Helsinki, Finland — Like many other foreign journalists, I made the obligatory pilgrimage to Finland to learn how this country has climbed to the top spots in key international rankings measuring economic, political and social success. The answer, I was told, is amazingly simple.
First, the facts. Finland ranks first among 179 countries in Transparency International's index of the least corrupt nations in the world (the United States is No. 20); No. 1 in Freedom House's ranking of the world's most democratic countries (the U.S. ranks No. 15); No. 1 in the world in 15-year-old students' standardized test scores in science (the U.S. ranks No. 29), and is among the 10 most competitive economies in the World Economic Forum's annual competitiveness index (the U.S. topped the list this year).
A small country of 5.3 million, which only two decades ago was by most measures the poorest country in northern Europe, Finland also boasts the headquarters of the world's biggest cell phone maker - Nokia - and cutting-edge paper and pulp-technology firms.
The Finnish success story has triggered curiosity around the world, especially in Latin America, where most countries have yet to make the transition from exporters of raw materials to producers of high-tech goods that sell for much higher prices in world markets.
How did you do it, I asked Finnish President Tarja Halonen in an interview.
"I can sum it up in three words: education, education and education," she said.
Finland invested more than most other countries in recent decades to create an excellent tuition-free education system. That has helped it make the jump from an agrarian, timber-based economy into a technological powerhouse, she said.
And what is the secret of your education system, I asked. Among other things, highly trained elementary-school teachers, she said.
"We have a long queue outside our ministry of education with all kinds of experts from different countries who would like to learn more from our system," Halonen said. "But what they don't normally believe is that the answer is as simple as having good teachers."
Indeed, from what I saw during my five-day visit to Finland, teachers are relatively well-paid and enjoy great social respect. You need at least a master's degree to teach in elementary school, and a college degree to teach in kindergarten. Only one of every 10 applicants is admitted to the Finnish universities' teachers colleges.
"The profession of teacher is becoming increasingly popular, especially among women," said Ossi Airaskorpi, principal of the Juvanpuisto School, nearly an hour's drive from Helsinki. "In the 1980s and 1990s, everybody wanted to go into business. Now, they want to be teachers. They can do part of their work at home, get a relatively good salary and have a two-and-a-half-month vacation."
Dropping into a first-grade classroom at the Juvanpuisto school, about an hour outside Helsinki, I saw a teacher tutoring her students, while an assistant sat at one of the tables with a group of children, whispering into their ears to help them understand something they had missed.
Next door, there was a little room where a "special teacher" was giving a one-on-one lesson to a girl who needed extra help.
One-on-one classes help narrow the gap between good students and those lagging behind, which helps explain why Finland does so well in standardized international tests that measure the learning skills of all students, not just the best ones.
In addition, Finnish schools use a special computer program where parents can log in every night to get the latest news about their kids - whether they missed school, were talking on cell phones during class or need to do extra homework.
My conclusion: Granted, Finland also rates high in other rankings in which it would rather not be, such as having one of the world's highest suicide rates. Halonen was quick to add that Finland's suicide rates have dropped in recent years and are similar to those of Japan and other countries.
But Finland could be an excellent example for Latin American commodity exporters who want to become high-technology producers. They could help themselves by remembering this country's three little secrets: education, education and education.