public. While EPA has made every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information in this guide the obligations of the regulated community are determined by statutes, regulations or other legally binding requirements. In the event of a conflict between the information in this guide and any statute or regulation, this document would not be controlling.

California Department of Education.

Chapter 558 of the Statutes of 2010 (Senate Bill 1413, Leno) establishes California Education Code (EC) Section 38086, which requires school districts to provide access to free, fresh drinking water during meal times.

Making Free, Fresh Drinking Water Available to Students During Meal Times
Complying with California Senate Bill 1413 (Leno)

Chapter 558 of the Statutes of 2010 (Senate Bill [SB] 1413, Leno) establishes California Education Code (EC) Section 38086, which requires school districts to provide access to free, fresh drinking water during meal times in school food service areas by July 1, 2011, unless the governing board of a school district adopts a resolution stating it is unable to comply with this requirement due to fiscal constraints or health and safety concerns.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; US Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2014.
Drinking water can contribute to good health, and schools are in a unique position to promote healthy, dietary behaviors, including drinking water. More than 95% of children and adolescents are enrolled in schools, and students typically spend at least 6 hours at school each day.
Ensuring that students have access to safe, free drinking water throughout the school environment gives them a healthy alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages before, during, and after school. Access to safe, free drinking water helps to increase students’ overall water consumption, maintain hydration, and reduce energy intake, if substituted for sugar-sweetened beverages.

This publication is meant to be an aid to the staff of the CDPH Drinking Water Program and cannot be relied upon by the regulated community as the State of California‘s representation of the law. The published codes are the only official representation of the law. Refer to the published codes in this case, 17 CCR and 22 CCR whenever specific citations are required. Statutes related to CDPH‘s drinking water related activities are in the Health & Safety Code, the Water Code, and other codes.